Enjoy this free ebook! Write me and tell me what you thought
of this book (at Steve2 "at" allreaders.com)!
Feel free to save this at any time in your hard drive
by clicking on "file" in the upper left hand corner than
"save as" so you can finish reading it at your leisure.
Rise of the Standard Imperium
By Steven Gordon
Prologue: Legacy of a Dirty War
The Alliance had been saved, but at what cost? Humanity had
succeeded in pushing out the Insect invaders, but the Insects had left
a parting gift--they had used an ancient Monumental weapon to render
most Alliance worlds powerless, quite literally. A fine mist spread out
over Alliance worlds, preventing any power sources more advanced than
fire from being used. Formerly advanced societies were reduced to stone
age subsistence in an instant. Interplanetary travel virtually ceased
as whole populations were once again imprisoned on whatever planet they
happened to be on when the energy mist hit.
On August, the capital of the Alliance, superspy Clifford Croft
refused to give up. He spends years chasing a memory of a very horrible
experience he'd just as soon forget. But something in that memory was
vitally important--it was the key to restoring power on August and the
other Alliance worlds. Once Croft figured out what that something was,
he was still stuck--literally. He had no means of getting off August to
find the solution; and with communications down, he didn't even have
the means to tell people off-planet what he had discovered.
The surviving remnants of the fleet, under the command of War
Admiral Norman North, started dropping long range care packages to
August and other worlds under the control of the mist. Not all the
planets of the Alliance were under the domination of the mist; the few
that had escaped being dusted were producing the materials for the care
packages. The packages were few in number and contained emergency
essentials such as medicines. They couldn't even help but the smallest
fraction of the population; and yet North felt they were essential, to
show the people trapped by the energy mists that they hadn't been
forgotten, that someone was there trying to help them.
The care packages were sent down by one-way rockets whose engines
quit the minute they hit the energy mist. Long range visual observation
verified that the packages parachuted to safety in their designated
areas. But long range observation also produced something unexpected.
On August, on the west coast of Aridor, hundreds of feet of
lumber had been laid out and ignited near one of the package delivery
sites. Under intense magnification, the burning wood spelled out the
letters CAPCR. But no one knew what those letters meant.
Part I: Secrets of the Deadly Monumental Ship
Chapter 1 What is CAPCR?
Clifford Croft studied the contents of the care package-
medicines, some food, and equipment. His scientist friend Levi Esherkol
sifted through the package with him, looking for anything interesting.
"Do you know what this means?" said General Arkik, the senior
soldier in their Aridor settlement.
"It means that they narrowly missed landing this on our heads by
only a quarter mile," Croft grunted.
"It means that there are ships and planets out there that aren't
affected by the energy draining mist," said Arkik. "Maybe they've even
found a way to defeat the energy mist."
"Wait, there's a message," said Croft, sifting through the box.
"On paper, how quaint." He read it quickly. "It seems our friend the
War Admiral has survived. He wants us to know that most of the planets
are in the same condition as August."
"Does he mention anything about finding a solution to the energy
mist?" said Arkik.
"No," said Croft. "But I know the solution."
Arkik looked surprised. "You do?"
"Unfortunately, it involves getting off this planet," said Croft.
"Or at least communicating off-planet," said Levi.
"Something we tried unsuccessfully to do in Sarney Sarittenden,"
Sarney was the capital of August. For some reason they hadn't
been able to determine, the palace was the only place on the planet
that still had internal power. But they had been unable to send off a
message, due to the energy draining mist that surrounded August.
Croft grew thoughtful for a moment. Levi immediately noticed his
expression. "Eh?" Levi asked.
"You know, there just might be a way to send a message," said
Croft. "There's a good chance that they'll take long distance photos of
the landing site of their care package, right?"
"Yes," said Levi.
"Maybe we can give them something to see," said Croft. "Is there
any way we can create some sort of visual signal?"
"Visual?" said Arkik. "What kind of visual signal?"
"It would have to be big," said Croft. "Even our most advanced
optical sensors will be viewing us from millions of miles away, out of
range of the energy mist." He paused again. "A bonfire," he said
"A fire?" said Arkik. "How would that send a message?"
"Yes," said Levi. "Wood, shaped as letters."
"It would have to be big," said Croft. "Several hundred of feet
of wood for each letter, if it were to have a chance to be noticed. And
where would we put it?"
"Beach," said Levi promptly. "Long stretch of inland beach just
few hundred feet south of here."
"We'd have to keep the fire burning for several days, and even
then there's no guarantee they would see it," said Croft. "It would
also be a tremendous effort to move all that wood there. How many words
do you think we could spell out?"
Levi whistled. A small type 212(b) mutant Pomeranian trotted into
"Quick!" he said. "Make computations." Levi started feeding Quick
information about the size and burn rate of wood, and the number of
settlers available and assumptions of how much wood they could carry
and how far.
"And what is answer?" said Levi, in his old EastEuro accent.
"Arf arf arf arf arf," said Quick.
"Five," said Levi.
"Five words?" said Croft.
"Five letters," said Levi.
"Five letters?" said Croft. "How are we supposed to get a message
across in five letters?"
"Keep in mind limited size of beach from shore to inland, and
limits on availability of local wood and peoples to move them," said
Levi. "Five is best we can hope for. Will be big enough job as it is,
each letter will have to be at least 200 feet long."
"Great," said Croft. "Now how do we convey that we know how to
solve the problem of the energy draining mist in only five letters? "
"CAPCR," said War Admiral Norman North, sitting in his office on
the Command Carrier Glory. He peered at the fuzzy lettering again from
the long distance recon image. "Are we sure that's what it says? The
second C might be a G."
"All our analysts agree that is what it says," said Captain Stacy
Wren, the skipper of the Glory.
"Then what does it mean?" said the War Admiral.
"Your guess is as good as mine," said Wren.
"Five letters," said Croft. "We want to convey the idea that we
know the solution to the problem, in five letters or less. But what
"If we say cure, they may think we are asking for cure," said
"How about the word 'mist'?" said Croft.
"Same problem," said Levi. "Also not enough to convey that we
know answer to problem. Must be able to tell them where to find
"The Laklan Nebula," said Croft, feeling a shiver even as he
"How about Lakla," said Levi.
"You think they would figure out that we're talking about the
Laklan Nebula?" said Croft. He considered, and then shook his head.
"It's a big nebula. They could search for years without finding it. I
need to be able to convey more specific information about it."
"Can't do, in five letters."
"Then we'll have to think of something else," said Croft.
"I've run CAPCR through the astronomical database," said Wren.
"There is no match or partial match to any known planet, star, or
"What about a dictionary search?" said the War Admiral. "Maybe
it's an abbreviation for a word."
"I've already checked that out as well," said Wren. "There are no
"How about Croft?" said Croft. "That's five letters," he said.
"Very nice," said Levi. "But how that help us?"
"Not very much," Croft sighed. "As we know the solution involves
the Monumentals. But simply saying the word Monumental won't help us
"No, will not," said Levi.
"Maybe we're going about this the wrong way," said the War
"How do you mean?" said Wren.
"Before we figure out what the message says, we need to narrow
down our options by figuring out what kind of message it is," said the
"And what kind could it be?" said Wren.
"A plea for help?" said the War Admiral. "But if so, what kind of
help do they expect?" He frowned.
"Have you tried matches to the scientific database?" said the War
"The scientific database?" said Wren. "Why would there be a match
"Maybe they're suffering from a disease and need a specific kind
of medicine," said the War Admiral.
"I'll check," said Wren.
"Maybe we're going about this the wrong way," said Croft.
"How do you mean?" said Arkik.
"Before we figure out the exact message to send, we have to
figure out the kind of message to send," said Croft.
"We know what kind to send," said Arkik. "We're trying to alert
them to the solution to this energy draining mist."
"But that's not specific enough," said Croft. "Are we trying to
convey that general concept, a space of coordinates or something else?'
"Too few letters to give detailed coordinates," said Levi. "And
general concept not sufficient."
"Then we have to think of another way of expressing our message,"
"There's no match to the scientific database," said Wren.
The War Admiral looked distantly out his window. "Not a
location," he muttered. "Not a word. Not a scientific property. What
does that leave?"
"Names," said Croft. "We'll use names."
"Names?" said Levi. "Whose? How that help?"
Levi shook his head. "They never figure it out."
"Don't discount the War Admiral so quickly," said Croft. "In any
event, do you have a better idea?"
They considered the matter some more, but could come up with
"In that case, let's start gathering the wood," said Croft.
"A name," said the War Admiral. "Try to match it up against the
database of names."
Wren complied, toggling information into the computer. "Assuming
it's an abbreviation or partial name, we get over 70,000 matches."
"No, it can't be that obscure," said the War Admiral, eyeing the
name. "CAPCR... CAPCR.... Who do we know who is on August?" He paused,
answering his own question. "Levi Esherkol. Possibly Clifford Croft...
"What?" said Wren.
"Those last two letters are CR. That's the first two letters of
Clifford Croft's last name."
"That could easily be a coincidence," said Wren. "We don't even
know if Croft is still alive. He was supposed to have been retrieved by
a Trobadore B, but the fighter was never heard from again and was
presumed lost when the energy mist hit."
"I'm gambling he's still alive," said the War Admiral.
"If he is and if CR does stand for Croft, what does CAP stand
for?" said Wren.
"This is preposterous!" said Mayor Wellington Goodmon. He was the
ostensible leader of their Gateway community on Aridor.
"Why is it that politicians always associate hard work with the
impossible?" Croft asked.
"The costs of manpower alone would be staggering."
"You may stagger a bit at first, but you'll get used to hauling
logs soon enough," said Croft.
"I?" said Goodmon. "I hope you're not suggesting that I get
involved in physical labor."
"Everyone will," said Croft grimly. "It is urgent that we get a
message to the outside world, and this is the only way. Or have you
forgotten about the Insects?"
The Insects. Once thought to have been driven off of August,
Croft had discovered a colony of mutated Insects on the east coast.
They were on the move, and could reach their Gateway community on the
west coast in a matter of months; or maybe weeks.
"Of course I haven't forgotten about them," said Goodmon. "But
how does the cryptic word CAPCR help us?"
"It will help them find a solution to the energy mist problem.
Once that's cleared up, the War Admiral can send down troops with high
energy weapons who can save us from the Insects," said Croft.
"There are still other alternatives," said Goodmon. "We don't
know for sure that the Insects are coming."
"We could migrate back to Concord," said Goodmon.
"Gangs, not enough food."
"We could move farther south along the coastline here on Aridor."
"Just delaying the inevitable," said Croft. "You have to stay put
in one place long enough to plant 30 day potatoes, and eventually they
will find you. No, our best bet is to get outside help, and in order to
do so we have to do them."
"Very well," sighed Goodmon. "Perhaps I can supervise the work."
"We already have a supervisor," said Croft. "Quick!"
A small type 212(b) mutant Pomeranian entered the room. "Arf!'
"Escort the Mayor to the work detail. Make sure he's given work
suitable for his importance and rank."
"Arf arf!" said the small dog, arching his head upwards to make
eye contact with Goodmon.
"You can't seriously be thinking of putting this... animal in
charge," said Goodmon.
"Why not?" said Croft. "We've done it before."
"Arf arf!" said Quick. Then he pulled on Goodmon's pants leg.
"Hey!" said Goodmon. "All right, I'm going."
"So what is Cap?" said the War Admiral.
"I'm still not convinced that CAPCR is two words," said Wren.
"That would make it more complex."
"Perhaps they're trying to convey a complex thought," said the
War Admiral. "Cap... Cap... Cap..." His mind flashed back to the near
final battle with the Insects. He and his crew were captives on the
captured Glory, which was rigged with bombs and about to explode. But
at the last minute Croft had boarded the ship to rescue him, along
A Capybara. The Capybara alien. Many years ago, an alien had
arrived on August and made peaceful contact. The alien was reserved and
highly intelligent, and looked very much like a Capybara, a large furry
rodent with a large rectangular snout. This Capybara came to be known
as "The Professor". At first North thought it was the Professor who had
accompanied Croft onto the Glory. But actually, as Croft had explained
to him later, there was actually a whole race of Capybaras, and the one
who came with Croft was not the Professor.
A Capybara, and Croft. It made sense. They had worked together
before. Now, what did the message mean?
"Keep hauling that wood," Croft barked, as the settlers
laboriously dragged the logs into position. Most of the settlers hadn't
appreciated Croft's sense of urgency, as they didn't understand either
the purpose or the content of the message being sent.
"Got first letter in place," said Levi, pointing to the lines of
wood on the beach that stretched back several hundred feet.
"It's so big, how can we be sure it's a C?" said Croft, trying to
peer at it.
"Can get view from Sandy Beach Hill."
"I already tried, but it's too far away to see this area
clearly," said Croft.
"Not for Quick," said Levi.
"I suppose you enhanced his vision too," said Croft.
"And why not?" said Levi.
"Croft was working with a Capybara to overthrow the Insects,"
said the War Admiral. He was meeting with his inner circle, which
included Admiral Roger Dulin, Admiral Myster Harkness and Captain Wren.
"Understood," said Dulin. "But why would he send a message
juxtaposing his name with that of the Capybaras?'
"They are a highly advanced race," said the War Admiral. "Perhaps
they have the means to defeat this energy mist."
"Something doesn't make sense," said Wren. "If Croft wanted to
point us in the direction of the Capybaras, why didn't he simply use
the letters to spell out "Capyb", which would've gotten us to this
conclusion much more quickly?"
"Yes, we have to deal with the CR part of the message," said the
War Admiral. "I'm sure it has some meaning."
"Hurry, hurry," said Croft, encouraging the work teams as they
lay out the logs. The last letter was being put into place.
"What's the urgency?" Arkik had asked.
"The package drop was two days ago. We don't know how long or how
often they will conduct long distance observation of this area," said
The last letter was put into place a few hours later, and small
twigs and branches were spread over the logs to help them ignite more
"How are we doing?" said Croft anxiously.
"Waiting for final confirmation," said Levi.
They stood, and waited, and waited.
"What's taking so long?" said Croft.
"Wait," said Levi. "Must know if lettering in proper position. Be
no use if letters cannot be read."
They waited several more minutes. Then, they saw a small figure
running towards them on the beach.
"Quick!" said Levi.
"Arf, arf!" said Quick.
"What does that mean?" said Croft anxiously.
"Light the wood!" said Croft. As torches were pulled out of a
waiting campfire and thrown onto the lettering, Croft said, "I hope we
have enough wood to last."
"And that they understand message," said Levi.
As it so happened, a long range photographic imaging survey
picked up the burning wood the very next day.
"I'm assuming that the purpose of the message is to give us a
clue how to defeat this energy mist," said the War Admiral.
"How can Croft know that?" said Wren. "And if he knows how to
defeat it, why doesn't he just do it?"
"Croft isn't alone," said the War Admiral. "He has Levi Esherkol
with him, one of our most brilliant scientists. And even if he has
worked out a method to defeat the energy mist, he may need outside help
to do it. Remember, electronics don't work down there."
"So you think Croft is saying he needs the Capybara to help him
clear the energy mists," said Captain Dulin.
"It would appear so," said the War Admiral. "My impression is
that they're both needed; though what part Croft plays in all this is
"So what is he asking for?" said Dulin.
"Isn't it obvious?" said Harkness. "He wants us to rescue him and
link him up with his rat buddy."
"Capybara," corrected the War Admiral.
"I call'm as I see 'm," said Harkness. "It looks like a giant rat
"But surely Croft must realize that we can't get him off of
August," said Wren.
The War Admiral was silent.
"Maybe we can't get him off August," said the War Admiral slowly.
"But maybe we can get the Capybara to August."
"On a one way rocket?" said Wren. "I suppose it could work,
though it could be a bumpy ride. But if we've misinterpreted, we'll
just be stranding the Capybara there with him."
"There's another more basic issue we're missing," said Harkness.
"Does anyone even know where the rat creature is to be found?"
After Alliance space had been liberated from the Insects, the one
known as the Meddler Capybara had departed for points unknown. The War
Admiral had been trying to seek him out, figuring that he might be able
to help them with the energy mist problem. But patrols he had sent out
hadn't been able to locate the Capybara on any of the few worlds still
untouched by the mist. The Capybara could be anywhere. It was, after
all, a big galaxy.
But now the stakes had changed. It was essential they locate this
Capybara. And if anyone could, the War Admiral knew just the person for
"I think I know someone who can help," said the War Admiral. He
turned to Wren. "Set up a holocomm with James Starr."
James Starr. The name sparked instant recognition across the
Alliance. He was only the most famous explorer in the Alliance. He had
single-handedly uncovered more Monumental artifacts and monuments than
any other explorer, searching the galaxy in his small scoutship.
Although he was well known, what was little known was the key
part he played in the overthrow of the Insects. It was James Starr who
had located components that helped the Alliance build a particle cannon
to send ships across the galaxy. Most importantly, it was James Starr
who had located information enabling them to build new energy weapons
that could penetrate the Insect shields.
But his role in all these things was not widely known, even among
leaders of the resistance such as Clifford Croft and the War Admiral.
Starr had instead worked closely with the aliens who had assisted them
in rebuilding their forces. And one of those aliens was the Meddler
If anyone could find the Meddler Capybara, it was Starr.
Starr sat in the cockpit of his ship, the Sky Racer, idly
watching the stars as he plotted a new course. For the past few years
he had been searching Monumental ruins to find something that would
help them defeat this energy mist. But so far, he had found nothing.
"Jim, you have a message," came a very pleasant sounding feminine
"Who?" said Starr. He didn't often get calls out here.
"It's War Admiral Norman North," said the voice. The owner of the
voice, a young woman with long straight black hair, came into the
cockpit. "What do you think he wants?"
"Let's see," said Starr. He activated the comm.
The fuzzy holo of the War Admiral appeared.
"War Admiral," said Starr. "This is an unexpected pleasure."
Because of the distances involved, there was a brief time delay
as Starr conversed with the War Admiral.
"James," said the War Admiral. "I need your help on a mission of
"I'm already on an important mission," said Starr. "What's more
important than solving the problem of this energy mist?"
Again a time lag.
"That's what I'm talking about," said the War Admiral. "I think
our mutual friend Clifford Croft has found a solution."
"Great, let's hear it."
"He's trapped on August. He needs to see the Capybara. Do you
know where he is?"
Starr thought quickly. He had generally kept in touch with the
Meddler Capybara has they had searched for a solution to the energy
mists, but hadn't heard from him in several weeks. "Maybe."
"We need him back on August immediately."
"But August is under quarantine, how will he get in?"
"By rocket," said North. "I'll explain when you find him. Report
back as soon as possible."
"Acknowledged," Starr sighed. "Starr out." He terminated the
He looked over at the young woman. Her name was Dori. She looked
like a human, but she not only wasn't human, but she hadn't even been
built by humans. Dori was a highly advanced robot, more advanced than
anything the Alliance could produce. She had a fully developed set of
emotions, which Starr constantly challeged, as he didn't believe that
robots could feel. But she claimed she could. "What do you think?" he
"I can't imagine what Croft, trapped on August, can possibly have
found," said Dori. "At the same time, the War Admiral's message did
"Humans always sound urgent," said a new voice. A being who only
looked vaguely human entered the cockpit.
"An overstatement if I ever heard one, 200L," said Starr.
200L was a robot who was humanoid in form, but could obviously be
seen for a machine. The materials that made up his face and body
wouldn't full anybody up close. Unlike Dori, he hadn't been programmed
with emotions, and considered emotions a crutch. 200L responded, "I
have observed that humans often have trouble knowing what to
"But the War Admiral isn't one of those," said Starr. "And
neither is Croft. Perhaps Croft's discovered the true nature of Sarney
Sarittenden," said Starr.
"Unlikely," said Dori. "He's a spy, not a scientist."
"Well, we'd better get started," said Starr.
Dori settled into the copilot's seat. "Where to?"
"The Meddler said he was going on a short vacation," said Starr.
"That could be anywhere," said Dori.
"Not just anywhere," said Starr. "Prepare to set course."
The Sky Racer changed course and accelerated. In a few days it
approached an unnamed planet circling an unremarkable system of binary
"Do you really think he's here?" said Dori.
"It's very possible," said Starr.
"If so, then where?" she said. "It's a big planet."
"Scan for the highest concentrations of peanuts," said Starr.
They located it and landed there. The ship landed in a large
field of peanuts next to a lake bordered by a sandy beach.
"Look," said Dori, pointing down.
There were webbed foot tracks in the sand.
They followed the tracks to the lake. They saw a dark blob on top
of a rock. As they got closer they saw it was a medium sized furry
animal, stretched out on the rock. Its webbed paws were splayed out to
absorb the sunlight, its whiskers on its rectangular snout twitching
slightly in the gentle wind. Its eyes were closed.
As they walked up to it, the creature, its eyes still closed,
said, "Did you have to land in the (tweatle tweatle) field of peanuts?"
"There's still enough there for 20 Capybaras," said Starr.
The Meddler Capybara opened his eyes. He stretched slowly as he
sat up. Suddenly, a dark bow tie appeared at the base of his neck.
"Isn't that a bit of an affectation?" said Starr.
"Did you come all this way to (tweatle tweatle) insult me,
James?" said the Capybara, giving a wide yawn.
"You're needed," said Starr.
"I'm always needed," said the Meddler Capybara. He lay back down
on the rock and closed his eyes. "Go away," he added.
Starr cleared his throat. "It's about the energy mist."
"We've been spending the past few years searching for a cure,
without a luck," said the Meddler. "All I want is a (tweatle tweatle)
"The War Admiral wants to talk to you."
The Meddler Capybara snorted.
"All right then, Clifford Croft wants to see you."
The Meddler Capybara's eyes immediately opened. "I believe he's
trapped on August. How can you know that?"
"Croft is resourceful," said Starr. "And he's asked specifically
"Oh really?" said the Meddler. His ears perked up. "All right,"
he said, stretching again on the rock. But this better be good."
As they walked back to the Racer, the Meddler Capybara said, "How
did you find me?"
"You told me you were going on vacation."
"But I didn't say where."
"We were together when we came across this planet a few months
ago, remember?" said Starr. "When you saw the sensor readings on the
peanut content, you licked your lips and salivated. It wasn't hard to
"I don't salivate," the Meddler Capybara corrected him.
Back on the ship they established holocontact with the War
Admiral and he explained the situation.
"We don't know precisely what he's found, but he needs to see
"He may not have found anything," said the Meddler.
"I think it's worth the trip," said the War Admiral.
"On one of your rickety little one-way rockets? I don't think
so," said the Meddler.
"That's the only way to get down there," said the War Admiral.
"Actually, it isn't," said the Meddler Capybara.
"It's been ten days," said Levi, sitting down on the beach next
to Croft. The burned out remains of the wood could be seen. The fire
burned out seven days ago, despite their best efforts. "Maybe we try
Croft shook his head. "We should give it a few more days. It may
take them some time to find him."
"Do you really think they find Capybara? You really think he come
here?" said Levi.
Suddenly they heard a new sound behind them. "Tweatle Tweatle."
"You sure took your time," said Croft, now grinning widely as he
The Meddler Capybara gave him a wry look.
Chapter 2: Some Explanations from a Capybara
"I don't (tweatle tweatle) believe it," said the Meddler
Levi, Croft, and the Meddler Capybara sat on the beach near
Gateway. The Meddler Capybara was hearing Croft's claims for the first
"What specific part of my story strains my credibility?" said
"Let me see if I (tweatle tweatle) understand this," said the
Meddler. "You say there's a Monumental ship, somewhere in space."
"In the Laklan Nebula."
"In the Laklan Nebula," said the Meddler. "And somewhere on this
ship, there is a room with this (tweatle tweatle) energy draining mist,
and you specifically saw energy operating in this (tweatle tweatle)
"Yes," said Croft.
"How did you know that the room was filled with (tweatle tweatle)
energy draining mist if power in fact was functional?" said the
"Because there were clear zones in the room where energy
functioned and didn't function, and these zones could be turned on and
off like a light switch."
"And how exactly was the energy draining mist (tweatle tweatle)
"You think I know?" said Croft. "I was hoping that you'd be able
to figure it out. In fact, with all your knowledge and access to
Monumental technology, I'm surprised you haven't figured it out
already. You have a whole planet filled with machines-"
"My access to what you call (tweatle tweatle) Monumental
technology is quite limited," said the Meddler. "And I'm sure it won't
surprise you to learn that I'm not exactly welcome on what you call my
"But surely you must have come across other Monumental artifacts-
"Many," said the Meddler Capybara. "But none that seem to deal
with this aspect of Monumental technology. While you've been (tweatle
tweatle) tanning yourself here, young Clifford, I've been spending the
past few years searching for a solution to your energy problem."
"That's great," said Croft. "Don't get me wrong, though, but we
really could have used you when Queen Zsst was blowing up our planets."
"You cannot rely on my being available to protect your species in
all parts of the galaxy every minute of every day," said the Meddler
Capybara. "That's the danger of my involvement; that your race will
become (tweatle tweatle) flabby and overreliant on mine. As it so
happens I was called away."
"Called away by what?" said Croft.
"Just away," said the Meddler. "However important your problems
are to you, young Clifford, they are not the beginning and end of all
"Sorry," said Croft, chastened.
There was an awkward pause for a moment. Then the Meddler
Capybara shifted his whiskers and said, "Don't mention it. I'm feeling
a bit out of sorts myself. A rough ride."
"How did you get here?" Croft asked.
The Meddler Capybara was silent.
"I assumed you used the transport thing in Sarney Sarittenden,"
The Meddler raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, I know all about that," said Croft.
"Not enough to use it yourself, though," said the Meddler.
"Our problem wasn't using it," said Croft. He looked embarrassed.
"You... you couldn't even find the room?" The Meddler Capybara
gave a small laugh. "Oh, I'm (tweatle tweatle) sorry Clifford, I wasn't
laughing at you."
"Then who were you laughing at?" said Croft.
"Your species," said the Meddler Capybara comfortingly.
"Well if you know how to use the technology so well, why did it
give you a bumpy ride?" said Croft.
"It didn't," said the Meddler. "I said I had a bumpy ride, but it
wasn't from the gateway. It was from the trip across your ocean."
"Across?" said Croft. "Yes, how did you get across the ocean?"
"I borrowed a boat from a band of ruffians," said the Meddler
"Borrowed?" said Croft. "Did they give their permission?"
"No," said the Meddler Capybara. "In fact, I got the impression
they were quite unhappy with me. I think they were trying to cause me
"I didn't really pay them much attention," said the Meddler.
"So how did you row?"
"I didn't; I used their primitive sailing device."
Croft suddenly had an image of the Meddler Capybara, standing up
all alone in a sailboat on the ocean, pulling a rope between his teeth
to adjust the sail.
"So that's what upset your stomach," said Croft.
"Yes," said the Meddler. "But let us return to your story-"
"No, let us return to yours," said Croft. "I understand you don't
have access to all the Monumental technology your fellow Capybaras do;
but surely you must have enough knowledge in your brain to find a
solution to this problem. After all, you are a Capybara."
The Meddler Capybara sighed and self-consciously adjusted his bow
tie. "Clifford, Clifford. You still don't understand. I'm a specialist.
My specialty was semi-sentient species. I know no more about (tweatle
tweatle) Monumental particle theory than you do about your primitive
human particle theories."
"Oh," said Croft, obviously disappointed.
"But let us return to your story," said the Meddler Capybara.
"You make it sound like it's made-up," said Croft.
"I find it hard to believe that there's an unexplored Monumental
ship out there, just waiting for to be discovered," said the Meddler
Capybara. "If there were, why would your government not have plundered
it by now?"
"The League doesn't plunder," said Croft.
"Sorry," said the Meddler. "Would 'explore' be a more (tweatle
tweatle) politically acceptable term?"
"All right, call it what you want," Croft sighed. "The reason
this ship hasn't been found again is because it's in the Laklan Nebula.
The League tried searching for it, but couldn't locate it. Particles in
the Nebula obscured our sensors. It's a big Nebula."
"What makes you think we'll have any better luck?"
"I would hope that you have better sensors now than our League
did several hundred years ago," said Croft.
"Probably true," said the Meddler. He wiggled his whiskers again.
"But there is something else you're not telling me. If you discovered
this ship once, why didn't you explore it then, or (tweatle tweatle)
tow it out of the Nebula?"
Croft sighed, and looked away. He watched the waves pound on the
"Clifford?" said the Meddler.
"Is very hard for him," said Levi, speaking for the first time.
"What was?" said the Meddler.
"The Thing," said Croft slowly, still looking away.
"What thing?" said the Meddler.
"The thing that killed nearly the entire crew of a ship, one by
one," said Croft. He trembled, though it was a warm day. "It was...
horrible. I was lucky to get away with my life."
"Can you describe this in (tweatle tweatle) further detail?" said
"Have not time," said Levi. "Must rush to get there."
"What is the hurry?" said the Meddler. "Your planets have been
under the energy mist for years. What difference will a few hours, or a
At that moment a small form ran towards them. It was a beige
Pomeranian. It skidded to a halt a few feet away from the Meddler
Capybara, started sniffing suspiciously.
"Quick! No, is a friend," said Levi.
The Meddler Capybara curiously lowered his snout so that it
almost touched Quick's. They sniffed each other for a few seconds
without saying anything. Then Quick took a few steps back and said,
"Arf, arf arf!"
The Meddler Capybara eyed him curiously.
"Arf, aaaaarf arf!" said Quick.
Levi said, "He say-"
"I understood him," said the Meddler Capybara calmly. "Arf arf
arf arf," said the Meddler.
"Arf?" said Quick, raising his foxlike ears.
"Arf!" said the Meddler.
Quick wagged his tail horizontally and stuck out his tongue.
The Meddler and Quick started talking in dog language. They
would've been at it for some time if Croft hadn't softly tapped the
Meddler on the back. "Uh... need subtitles," said Croft.
"Oh, sorry," said the Meddler. "I forgot about you." He turned to
"Arf arf!" said Quick, sticking out his tongue again.
"So?" said Croft.
"Ah, Quick was just explaining your problem with the mutated
Insects," said the Meddler Capybara. "It sounds like they will be here
in a month or two."
"If not sooner," said Croft. "That's why we need to cancel this
energy mist so we can use energy weapons to defend ourselves."
"Have you thought of evacuating to the other continent?" said the
"Not enough food, too many gangs," said Croft.
"I see," said the Meddler thoughtfully. He was silent for a
"What are you thinking?" said Croft.
"Oh?" said the Meddler. "Sorry, I was just thinking about Quick.
We had a very nice chat. He's delightfully analytical. Most
"Perhaps we can arrange for you two to get a room once this
crisis is over," said Croft. "But now we have to-"
"Go," said the Meddler. "I understand. You're right, and now I
understand the (tweatle tweatle) urgency of it, the quicker the better
too. Come along, young Clifford," said the Meddler, trotting up the
"Just a minute," said Croft. "I have to say goodbye to Levi."
"Well, all right, but make it (tweatle tweatle) quick," said the
Quick's ears perked up.
"No, not you," said the Meddler. He turned to Croft. "I'll meet
you at my boat. It's just a few hundred feet north of here." He started
trotting, Quick at his side as they talked in dog language.
Levi shook his head. "Stranger things I have not seen in a long
"That's the Meddler Capybara for you," said Croft.
"Oh, I know of Capybara," said Levi. "Just did not think that a
Capybara and a Pomeranian could be such quick friends."
"Listen Levi, we don't have much time," said Croft. "I want you
to relay a message to General Arkik. I have no idea if we'll get back
in time, or even if we'll get back at all."
"You want I come with you?" said Levi.
"No," said Croft. "It's too dangerous."
"But need my help. Been in danger before."
"Not like this," said Croft. "I'll have the Meddler Capybara
along. That should be enough."
"You not think you coming back," said the Meddler.
"I don't know, Levi," said Croft. "I don't see any way of killing
the thing. And it's back there, waiting for us. I don't want you dying
"But you going."
"I have to; it's our only chance," said Croft.
Levi put an arm on Croft. "You very brave."
"Thanks," said Croft, blushing. "Listen, I want you to go to
Arkik and help him prepare for the Insect attack. Create some defenses
ringing the campsite, but the bulk of your defenses should be placed at
Mount Montalk. If you can hold out anywhere, it will be there."
Levi looked up at the tall mountain almost overlooking Gateway.
"Cannot hold out there forever."
"No, but maybe you can hold out long enough," said Croft. He
extended his hand. "I'll try to get back as quickly as I can."
Levi shook it. "You never let us down, Croft."
"I hope this won't be the first time," said Croft, nodding. He
turned, and started walking quickly away, following a trail of webbed
foot tracks and small dog prints.
When he got to the boat, he arrived just in time to see the
Meddler and Quick making their goodbyes. The Meddler sat in a small
"Arf arf," said Quick, walking away. He stuck out his tongue as
he passed Croft; Croft did the same in return.
"Really quite a sentient creature," said the Meddler, as Croft
got into the boat. "I'm really surprised to learn he was created by one
of your race."
"There's a lot of surprises for everyone today," said Croft.
They both sat in the boat.
"Well?" said Croft.
"What?" said the Meddler.
"Shouldn't we be moving?"
"Yes," said the Meddler. "I was waiting for you to get out and
give us a push."
Sighing Croft got out of the boat and did just that. As the boat
pushed off the beach, his feet splashed into the water as he ran to
climb into the boat.
The Meddler grabbed the rope controlling the sail with his teeth.
"Are you sure you know how to use that?"
The Meddler Capybara gave him a pitying look.
"So how do we get there?" said Croft. "I presume we'll use the
gateway to get us off planet."
"You presume correctly," said the Meddler. "But how did you know
of the (tweatle tweatle) gateway?"
"You were very careful to knock me out each time you transported
me," said Croft. "But the last time I took a little hidden video with a
"Very clever, Clifford," said the Meddler.
"Why all the secrecy?"
"We don't want just anyone using the gateways."
"No semi-sentient riff-raff, you mean," said Croft.
"Really, Clifford, you really must work on your (tweatle tweatle)
"I don't know why it always manifests itself around you," said
Croft. "But getting back to the primary subject, how do we get to the
Monumental ship? We'll need a ship of our own."
"I have a ship," said the Meddler. "James Starr is waiting for
"Starr? The Sky Racer?" said Croft. "Does he still have the Sky
Racer? Does he still have that cute girl robot and that annoying
"Yes to all your questions," said the Meddler.
"Since we have some quality time together, you wouldn't mind
filling me in on what happened since I got stranded here," said Croft.
"Where would you like me to begin?"
"Begin with why this planet still exists. I thought Queen Zsst
was going to blow it up."
"I wasn't there at the time," said the Meddler. "But after the
fact, that was my understanding as well."
"So... did the War Admiral stop her?" Croft cringed, waiting for
"Queen Zsst commanded a mighty Monumental warship, which tossed
your fleet around like minor toys," said the Meddler.
"Thank you," said the Meddler. "I understand that your War
Admiral made a last stand in the Glory, intending to self-destruct the
ship when the Monumental ship came close. His ship was the only thing
remaining between the Monumental ship and August."
"You say he intended to... did Zsst destroy the Glory?" said
"No," said the Meddler. "At the last minute, the Monumental ship
turned around... and left."
"And left," said Croft. "You mean, went and attacked somewhere
"No," said the Meddler. "It simply... left."
"It could be seen changing course and heading away. It hasn't
been seen since," said the Meddler.
"Why would Queen Zsst turn aside at the last minute?"
"That is one of the great mysteries," said the Meddler.
"Do you have any ideas why?" Croft asked.
"A few," said the Meddler. "But none that I think you are ready
to hear, young Clifford." Changing the subject, he said, "After the
Queen's ship, the War Admiral's fleet picked up the pieces. Most of
your planets are under the influence of the energy draining mist, but a
few managed to escape it. Those few planets and what remains of the
fleet are all that remains of your Alliance."
Croft listened to the news in stunned silence. He had guessed
most of it, but it was still shocking to have confirmation.
"It is not as bad as you may think, young Clifford," said the
Meddler. "The people on those planets are not dead, merely isolated.
Your War Admiral survives, and lives to lead another day. All is not
"You make it sound so great," said Croft bitterly. "Perhaps we
should thank the Monumental for their great energy draining weapons."
"Perhaps you should," said the Meddler. "Have you ever considered
the purpose behind the energy draining mist?"
"The purpose is obvious, to throw planets back into the stone
age," said Croft.
The Meddler Capybara sighed. "Clifford, you must look at the
bigger picture. Surely you know that those you call the Monumental had
the ability to destroy planets, yes?"
"Yes," said Croft.
"Then why would they create weapons that would merely drain
planets of their power?"
"I don't know, for their amusement?"
The Meddler looked disappointed. "Think, Clifford, think."
Croft looked at the waves as the sun set and the sky darkened. "I
"The Monumental had the ability to destroy planets but created a
weapon that only drained power, effectively preventing space travel.
Don't you see, Clifford, that this was a method of protection for races
that were too violent."
"The Monumental were afraid of some races?"
"Perhaps, or more likely they were afraid that some races were
not playing well with others. For those that went 'out of bounds', they
used the energy weapon to isolate them, to prevent them from hurting
other races on other planets."
"So you're saying that this energy draining mist was like...
The Meddler nodded vigorously.
"But it's a pretty harsh prison where electricity can't be used."
"Yes, it is harsh not to be able to use electricity. But compare
that to the alternative of annihilation."
"So you're saying the Monumental were gentle because they
believed in life imprisonment over the death penalty."
"The presence of this weapon seems to support that philosophy."
"Well it's a good thing the bugs could only lay their hands on
kinder and gentler weapons, then," said Croft very ironically.
There was silence for a moment as the water lapped around them.
Then the Meddler said, "Bitterness doesn't become you, Clifford."
Croft stared at the shadow of the Capybara's snout and said
They arrived at Sarney at night. They didn't see anyone, though
whether this was due to chance or the Capybara's doing Croft had no way
of knowing. They entered the underground and snuck their way into the
Palace. Then they walked in the dimly lit corridors.
"How is it that power can function here?" Croft asked.
The Capybara looked pityingly at him.
"You should get that look patented," said Croft.
They reached a hallway where the Capybara stopped.
"I know we're here," said Croft.
"Then why didn't you open the door?" said the Capybara.
The Capybara went over to one portion of the wall and appeared to
sniff. Then he stuck out a webbed paw and the wall slid back.
"I tried touching the wall!" said Croft. "How did you do that?"
The Capybara said nothing but entered the room.
Croft found himself inside a room filled with machinery. The wall
behind them slid shut.
"I will do you the courtesy of not rendering you unconscious,
since you have already seen this," said the Capybara, rapidly
manipulating a control panel.
"You're too kind," said Croft.
Suddenly, a side of the wall lit up, and Croft saw another room
"Step through, Clifford."
Croft tentatively stepped forward... and found himself in another
room, similar to the one they had just left. The Capybara appeared by
him. Turning around he saw the image of the first room fade, and then
"Where are we?" Croft asked.
"In human terms, we are an almost unimaginable distance from our
previous location," said the Meddler.
"And in Capybara terms?"
"It's the equivalent of a small walk in the park. Come along,
The Meddler Capybara led him through a series of rooms, many of
them filled with alien control panels. Finally they came to a door
which opened as they approached. Sunlight streamed from the outside and
as they stepped out Croft was surprised to find that it was morning,
wherever they were.
They were on a grassy field. Turning around, Croft saw that he
had just exited from a Monumental monument. The point they had exited
from was no longer visible.
Croft saw something flash in the distance. The Meddler started
walking to it. As they got closer, Croft recognized an old type 22
Scoutship hull. It was the Sky Racer!
They boarded the ship and were greeted by the crew.
"Welcome aboard, Clifford," said Dori, giving him a hug. "It's
been a long time."
"It is curious how you feel the need to emulate the human custom
of making physical contact," said 200L.
"It's good to see you too, 200L," said Croft.
Starr stepped out of the pilot section. "Croft!"
"It's been a while," said Croft.
"I'm sorry we have to meet under these circumstances," said
"You don't know how bad these circumstances really are," said
"Was life on August brutal?" said Starr.
"Yes, brutal," said Croft. "But that's not what I'm talking
about. If you knew what you were walking into, you wouldn't want to
"Perhaps we can cover that later once we get started," said the
Meddler. "James, you should set a course for the Laklan Nebula, top
"All right," said Starr curiously.
"I'll also be providing some calibrations for your sensors," said
"What are we looking for?" Dori asked.
"A Monumental ship," said the Meddler.
"It sounds exciting," said Dori.
"It's anything but," said Croft. "Once you know what's on that
ship, you won't want to set a foot onboard."
"What's gotten into you, Croft?" said Dori. "I've never known you
to be scared of anything."
Croft shivered. "It's a long story."
"It will take nearly two days to get to the Nebula, even in the
Racer," said Dori. "We have time."
Chapter 3 The Beginning of the Story
"The story begins during the fourth, and last, great war with the
Slurians. As you may recall, the Slurians banded together with a number
of our enemies to attack us, and we, the Alliance, were losing ground.
A number of our scientists were working on a way to deal with their
numerical advantage. They thought they had discovered a way in a new
kind of missile, code named the A-1."
"The A-1?" said Dori. "I'm very familiar with Alliance history,
and I've never heard about anything called an A-1 missile being used in
"You're jumping ahead," said Croft. "The missiles were developed
in secrecy on London II. They had more destructive payloads and
advanced AI, far beyond anything we had at the time. The problem was
that London II was rapidly getting closer to our front lines as the
Slurians advanced. The missiles had just been tested once and were
deemed a success; we had to get this technology back into Alliance
hands before London II was overrun."
"The problem was that we didn't have any fleets strong enough to
escort the scientists and the prototypes in the area. We could have
provided a cruiser or two for an escort, but that would've done little
more than draw attention to what we were doing. So instead it was
decided that the technology would be taken off the planet
surreptitiously. An unarmed merchant ship was crewed with navy officers
and loaded with the prototypes and the lead scientists who worked on
the project. All information in the London II database was wiped in
case the planet fell. All information about the missiles, as well as
the missiles itself, were on this merchant ship, the Tidy Sea."
"That still sounds like a rather risky venture," said Starr. "If
the ship were unarmed, a Slurian tugboat could've hulled the ship."
"It was a risk; the hope was that the ship would be
undiscovered," said Croft. "The war was going badly and there weren't
any other options. The ship took off from London II with a skeleton
crew (to preserve security), the scientists, some missile prototypes,
and a handful of security officers. The ship started on an indirect
course back to August."
He paused, licking his lips. "Evidently the course wasn't
indirect enough. The ship was intercepted just a few days out from
London II, by a Slurian cruiser."
"Was it a coincidence?" Dori asked.
Croft held up a restraining hand. "The ship wasn't totally
unprotected; a deep space cruiser was shadowing it, several hours
behind. The Tidy Sea turned back towards the Alliance Cruiser, with the
Slurians in full pursuit. But the Slurians intercepted the Tidy Sea
first. They ordered the ship to surrender, which shows enough, I think,
that they knew there was special cargo aboard. The Captain, a naval
officer named..." Croft closed his eyes as if remembering....
"Carton..., Captain Carton stalled for time. The Slurians only allowed
him to stall for so long, and then opened fire."
He paused. "At that point, the Alliance backup cruiser arrived.
The Slurians and the Alliance got into a firefight. They were pretty
evenly matched; but then other Slurian ships showed up on the sensor
scopes. The Tidy Sea knew this might be the only chance to get away.
The ship was damaged, but the chief engineer could keep things going...
and they decided to hide in the Laklan Nebula. That was possibly the
worst decision they ever made. For most of them, it was their last."
"But they were pursued by the Slurians!" said Dori. "What other
choice did they have?"
"There are worse fates than being captured by the Slurians," said
Croft quietly. "As you'll see."
"And what were you doing through all this?" Starr asked. "You
were on the Tidy Sea, I presume?"
"I haven't clarified that," said Croft. "Please let me tell the
story in my way."
"All right," said Starr.
"The drive gave out shortly after we entered the nebula.
Actually, it's been so long... it wasn't the drive, it was the power
generator. The power generator was damaged, and finally stopped
functioning. The ship moved along on batteries. The only good news was
that the mist of the Nebula obscured our sensors, and did the same for
the Slurians too. It was presumed that the Alliance backup cruiser had
been destroyed, or driven off; either way, the Slurians, who seemed to
know the important cargo the ship carried, were sure to be following.
The Chief Engineer... Ubert Branner," and Croft winced again as he
recalled another name, "said that the generator was impossible to
repair without spare parts. The ship could limp along on batteries for
a few days and then the ship would be drained, without enough even for
"At that point the Captain decided to cut drive and simply drift.
His plan was to wait a few days until the Slurian pursuit had left, and
then to use the remaining battery power to carry the ship out of the
Nebula and broadcast an SOS. Unfortunately for the Tidy Sea, cutting
the drive didn't cut the ship's velocity; the ship continued to float
deeper into the Nebula."
"And that's when it was picked up on the scopes. The sensors
weren't entirely foiled, you understand; they were simply limited to
very short distances. And somehow, out of the billions of cubic miles
of Nebula, that tiny ship came across... it."
"It?" said Starr.
Croft winced again, as if he were remembering it firsthand. "A
Monumental ship, just lying there, dead in space. A big one. Forty
miles long, maybe four miles wide. And more. Other ships, alien ships,
all docked together, one by one, all linked to the Monumental ship."
"How odd," said Dori. "Was it some kind of meeting in space?"
"We scanned; there was no signs of energy on any of the ships,
except the Monumental ship, which we couldn't scan. In fact, we could
detect no signs of life or movement on any of those ships. It was like
a graveyard of spaceships," said Croft.
"What happened then?" Starr asked.
"If they had been smart, they would've gotten out of there," said
Croft. He sighed. "But some of them were excited about the discovery of
a Monumental ship. Branner, the Chief Engineer, thought that even if
all those ships were abandoned, they could scavenge the parts they
needed to repair the generator. What none of them thought very much
about was why those ships were abandoned. None of them realized the
tremendous danger they were in."
Croft wet his lips. "Most of the ships docked together were
alien, ships that had never been seen in the Alliance. But one of them
was familiar, an old League destroyer. Captain Carton decided to dock
"Carton wasn't a complete fool; he was unnerved by the presence
of all these seemly empty ships, and he doubted that all their crews
had simply walked away. But he didn't have any marines; the small ship,
as I've said, had only a skeleton staff. There were 16 naval officers
and crewmen, two of whom had been killed during the Slurian attack, so
that left 14. There were eight of the scientists who worked on the A-1
missiles. And then there were five special security officers, charged
with guarding the secrets of the A-1. The head of this small security
force was a man named.... Major Von," said Croft, again remembering the
name as if from long ago. "That meant 27 men and women. Only 27! The
crew of the destroyer that was docked there must have had a crew
several times that size. Some of the alien ships must have had even
larger crews but they were all empty too."
"But Carton worked with what he had and he consulted Major Von.
They agreed to send a five person team in, two naval regulars and two
security specialists. Captain Carton would lead the team. They were all
armed with blaster pistols and blaster rifles--not that either would
help them in the slightest. Not in the slightest," said Croft bitterly,
"The destroyer was dusty, and dark, but at least the air was
breathable. Mobile lights were needed to see where one was going. The
place was a mess, with equipment strewn about everywhere. They stayed
together, keeping in constant radio contact with the ship. They slowly
walked from one section of the destroyer to another. The ship looked
like it had been in battle. Perhaps it too had been attacked, and,
damaged, had decided to dock with the other ships to scavenge parts and
"But where was the crew? There was no sign of the crew at all.
The boarding party made their way to the bridge, which, like the rest
of the ship, was a mess. But they managed to get battery power working,
and feeble background lights came on. It's really a tribute to League
engineering, really, that power could still be functioning for so long;
for as the crew was to learn, that ship had been there for nearly 100
"Captain Carton attempted to check for the ship's log. He was
able to tap into the ship's computer and find out something of what had
happened. The ship had been attacked. It had stumbled on the Monumental
ship and docked to try to find parts to repair the ship with. And
then... static. There were no other records. None! If the crew had been
overcome, they had been overcome too quickly to document what had
happened. The only other thing they noticed was a cryptic message,
handwritten in wild lettering on the wall above the library console."
"It read: 'Appreciate Beauty Above All Else.'"
"As the crew explored more of the ship, they found those words,
again and again, scrawled on different walls of the ship. Sometimes the
lettering would be larger, sometime smaller, but always the same words,
over and over, as if a madman had been obsessed with the thought."
"What do you make of this?" said Carton to the senior security
officer, Lieutenant Julie Branch.
"It looks like someone went mad," said Branch. "Maybe they got
stuck here and went crazy."
"But we've seen no other signs of insanity," said Carton. "No
other messages. The handwriting is always the same. This looks like the
work of one man."
"Sir," said one of the crewmen, "I think we've got something
here." He was shining his light torch on the ground.
Carton squatted down. "What is it?"
There was a hard residue of something on the ground.
"Scanning," said the officer, using a hand scanner.
Another officer, panning with his light torch, said, "I see a
number of residue traces on the ground."
"Oh my," said the officer doing the scanning.
"What is it?" said Carton.
The officer wordlessly showed Carton the scan results. His face
"What is it?" Branch asked.
"Human remains," said Carton.
They found hard little residues all over the ship, now that they
knew what to look for.
"What could do this?" said Branch. "It's like somebody grinded up
their bodies into a pulp."
"I don't know," said Carton grimly. He activated his comm. "Major
Carton reported what they had found.
"That does not look very encouraging," said Major Von.
"I can't say I'm very happy either," said Carton. "But I think we
should press on to the Monumental ship. Whatever killed the crew could
be long gone."
"Or could be there waiting for you," said Von.
"We need components to repair the generator," said Carton.
"What about the destroyer's engine room?"
One of the navy men shook his head. "We checked. Engineering is a
"We can try to limp out of the nebula on battery power," said
"That chancy at best," said Carton. "And even if we make it, we'd
have to be rescued before our life support gave out. And that also
assumes that the Slurians have left."
Ron's face looked grim, but he nodded. "Be careful."
"We will," said Carton.
"Sir," said one of the naval officers, Ensign Kenner. "When I
said the destroyer's engineering section was a mess, I meant it. But it
wasn't battle damage."
"What?" said Carton.
"You saw it. The place was stripped from the inside. It's as if
someone on this ship systematically destroyed their only chance of
"Why would they destroy their own engine room?" Carton asked.
"Perhaps someone else did," said Branch. "Or something else."
"The same something that can turn human bodies into pulp?" said
Branch looked worried in the dim light.
"All right, we've got a job to do," said Carton.
The destroyer was docked with an alien ship which in turn was
docked with the Monumental ship. They found their way to the docking
port and entered the alien ship, their weapons raised.
There was much that was unfamiliar to them but they also found a
familiar pattern--everything shut down, equipment strewn about
everywhere, and those terrible residues could be seen everywhere.
Carton and the others said nothing but they were all probably
thinking the same thing. They made their way through the unfamiliar
ship to the other docking port. Although they didn't know the layout of
the alien ship, they knew in what direction the other docking port was,
and used their sensors to guide them.
When they arrived at the docking port they saw an eerie green
light across the way. That must be the Monumental ship. Carton opened
communications with Major Von, back on the Tidy Sea. "We're about to go
into the Monumental ship now," said Carton. "If you don't hear from us
within an hour, break off and take your chances heading out on battery
"Understood," said Von. And then, "Good luck, Captain."
Carton nodded, breaking the connection.
"They were very brave men," said Dori.
"One thing I do not understand," said 200L. "How do you know what
happened with this boarding party? Were you a member of this boarding
party? You have not said so."
"That's true," said Croft. "I think you need to be patient, and
all will be clear."
"It is not logical to withhold pertinent information," said 200L.
"Oh, I've found humans to be most illogical, don't let that
(tweatle tweatle) trouble you," said the Meddler Capybara reassuringly.
"I'm not a computer, or a machine, so you'll just have to let me
tell the story in my way," said Croft.
"As you wish," said 200L.
The air was still breathable, as it had been on the destroyer,
and the alien ship. It still had that musty quality, though. As they
walked across the tubeway to the Insect ship they saw the green light
was actually caused by a slight luminescence in the ships' hull. The
corridors were very wide, and tall, as if the beings who used them were
much larger than human.
The boarding party reached a crosswalks, and saw that the
corridors--north, south, east, and west, ran as far as the eye could
"This is big," Carton whispered.
They started walking, mindful to keep their weapons raised. They
passed rooms filled with inconceivably fantastic devices, or brimming
with control panels, or completely empty.
After a half hour of this Carton could quickly see that they were
being overwhelmed. They didn't have the first clue how to use this
technology. He signaled Von and ordered a hasty return to the ship
"It's big. Really, really big," said Carton, when he was relaxed
at last in the comfort of the Tidy Sea's small briefing room.
"But no signs of any... resistance?" Von asked.
"No sign of anyone," said Carton. "Of course, I have to admit
that we explored less than 1% of the Monumental ship. Nor have we
explored any of the other ships docked with the destroyer, except for a
cursory examination of that alien ship."
"Where you found the same thing, the residue of the bodies," said
"Yes," said Carton.
"What do you think?" said Von.
Carton paused. "Whatever did in all the crews of those ships may
long gone or dead. We didn't find any signs of life, hostile or
"Then what do you suggest?" Von asked.
"We need repairs to our generator," said Carton.
Chief Engineer Branner gave a vigorous nod.
"We're going to have a difficult time adapting the alien
technology," said Carton. "We couldn't even figure out what any of that
"We don't have a lot of time," said Von. "We must get those A-1
missiles back to August. The Alliance is counting on us."
"I know," said Carton. "I was just thinking of ways of making the
work go faster. If we send over multiple teams into that ship-"
"Isn't that rather risky?" said Lieutenant Branch.
"Each day we wait increases the risk that we'll be found by the
Slurians, or that the Slurians will win this war," said Carton. "I
realize it's a risk, but a risk we have to take. That ship is so huge
that it could take months for hundreds of people to explore it. We're
not going to get anywhere by sending in a single team."
"What do you suggest?" Von asked.
"We send in multiple teams. We minimize the risk by sending
people in teams of four. I figure we can send in six teams of four
while still leaving three people on the ship."
"You propose to send almost the entire crew over to that ship?"
Branch asked. "Including the A-1 scientists? We're supposed to protect
them, not expose them to danger!"
"Lieutenant, this is a desperate situation," said Carton. "Your
scientists will have a better idea how to understand and adapt
Monumental technology than my officers will."
"They're missile scientists, not specialists in the Monumentals."
"They're scientists, which makes them more of an asset in a
mission like this than naval officers," said Carton. "We could walk
right by an alien power generator and never even notice it. We need
your help. The scientists will be split up into groups of two, and each
group of two will be accompanied by two naval officers or security
officers. Are we agreed?"
Von reluctantly nodded.
Chapter 4: The First Explorations
The teams fanned out over the huge Monumental ship. Two of the
teams were led by security officers--Major Von led one, and Lieutenant
Branch led another. The other four teams were each led by a naval
officer--Captain Carton, the first officer, Lieutenant Commander
Filler, the Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Branner, and the weapons
officer, Lieutenant Kelate. The rest of the teams were rounded out by
the enlisted security personnel, lower ranking officers, and the A-1
Ensign Ken Kenner, the navigation officer, found himself in the
party led by Lieutenant Branner. Two missile scientists accompanied
them as they cautiously walked down the gloomy halls.
"I get a bad feeling about this," said Kenner, as he eyed the
corridor that seemed to go almost to infinity.
"Shut up," Chief Engineer Branner suggested, gripping his blaster
rifle even more tightly than Kenner gripped his blaster. The scientists
also had blasters, though both were holstered.
They walked in silence for some time, carefully checking their
progress with hand scanners. But something in the walls seemed to
absorb their scan, preventing them from scanning more than a limited
area around them. As they came to an intersection, Branner paused to
consider where to turn. There was a hazy green gloom in all directions.
After a pause, he decided to turn right.
"Why right?" Kenner asked.
"Whoa," said Kenner. "If we're going to keep making turns, what's
going to prevent us from getting lost?"
"A good point," said Branner. He raised his blaster rifle and
fired. The scientists jumped. Branner carved an arrow in the wall
pointing right. "There," he said, looking satisfied.
They started walking down the corridor. Behind them, the wall
became illuminated, and the blaster burn gradually faded....
"What is all this?" said Lieutenant Kelate, the weapons officer.
They were in a large room filled with consoles. The other naval officer
and scientists fanned out. One of them, Karen Natasha, peered into an
adjoining room and barely suppressed a gasp. The adjoining room was
huge. It contained a metal platform set about a foot off the ground
that spanned the length of the room. There were switches by the
doorway. Natasha flicked one; there was a crackle from the platform....
"Now we're making progress," said Captain Carton. After walking
through a series of empty rooms, they found themselves in a large room
filled with scientific equipment and consoles. There were also peculiar
looking devices hanging from the ceiling.
"Can you make heads or tails of this?" Carton asked Lieutenant
Nears, the science officer.
"Let me see," said Nears. He stood by one of the consoles. Biting
his lip, he pressed a button.
There was a loud sound, like an explosion, and then they heard
something whiz through the air. They looked around for a moment to try
and figure out what it was, when they all started staring at Nears.
There was a red stain spreading in his tunic. Looking down, Nears
looked as surprised as the others to find a metal rod protruding from
his chest. He slowly collapsed to the ground.
It wasn't until they received a scratchy comm message to return
to the ship immediately that they realized the truth of their
"I think we're lost," said Kenner.
"We've been down this corridor before," said Branner.
"Then where's the mark on the wall?" said Kenner.
"I don't know," said Branner.
"Maybe I do," said Kenner. He raised his blaster and fired. The
wall was scorched.
"So?" said Branner.
"Wait," said Kenner.
They waited for a moment.
"So?" said Branner again.
"Wait," said Kenner.
Another moment passed. Then the wall gradually lit up, and the
scorch mark started to fade. "That's why we're lost," said Kenner
"A good piece of deduction," said Branner, looking impressed.
"All right, we'll have to navigate by memory."
"Do you really remember the way we came?" said one of the
scientists, looking worried.
"Sure," said Branner dryly. He looked at Kenner. "I'll bet you're
glad now that you were assigned to us."
The Tidy Sea had been staffed by robbing the crew of a League
destroyer. All the naval officers had worked with each other before,
except for Kenner. He had been a last minute replacement for another
officer who had been reassigned.
"Yes, I was really lucky," said Kenner dryly. "I've always wanted
to see the Monumental up close."
"Really?" said Branner, assuming Kenner was being sarcastic.
"Actually, it's a hobby of mine," said Kenner. "I have a copy of
Starr's 'Complete Imbecile's Guide to the Monumental' in my personal
"You should have said something sooner!" said Branner. "When we
get back, I want copies made for all the senior staff."
"I think your ears are turning red," Dori observed.
"It's just nice to know that my works are read far and wide,"
"I never knew that you wrote for the complete Imbecile's Guide,"
said Dori. "I always thought that your publications were, ah,"
"More prestigious? Most of them are," said Starr. "But I got a
special deal with the Complete Imbeciles publisher."
"They paid you a lot of money to use your name," Croft
"Well, yes, but it wasn't only the money that attracted me," said
Starr. "The study of the Monumental has always been somewhat highbrow;
I was excited by the chance to make it accessible to the masses."
"James, you're such a philanthropist."
"I have a question," said 200L. "Sorry to change the subject, but
I fail to understand how Croft could possibly know the contents of the
conversation between Kenner and Branner. Unless he was one of the two
scientists accompanying them, he wasn't there."
"Are you programmed to have patience?" said Croft.
"I am programmed to seek out data," said 200L.
"Hm," said Croft. "Well, you'll have to wait, just like everyone
They eventually found their way back to the ship by a combination
of blind luck and yelling. When they started to get close to the
docking area, they heard shouts in return. There were two naval
officers there, waiting for them.
"You're alive!" said one of them.
"Why wouldn't we be?" said Branner, giving him an odd look.
"You're more than 2 hours overdue," said the sentry. "We couldn't
raise you on the comm."
"We had some navigation troubles."
"It sounds like you've been lucky," said the sentry. "We have
"Three dead? How?" said Branner.
The sentry looked around at the large, empty corridors. "Let's
get back to the ship first."
The sentry led them through the docked alien ship, through the
abandoned destroyer, and back to the Tidy Sea. Sentries awaited them at
the entrance to the ship and seemed relieved to see them.
"Report to the conference room immediately."
Most everyone was in the conference room, making for a very
crowded room. The room had been build for a dozen, and with 22 in there
it was quite filled.
"Branner! Glad you made it," said Carton.
"Why wouldn't we have? What happened to the others?" said
"Let me repeat what happened," Carton said. "Lieutenant Nears was
"Killed? By who?" said Branner.
"By himself, it looks like," said Carton. "We were in one of the
alien control rooms, he touched a button, and a metal rod came flying
through the air, impaling itself into him. He died almost instantly."
"What? How could that happen?" Branner asked.
"I don't know," said Carton.
"Do you think it was some kind of security mechanism?"
"Maybe," said Carton. "I can't imagine why the Monumental would
design a console that would shoot metal bolts at the user."
"Do you have any idea what they were talking about?" Croft asked
the Meddler Capybara.
The Meddler self-consciously adjusted his bow tie. "Perhaps. It's
hard to say without seeing the console, though."
"What possible reason could the Monumental have to design a
console which would shoot metal bolts at the user?" said Croft. "Do you
think he triggered some kind of security mechanism?"
"Unlikely," said the Meddler. "While some Monumental ships have
what you call (tweatle tweatle) security mechanisms, most don't bother-
-the fact that their technology is so difficult to understand makes
them secure enough. In any event the Monumental would never use
anything as crude as a metal bar as an attack mechanism."
"So what was it?"
"Hard to say," said the Meddler Capybara. "It could have been a
lab that studied the movement of projectiles and how their flight path
could be altered by changes in gravity, physics, or physical
composition. It could have been an exercise room, where the purpose was
to dodge or stop the bolts. Or it could have been (tweatle tweatle)
"You're saying that the Monumental let themselves be attacked by
metal bolts as a form of exercise?" said Croft.
The Meddler chuckled. "The ones you call the Monumental would not
be harmed by a piece of metal, young Clifford."
"Then we lost Lieutenant Kelate and Corporal Ulo," said Carton.
"What happened?" Branner asked.
Carton turned to Natasha and nodded.
She gulped and said, "We discovered a room with a large
platform... when Kelate and Ulo stepped on it, they were electrocuted,
"Did you try to cut the power?" said Branner.
"I didn't know how!" said Natasha. "And it was all over in
Carton turned to the other member of that team, a scientist named
Larret. "Is that how you remember it?"
"I just saw the tail end of it," said Larret. "Natasha called us
into the other room, but I delayed to examine some consoles. When I
heard them screaming I ran to the other room, but it was all over by
"I called them over to look at some of the machinery in the
room," said Natasha. "But then they grew fascinated by the platform.
The room was huge, more than a thousand feet long, and the platform
stretched the length of it. They took a few steps onto the platform to
get a better view, and then it electrocuted them. I warned them to be
careful, but...." She tried to choke back a sob.
"That does it," said Lieutenant Branner. "We're poking around and
we don't know what we're doing, and it's killing us."
"We have to find components to repair the generator," said
"But our ignorance is killing us," Branner repeated. "We're not a
trained team of Monumental archaeologists, we're naval officers,
security specialists, and missile scientists. Even our top scientists
would take years to figure out this technology."
"I agree that the situation isn't encouraging, but what choice do
we have?" said Carton.
"I say we blast off with the remaining battery power and try to
get out of the nebula," said Branner.
"We have enough power, perhaps, to get to the edge of the
nebula," said Carton. "But life support would not last more than a few
days beyond that."
"We can radio a call for help."
"The Slurians may be closer and hear it first," said Carton. "But
assuming they aren't, how long would it take a ship to reach us? We
know we can't expect any help from London II. Filler, what's the next
Lieutenant Commander Filler considered. "I think it must be
Errata. About 10 days out, at top speed."
Carton moved closer to face Branner. "So you see, we really don't
have any choice." He turned to face the others. "I won't deny that
there are hazards. There may be further injuries or deaths. But we have
to keep trying. That's our only choice."
"Look at what happened to the other crews," said another officer,
"They were turned into some kind of residue," said Carton. "None
of our lost crewmen were turned into residue. Whatever happened to the
previous crews was totally different."
Some of the crew nodded. That, at least, was clear.
"Let's try and get some rest," said Carton. "We'll start out
again the first thing in the morning."
The crew looked stunned and didn't move. Carton left the room.
When he got into the corridor, he saw that Major Von and Lieutenant
Branch were right behind him. They motioned that they wanted a word
with him. They went to his quarters.
"I'm not so sure that these deaths were accidental," said Major
Von, once the door had slid shut behind them.
"What do you mean?" Carton frowned.
"We're not merely aboard for general security," said Von.
"There's a very specific reason that we're here. Counterintelligence
had picked up indications that the Slurians may have planted a spy
among the crew."
"Indications... may have... how concrete is all this?" Carton
"It wasn't concrete at all until we were attacked," said Von. "We
now think that someone on board gave our location away to the
"A miniaturized transmitter," said Branch.
"Have you tried searching for it?"
Von shook his head. "It could be tiny. Or it could be a remote
activated device planted anywhere on the ship. We considered doing a
search, but at this point there's no sense in letting our adversary
know that we're on to him. The Nebula blankets all transmissions."
"But there's more," said Branch. "The spy's primary purpose would
be to make sure that the A-1 missiles don't get to August. One way to
do that is to signal the Slurians. Another way is to eliminate the
"You think Nears and the other officers were killed?" said
Carton. "But I was with Nears. No one killed him."
"Perhaps not," said Von. "But Natasha says that Lieutenant Kelate
and Corporal Ulo were electrocuted by accident. What if it were on
"You think Natasha-"
"She's a Slurian," said Branch bluntly. "She defected from Sluria
almost 10 years ago, and hasn't, until now, given us any reason to
suspect her. But it's a possibility. The same goes for the other
scientist on the scene, Larret."
"Well, at least you've narrowed it down to two-"
"Not necessarily," said Branch. "Were all members of your team in
your sight at all times."
"Yes," said Carton. He paused, "Well, sometimes we would peel off
to explore adjacent rooms-"
"Precisely," said Von. "It could be anyone."
"Anyone?" said Carton.
"Well, we know it's not one of our security officers," said Von.
"But there are only four of us left now, out of a crew of 24."
"And me?" said Carton. He gave a small smile. "You're taking a
big risk of warning me."
"You have a long and distinguished service record," said Von.
"That doesn't eliminate the possibility of your being the spy, but it
does reduce it."
"Thanks," said Carton. "What do you want from me?"
"Fewer but larger teams, so we can keep an eye on people," said
Von. "Say, two teams of 10 and 10."
"That will greatly slow down our search ability," said Carton.
"But there is safety in numbers," said Von.
"Again, I fail to understand," said 200L. "This was a private
conversation between three people. How did you know what transpired?"
"I think Croft was on board secretly, spying on the others with
surveillance equipment," said Dori.
"Or maybe he interviewed the survivors, assuming at least one of
those three survived," said Starr.
"No, young Clifford was much too traumatized to have merely
interviewed the survivors after the fact," said the Meddler Capybara.
"Or maybe I surmised what happened at certain points, even if I
wasn't present," said Croft. "I do have half a brain, you know."
"Do not be so hard on yourself, young Clifford; you are certainly
no less intelligent than any other member of your species," said the
"You're so kind, Mr. Towel," said Croft.
"Mr. Towel?" said Starr, looking confused.
"A nickname, from the days when I was a resistance fighter on
August," said Croft. A thought occurred to him. "Why, what do you
usually refer to him as?"
"Well, I... I guess I don't," Starr said. He looked at the
Capybara. "You're just there."
The Capybara twinkled his nose.
When they returned to the briefing room, they saw that everyone
was reading something on their datapads.
"What are you reading?" Branch asked.
"Copies of James Starr's 'Complete Imbecile's Guide to the
Monumental'," said Lieutenant Branner.
"That sounds like it could be incredibly useful!" said Branch.
"Wait. Did this merchant ship really have the text in its database?"
She turned to Carton. "Did you upgrade the ship's database before you
left London II?"
Carton shook his head. "There wasn't time."
"It's Kenners' book," said Branner.
"Really?" said Branch.
"Just a hobby," said Kenner, giving a light smile.
Branch said nothing but picked up a datapad, stared at the first
"If you're reading this out of more than idle curiosity, you've
probably found yourself a Monumental artifact. Congratulations! Do you
know that 99.95% of explorers spend their lives looking for Monumental
artifacts and never locate a single one? You should be very pleased
with yourself. What follows below is a very basic guide to interpreting
the Monumental artifacts. Several points must be made in advance,
"First, even our top scientists have only figured out the
function of a fraction of the small amount of Monumental artifacts
we've uncovered. So, this guide will, by necessity, be quite limited,
though it will hopefully start you off in the right direction."
"Second, Monumental artifacts can be dangerous. In fact, death by
accidental handling of Monumental artifacts is the leading source of
death for archaeologists who specialize in the Monumentals. even
greater than aging dysfunction or Splat syndrome. That's why we
recommend that you leave the exploration of Monumental artifacts to
TRAINED PROFESSIONALS. However, we realize that due to cost or
practicality considerations trained professionals may not be available,
so we provide this text, which leads to our next point."
"Third, by purchasing this text you acknowledge the danger in
exploring Monumental artifacts and agree to indemnify James Starr,
Complete Imbeciles Publishing Ltd., and their officers, employees and
assigns from any death, injury, dismemberment, internal or external
combustion, defenistration, physical transformations, or unexpected
monsterisms that result from using the information contained in this
Space lawyers, Branch thought to herself. She flipped ahead to
read some of the text. There was a lot of information to absorb. She
read idly, while casting glances at the room. Chances are that someone
in this room was the Slurian spy. She glanced at Natasha, who was
reading intently. Larret appeared to be doing the same. Ensign Kenner
was engaged in idle banter with some of the other scientists. He looked
She returned to the text, only periodically looking up to see
what the others were doing.
Chapter 5 Awakening the Slumbering Menace
Two teams headed out the next day, one lead by Captain Carton and
Lieutenant Branch, and the other by Major Von and Half Commander
Filler. The combining of the security personnel with the naval officers
"Can you imagine how old this ship must be?" said Ensign Kenner.
"Really old," said Lieutenant Branner.
Both of them were on Captain Carton's team, exploring a different
sector of the enormous Monumental ship. They kept track of where they
were going by leaving a trail of nonessential pieces of the Tidy Sea
behind them. They had started out by crossing into the abandoned
destroyer, then into the docked alien ship, and from there into the
Monumental ship. As they passed through the destroyer they couldn't
help but see the cryptic message on the walls, 'Appreciate Beauty Above
All Else.' That's what was occupying Ensign Kenner's thoughts at the
"Why would someone keep writing the same message over and over?"
"Someone went mad," said Sergeant Torse, one of the security
officers. "They were stuck here and went mad."
"Going mad doesn't dissolve your body into muck," said Kenner.
"They were here for over 100 years. Perhaps their bodies
dissolved over time," said Torse.
"Normally, there would be skeletons," said Kenner. "Appreciate
beauty above all else... Appreciate beauty above all else...." He
looked at a gloomy corridor. "I don't see anything beautiful here."
Actually, however, they did come across something wondrously
beautiful, less than an hour later.
They entered a bright, shining room with consoles simply hanging
in the air. Just hanging there. Bright ribbons of different colored
light streamed around the room.
"What is this?" Carton asked. He turned to one of the scientists,
a man named Bayah. "Does the Imbecile's Guide talk about anything like
Bayah shook his head. "The consoles are up in the air. How does
anyone get access to them?"
"Maybe the Monumental could fly," said one crewmember.
"Or levitate," another said.
Ensign Kenner walked slowly into the room. He moved until he was
standing in a blue ribbon of light. Suddenly the room around him looked
blue. He looked up at the consoles above him. How did the Monumental
get up there? He tried jumping, but each jump only launched him a foot
into the air.
"We're wasting our time here," Carton decided. "We should try to
find a room where everything is on the ground."
He turned to go-
"Wait," said Kenner. "If we can just figure out a way to get up-"
At that moment, Kenner found himself lifting into the air on the blue
ribbon. Carton looked openmouthed as Kenner stopped in midair.
"How did you do that?" said Carton.
"I'm not sure," said Kenner. "All I said was that I wanted to go
up-" Suddenly, he was propelled a few more feet upwards.
"Voice commands?" said Bayah. "It understands our language?"
Kenner climbed a few more feet, but didn't say anything. He was
now at one of the consoles.
"How did you climb higher that time?" Carton asked. "You didn't
"No, but I thought it," said Kenner. "There must be some sort of
interface that interprets our thoughts."
"Well don't touch anything," said Carton. "Wait for us to come
"You can be sure I won't touch a thing," said Kenner,
remembering what had happened to Nears.
Several others, including Bayah, floated up and took a position
at one of the floating consoles. They examined the consoles for close
to an hour.
"Any ideas," Carton asked.
Bayah shook his head. "The Complete Imbecile's guide says that
generally larger buttons are more important than smaller ones. But that
doesn't tell me what any of these buttons do. If I press one, a bolt
could come out and impale me."
"We have to do something," said Carton quietly.
Bayah looked up and matched stares with Carton. Slowly, he
Reaching over, he put his hand over a button. Looking very
nevously around, he pressed it, cringing.
Nothing happened. They all waited a moment. Still nothing.
Bayah took a breath and reached down and pressed another button.
Suddenly, he was bathed in a light.
"Oh!" he said, suddenly becoming rigid.
"What's happening?" Carton asked anxiously.
"I... I don't know," said Bayah. "I'm... seeing colors..."
"I don't see any colors," said Carton. For all they could see,
Bayah was bathed in a white light.
"It's incredible, the array of colors." Reaching over, Bayah
pressed another button. "Ooooh.... the color schemes are incredible.
The sheer richness of the colors, the intensity."
"It must be projecting directly into his mind," said Branner.
Bayah experimented with a few more buttons, and soon found he
could hear things the others couldn't. "Incredible music, simply
incredible! I can't identify the instruments, but... I've never heard
sounds so... mellifluous...."
Several of the others took turns at the console, listening to the
music and viewing the colorful images. The richness of the images and
the music was like nothing they had ever seen or heard.
"This is nice, but we need technical information," said Carton.
"Maybe one of these other consoles provides other information." Taking
a breath, he floated over to another console, and pushed a button.
Carton was bathed in a white light, and-
He experienced the rich colors again.
All the consoles seemed to be keyed to color and sound.
"That seems like a rather simplistic sort of entertainment, for
such an advanced race," said Croft, interrupting his own story.
"Yes, I imagine it would appear that way to you," said the
Meddler Capybara, his voice dripping with condescension.
"And what does that mean?"
"The humans only saw what their (tweatle tweatle) were capable of
"So... more advanced minds would be able to see higher forms of
art," said Croft.
"Exactly," said the Meddler.
"You know, for someone who's on our side, you can be quite
annoying," said Croft.
"I have heard the same said about you, young Clifford," said the
"Will you please get back to the story? Dori asked.
While Carton's team was exploring the consoles, Major Von's team
was in another part of the giant ship. They came to the edge of a
platform and could not help but gasp.
They were on a platform the edge of the hull, and as far as the
eye could see the hull was transparent, showing a huge sky of
multicolor gasses. The vast openness made them feel as if they were in
space, and some of them started to get dizzy.
"Careful," Von snapped. For they were on a dark platform, and
looking down below and in front of them they had an unobstructed view
of miles and miles of ship. Different parts of the ship were lit in
different ways, making it look like an enormous futuristic city.
"It's so big," one of the scientists muttered.
"And so quiet," said another.
"We have to figure out a way to get down there," said Von.
"I don't see any way," said Half Commander Filler.
"Wait," said one of the naval officers. "I see a walkway of some
In the gloom they made out a thin strip right next to the area
they were standing. A small ramp connected the two. Filler walked up
the ramp and looked out onto the small strip. It wasn't more than three
or four feet wide, but went on as long as the eye could see.
Filler took a step onto the strip and said, "I suppose we could
walk along this for a while-" when all of a sudden he gave a shout and
his body started to speed forward across the strip. The others watched
as he sped away, until he was a tiny dot.
All was silent for a moment. Everyone looked at each other. What
had just happened? Was Filler safely somewhere else, or had he fallen
off the narrow strip?
No one was eager to step onto the strip and find out for
They stayed there for several minutes, calling Filler's name.
There was no response.
Von took a deep breath. "I don't see what else we can do. Maybe
Suddenly they heard something and saw a figure coming out of the
gloom, fast. The naval officers raised their weapons. A lone figure
sped down the strip towards them, and then slowed and came to a stop.
Half Commander Filler stepped off the strip.
"Am I glad to see you guys," he said simply.
He told them how he had sped down the thin platform, but had
jumped off a platform along side the strip. "There are a number of
those along the strip, I think that's where people get on and off,"
"How did you get back?" Von asked.
"I simply got back on the strip again, stepping in the direction
I came," said Filler. "Want to give it a try? I think it's reasonably
safe, if you stand still while you're in motion. I think we can cover a
lot more ground this way."
Von considered, and then nodded.
They took the strip deep into the Monumental ship, getting off on
a strip a mile away.
"That's amazing," said Filler. "We did all that distance in what,
They found themselves in a different area of the ship. It seemed
to be more brightly lit here, and more of the rooms had consoles in
Von noticed a set of controls in one of the corridors which was
unusual, as most of the consoles were in rooms. "What do you make of
this?" he asked Natasha.
She studied the controls. "I have no idea," she said honestly.
"I suppose we can only find out by pressing something," said Von.
"Do I have any volunteers?"
They all knew what had happened to Nears. There were none.
Von nodded. They would have to trust that random chance would be
on their side. He reached out and pressed a button. Nothing happened.
He looked for the largest button on the console, and pressed
For a moment, nothing appeared to happen. Then they felt a slight
rumble. They heard a small roar in the distance. The lights flickered
for a moment, and then went out.
The crew looked at each other and activated their hand flashes.
After a few seconds, the lights came on again.
Then they heard a thump, like something hitting a wall.
Then they heard another thump, like something hitting a wall
And another one after that, louder, like metal was being bashed
The thumping sound grew closer, and the light started to flicker
at the very far end of the long corridor. The thumping sound grew
closer, and the lights flickered closer to them.
They started to feel a very distant wind that chilled their
The flickering of the light moved still closer to them.
"I think... we should leave," said Filler.
Von nodded. "Everyone move! Back to the strip!"
They ran to the strip. The wind was blowing more strongly now.
The thumping noise had stopped, but the flickering of the lights was
only a few dozen feet away now.
The first crewman leapt onto the strip, and headed off. The
others quickly followed.
Von was the last onto the strip, and he thought he saw a
disturbance in the air from the area they had just left. He stepped
onto the platform and it took him away. He was now grateful that the
strip moved him so fast. In seconds he was speeding away from the area.
"So let me get this straight," said Captain Carton, when they had
met back on the Tidy Sea. "You got frightened because the lights
flickered and you heard a noise?"
"It wasn't like that," said Major Von, gulping. "I can't explain
it. You had to be there."
Carton studied the other members of Von's team. They all seem
genuinely frightened. Whatever they had experienced, it obviously had
been more than some sounds and flickering lights.
"You said you pressed a button. Perhaps you activated some
automated machinery," said Carton.
"It didn't sound like machinery," said Von. "It sounded like...."
"Like something alive," said Von.
Carton considered. "Did any of you actually see anything pursuing
The crew shook their heads.
"Then I think we have to go back."
"Back?" said Von.
"You've found a quick way to get to the interior of the ship,"
said Von. "Until and unless we discover that there's something hostile
there, we've got to use that to explore the ship. We're still using up
battery power to sustain life support; we can't afford to delay. We
still haven't located their power generator section; but you say that
area was more well-lit, so maybe you've gotten close."
"Perhaps you'd like to lead the next expedition to that area,"
"We'll all go," said Carton.
The meeting broke up into smaller groups.
Kenner went up to Filler. "What exactly did you guys come
Filler sat glumly nursing a cup of gauche. "I don't know, Ken.
All I know is that there's something waiting for us there, and I don't
want to go back."
"Sounds charming," said Kenner. He looked up, and caught
Lieutenant Branch staring at him. He raised an eyebrow; she looked
Chapter 6: The Monumental Reactor Core
The next day they once again walked through the abandoned
destroyer on their way to the Monumental ship. Once again Kenner
couldn't help notice the 'Appreciate Beauty Above All Else' message
repeated over and over. One thing he noticed this time; as they walked
towards the alien ship that was docked with the destroyer, the message
grew smaller and smaller. Was there some consistency, or purpose behind
They made their way to the strip and headed off. This time they
proceeded farther into the ship, past the area where Von's team had
encountered... whatever it was they had encountered. Carton had them
get off on a platform that was nearly a half mile deeper into the ship.
"All right," he said. "My team will go to the area on the left of
the strip. Major, take your team to the right."
Kenner headed off with Von. There had been some unexplained
shuffling of the team, but all of a sudden he had found himself on
Von's team. Branch was there too.
"Let me guess. This Kenner is the Slurian spy," said Starr.
Croft raised an eyebrow.
"Well, he's a junior officer, and for a junior officer, you keep
mentioning him," said Starr. "That's a logical assumption."
"Yes, it is," 200L confirmed.
"Thank you, 200L," said Starr.
"Now, may I continue with the story?" said Croft
Carton's team heard it before they saw it; the loud sound of
crackling. And as they got closer, they felt strong vibrations, and
started to see flashes of light. When they finally got there, they
couldn't help but gasp.
They were in an enormous room, even by Monumental standards,
perhaps 20 stories high, and a half mile both in width and length. The
room was filled with what looked like large rods that were sputtering
electric current, blue arcs that leapt from one rod to another.
"I think we found their generator," Carton said softly. He
watched the current dance around from pole to pole. There were walkways
between the poles, but they didn't look very safe. He eyed the walkway
along the edge of the room. That seemed reasonably safe. It seemed to
lead to an area with consoles and machinery. That could be just what
they were looking for!
The team walked cautiously along the catwalk. As they turned a
corner they saw row after row of humming machinery and consoles.
"All right team," said Carton grimly. "It's time to get to work."
"This is really dark," said Major Von. His hand flash barely
penetrated more than two feet into the room. Very little more could be
said. The room was totally, totally dark.
"Maybe we should try to bypass it," said Lieutenant Branch.
Von shook his head. "We're at a dead end; we'd have to go back
the way we came."
"Do you think there's a room beyond this one?" said Branch. "I
don't see anything."
"Let's take a short walk into it, cautiously," said Von.
He took one step, and then another, and another. Suddenly, he
felt an absence of floor under his foot, and hastily pulled back.
"What-" he said, shining the flash down.
There was a large, square dark hole in the floor.
"Careful, people," said Von.
There proved to be a number of holes in the floor. They looked
like they had always been there, though why the Monumental would build
a room with holes in the floor wasn't clear. They cautiously navigated
the room, keeping their hand flashes down, and in a moment they reached
the far side.
Then, like a curtain being lifted, they saw a light. They once
again found themselves in a corridor.
"Is this the way we came?" said Natasha. "Perhaps we got turned
"No, this is new," said Branch. "Look at all those exits off of
the corridor." Along one side of the corridor were a number of dimly
They entered one of them. The room was large, but was a deadend,
not leading to any other rooms. But what specifically interested Kenner
was that the front of the room had a large window showing the nebula,
and a series of slightly familiar consoles.
"I don't think this is just another room," said Kenner slowly.
Branch looked at the controls, and then the window. "You
"A shuttle of some kind," said Kenner. "Or some kind of small,
independent vessel. Check the doorway; can it be closed?"
Branch went to the doorway, noticed a button. She pressed it, and
a door hissed shut behind them.
"Open it!" snapped Von.
Branch pressed the button again. The door opened.
"That was dangerous," said Von. "You could have sealed us in
"This could be our ticket out of here," said Kenner. "If we can
figure out how to fly this bird, we can escape."
"We don't know what range this thing has," said Von. "It would
also be a tight squeeze for two dozen crewmen. And what about the A-1
"What about them?" said Kenner.
"If we take this ship, we couldn't take the A-1 missile
prototypes with us," said Von.
"We could take the scientists, and the schematics," said Kenner.
"I'd call that a tactical victory, given the circumstances."
"We'll have to discuss this with the Captain," said Von.
"How is it going?" said Carton. Chief Engineer Branner was
studying one of the consoles intently. Without answering, he pressed a
Suddenly, the number and size of the currents leaping from rod to
rod grew in intensity. The sounds of the power grew louder too, and the
flashes started to blind them. Bolts of power started to flicker above
"Shut it off, shut it off!" Carton yelled.
Branner pressed the same button. The current grew even more
intense. He pressed another button. Nothing happened.
"Keep trying!" Carton yelled. He ducked as a power bolt whizzed
above his head.
Branner pressed another button. The intensity and size of the
bolts started to diminish; he pressed the button again, and they
Carton allowed himself the luxury of exhaling. "I'm glad to see
you're getting the hang of things."
"One of these machines," said Branner, indicating the rows of
machines, "May hold the parts we need. But it's going to take some time
to try to figure them out."
"Well, at least we've found the place to start," said Carton.
"Get your men working."
The crew branched out, each examining different rows of
Two naval crewmembers, Ensign Janner and Crewman Moldar, were
studying one machine when a wind blew by them.
"Did you feel that?" Janner asked.
"What?" said Moldar. He frowned. "I feel it now too. Like a wind.
Maybe it's produced by these electrical currents."
"The electrical currents are that way," said Janner, pointing in
front of them. "The wind is pointing that way," he said, pointing back
to a corridor that led deeper into the ship.
They both looked at each other for a moment.
"-Report," came the crackly voice over the comm. "Meet us at our
position," Von could barely make out.
"All right, let's pack things up here," said Von.
"But we've barely gotten started on understanding these
controls," said one of the scientists.
"We can get back to this later. The Captain wants us to
rendezvous with him. It sounds like he's found something big."
"Did he say what?" said Natasha asked.
"No," said Von. "Let's go."
They started back towards the dark room. When they went inside,
everything went completely black again. Only by pointing their hand
flashes down could they see the dark holes in the floor.
Von, who was in the front, was almost across the room when he
heard a scream.
"What was that?" he shouted.
He heard voices from the others, but couldn't see them. "Get to
the other side of the room, now!" he yelled.
He made it to the other side and blinked in the light. One by one
they made it across, until nine people stood there.
"Who's missing?" said Von sharply.
"Bayah," said Kenner quickly.
"Did anyone see what happened to him?" said Von. But he could
already guess the answer. No one could see more than a foot or two in
front of them.
"Who was right behind him?" Von asked. "I went in first."
"I went in second," said Branch.
There was a silence. Then Kenner cleared his throat and said, "I
believe Bayah was behind you."
"How do you know that?" said Branch.
"Because I was behind Bayah," said Kenner. "But I didn't see him
when I entered the room. The darkness is so complete there, that unless
he was inches in front of me I wouldn't have seen him."
Von made an instant decision. "Everyone wait here while Branch
and I go inside and try to look for him. Nobody move until we return."
Von and Branch clicked on their hand flashes and reentered the
dark area. They could hear both of them calling out Bayah's name.
Kenner and the others waited silently for several minutes as they heard
Bayah's name repeated over and over.
Von and Branch eventually returned, clicking off their hand
flashes. Nothing needed to be said. Bayah was gone.
"He must have fallen down," said one of the naval crewmen.
"How far down do you think those holes go?" said Natasha.
"There's no way to know," said Branch. "Our hand flashes don't
penetrate more than two feet in that room." She was staring at Kenner
as she spoke. He stared defiantly back at her.
The impasse was only broken when Von said quietly, "Come on.
We've got to meet up with the Captain."
They made their way back to the accelerating strip, jumped
across, and followed the trail left by Carton's team.
Carton stood with his back to a corridor as he listened to a
report from Branner.
"-We'll need precision cutting equipment to get into these
machines," said Branner.
Suddenly, Carton felt a coldness against his back, as if a sudden
wind were blowing.
"Is that really necessary?" Carton said. "You might damage the
Carton felt a wave of fear; but he didn't understand why. He felt
as if he were being watched.
"There's no choice," said Branner. "We can't figure out-"
Carton drowned out Branner's voice as his fear mounted.
"-blasters won't work because they can't cut as finely."
Carton felt something cold, bitter behind him. His back was to
it! He drew his blaster, spun around-
The corridor was empty.
"Sir?" said Branner, looking puzzled.
Carton studied the scene for a moment. The corridor really was
empty. The wind was gone.
Carton slowly holstered his blaster. "Nothing. Sorry."
At that moment Von's team came down the walkway.
"Look what we found!" said Branner, gesturing with his arms. Then
he noticed Von's expression. "What?"
"We lost Bayah."
"How?" Carton asked.
"He apparently fell down a hole in a dark area," said Branch.
"A dark area?"
"Our hand flashes were barely effectual," said Von. "But what's
beyond it is what's interesting. We think we've found a ship's boat."
"A ship's boat?"
"Or a shuttle of some sort," said Von. "Actually, several of
them. If we can't fix the ship, maybe we can get out on one of those."
"Good... good work," said Carton, processing the information
rapidly. "But our primary efforts should go to getting our generator
fixed. If we take this shuttle, we won't be able to take the A-1
prototypes, will we?"
Von shook his head.
"Actually, sir, now that we've found this place, only the
engineering staff will be helpful," said Branner. "That is, if we can
even decipher this machinery. If I were you, I'd send a few people to
try to figure out how this ship's boat works, in case we're not
"You don't sound optimistic," said Carton.
"I'm not," said Branner. "This is a radically different
technology that we don't understand at all. The chances of being able
to adapt it to our technology are slim at best."
Carton nodded. "We'll knock off for the day. We have to go back
anyway to get a laser torch. When we come back, we'll send a second
team to the ship's boat. Are you of the opinion that this dark room can
be navigated safely?"
Von nodded. "If one walks very slowly and keeps the hand flash
pointed down, yes."
"All right, then let's get back."
Kenner noted that Branch walked right behind him all the way back
to the ship. Her hostility was obvious.
They walked back to the entrance port, through the alien ship,
and through the alien destroyer, once again seeing that cryptic message
about beauty. What was that all about?
When they got back to the ship Branch had a private meeting with
"I think it was Kenner," she said bluntly.
"Wouldn't that be a little obvious?" Von asked. "After all, he
did enter the room right behind her. Furthermore, any of the others who
entered after Kenner could have gone ahead and pushed Bayah. That's
assuming, of course, that Bayah was pushed."
"I believe he was pushed," said Branch grimly.
"So what do you want to do, throw Kenner in the brig?" said Von.
"Wait, I forget, this is a merchant ship, it has no brig."
"Sir, with respect, I don't find this amusing."
"I think you're jumping to conclusions without evidence," said
Von. "I am much less certain about what has happened than you. We are
on a dangerous and unexplored Monumental ship. Each casualty we've
suffered could have been the result of an accident."
"What about the Slurian attack on the ship?"
"That might indicate we have a traitor on board," said Von. "Or,
it could indicate that someone on London II tipped them off."
"Sir, how can you-"
"I'm not saying we don't have a saboteur, but I am saying we have
to have an open mind, and not make any accusations until we have proof.
Now, how do you want to proceed?"
"I want to search Kenner's locker," said Branch.
"I think you'll have an opportunity to do so discretely at dinner
tonight," said Von. "But remember, Lieutenant, have an open mind."
At dinner that night Branch snuck into the empty barracks
section. Kenner shared quarters with the late Lieutenant Nears. She
entered and started searching through his possessions. There were spare
uniforms, boots... and not much else. No personal effects. Odd.
The other thing she noticed was the datapad. She picked it up,
turning it on.
"-and so I said to the Half Commander, no sir, you can press the
button," said Kenner.
The other crewmen around him laughed.
Out of the corner of his eye Kenner caught a glimpse of something
flashing on his wrist comm. He casually lowered his arm below the table
and a few seconds later looked down. There was a flashing orange light.
Kenner raised an eyebrow.
There was an password code on the pad, but Branch plugged in a
program that had it deciphered in under a moment. Then she punched up
the central directory, and took a deep breath-
There were officer memos, letters from home, and some online
texts. Perhaps some contained coded material?
She quickly brought one up, started scanning it-
"Maybe I can help."
Branch spun around with her blaster up. Ensign Kenner stood
there, looking very mildly. He looked down at the blaster. "Is that for
Kenner, like the rest of the crew, was armed, but his blaster was
well holstered. Slowly, Branch lowered her blaster.
Kenner cleared his throat.
Branch looked puzzled.
Kenner looked meaningfully at his datapad.
Branch slowly handed it over.
"Why do I think you suspect me of wrongdoing?" Kenner asked.
"There's something odd about you, Kenner," said Branch.
"Really? What would that be?"
"I don't know," said Branch. "But for one thing, you don't strike
me as a typical League Ensign. You look too old, for one thing."
Kenner chuckled. "With the anti-aging drug, isn't chronological
appearance a bit subjective? But if you must know, you're correct.
Check my file and you'll see that I had a very fulfilling career before
joining the League."
"What kind of career?"
Kenner paused. "A cook," he said suddenly. "I was a cook."
"Interesting," said Branch. "That a cook would want to join the
"Even the military needs to eat."
"But you're not a cook on this ship, you're the navigator."
"In an emergency I can cook too."
"You're very good with a quick answer."
"And you're very good with a quick question."
Branch edged her way out towards the door, making sure her back
was never to him. "I'll be watching you."
"And loving every minute of it, I expect," said Kenner.
After she left, Kenner paused, as if he were considering a course
of action. Then he went to the datapad and pressed a series of buttons
in rapid succession. Then he punched up a directory. A very different
directory appeared from the one that Branch had been looking at.....
The next day two smaller teams went out. Captain Carton and an
engineering team led by Lieutenant Branner and three other engineers
went back to the Monumental reactor area. Major Von, Lieutenant Branch,
Ensign Kenner, Natasha, and two scientists named Larret and Warit went
back to the shuttle area. As a precaution, they crossed the dark room
two at a time, with each pair tied to each other. This was Lieutenant
Branch's idea. She presented it as a safety precaution; but her real
agenda was to make it difficult for a single person to push another
down one of those holes. If one person tried to push another, the
person's partner would be close enough to see it, unless the person
untied himself, in which case that would be a giveaway as well.
Not surprisingly, no one was lost crossing the dark area.
"All right," said Von. "Let's get to work on figuring out how
this shuttle works."
Lieutenant Branner had heavy goggles on as he used the laser
torch; two aisles away, another crewman was cutting open another piece
"Be careful," said Carton, over the noise of the torch. "You
don't want to damage the machinery inside."
"What?" said Branner.
Carton raised his voice. "I said, you don't want to damage-"
With a clang, the side of the machine opened up and fell on the
deck, revealing the undamaged interior.
Branner gave a grin.
In moments the other team had opened up the other machine. It
took only that long for Branner's grin to fade.
"What's wrong?" said Carton.
"I had hoped that this was generator machinery, given its
proximity to those," said Branner, pointing to the giant rods in the
distance that were spitting out blue bolts of energy.
"And it's not?" said Carton.
"Have a look," said Branner.
Carton peered in the machine. He saw very brightly colored...
somethings. He wasn't sure what he was looking at.
"I don't even know what to call them," said Branner. "I have no
idea what they do."
"Can't you test them, by hooking them up to some of our
Branner grimaced. "Maybe... unlikely, but it's possible."
"What about taking the whole generator to our ship."
"That?" said Branner. "How would we carry it?"
Carton said, "We could dissemble it."
"If we dissemble it, I'm not sure we could reassemble it," said
Branner. "I don't want to disappoint you, but I'm an engineer on a
destroyer. This stuff is way way out of my league."
Carton tried to contain his frustration. He kept silent for a
moment, and then said, "All right. Try to figure out what specific
"I'll need to return to the ship to get some testing equipment."
Carton sighed. That would mean nearly an hour to get back, some
time to get the equipment, and nearly an hour to return. "Maybe we
should all go back."
"No, some of my people can get started by removing components for
testing," said Branner. "I'll go back with one of my engineers."
"All right," Carton nodded. "But try and be quick about it." He
looked around. There was something he didn't like about this place.
"It beats me," said Larret, looking at the shuttle's controls.
"There are much fewer controls here than in other areas we've
encountered," said Major Von.
"I still can't know for sure how they work."
"Why don't you try pressing something?" said Von.
"This is a shuttle. What if I ignited the engines while we were
still attached?" Larret said.
"Oh," said Von. "There should be failsafes, shouldn't there?"
"If this were a League ship? Of course," said Larret. He left the
"The logical thing to do is for all of us to leave except for one
who will try the different controls," said Natasha.
"Sounds good," said Kenner. "I volunteer."
"You seem quite eager to volunteer," said Branch.
"I'm quite eager to leave," said Kenner.
"I'll go," said Natasha. "It was my idea."
Von nodded. "All right."
"I will try to test the systems without activating the engines,"
They all went into the corridor, and closed the door behind them.
There they stood, and waited.
Branner and his assistant walked back to the ship. He was
suddenly conscious of the fact that there was just the two of them,
alone. They had never walked in the Monumental ship in such small
numbers. For a moment he thought he felt a dim wind at his back, which
raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
He stopped, turning around, and the wind immediately died.
"What?" said his assistant.
Branner shook his head, and started forward again. "Let's walk
Carton felt uneasy the moment Branner left, and his uneasiness
only grew over time. The two other engineers continued to work. Carton
had this feeling... like he was being watched. Maybe it was the
enormity of the Monumental ship. He was used to small, confined spaces.
Here the reactor area was so big; there was plenty of space for
anything to be hiding in the shadows.
Carton heard rising voices in the next aisle of machinery.
Suddenly, they grew to shouts and yells, and Carton entered the aisle
just in time to see someone running in a distance.
"Come back!" said one of the engineers, crewman Tenner, yelling
after his fleeing companion.
"What happened?" Carton barked.
"It's Jenkins, sir," said Tenner. "He just ran off."
Carton looked down the catwalk. It was empty now. Jenkins had
left in a hurry.
"What do you mean, he just ran off?"
"He started mumbling something about being uncomfortable," said
Tenner. "It's understandable, I felt it too. But then he started
moaning that they were out to get him, that he was being hunted."
"Hunted?" said Carton quickly. "By what?"
"I don't know, sir. Then he yelled that he had to get out of
here, and he just left."
Carton drew his blaster. "Come with me," he said.
They made their way down the catwalk. There was no sign of
Jenkins. They went on a little farther, and then Carton stopped. It was
as if Jenkins had disappeared into thin air.
"He could be anywhere," said Carton. "Lieutenant Branner is
expecting us back at the reactor area. Let's wait for him to return
before we go running off."
"We can't help Jenkins if we get lost as well," said Carton. "Now
"Nothings happening," Branch said.
Kenner gave an irritating smile. "You mean, we don't notice
"Is there a difference?" Branch said.
"If Natasha has figured out the ship's systems, that doesn't mean
we'll feel the roar of the engines or get some other tangible sign."
"It's been nearly an hour," said Von. "Let's go back inside."
They pressed the button to open the door and reentered the
shuttle. Natasha was where they left her, at a console studying
buttons. "Not yet," she said, not looking up.
"Have you even tried pushing any buttons?" Kenner asked.
"A number of them," Natasha said. "There was no result."
"The Complete Imbecile's guide says that sometimes pushing
buttons in different combinations can produce different results," said
"I'm glad we have a complete imbecile to guide us," said Natasha,
with only the hint of a Slurian accent.
Kenner closed the door behind them. "Let me give it a try."
Lieutenant Branner returned to find Carton and Tenner looking
grim. "What's wrong? And where's Jenkins?"
"You didn't see him on the way back?" Carton asked.
Branner looked troubled. "No. Should I have?"
"He went crazy," said Carton. "Stoked up on fear, and he just
cracked. Ran off."
Branner said, "Did you see... anything else?"
"No," said Carton.
"Do you want to look for him while I work on the generator?"
Carton had been considering taking that course of action. He
looked around. The ship was so big. "No," he decided. "He could be
anywhere. We'll just have to hope he comes to his senses and returns."
"Presuming, of course, that he hasn't gotten lost," said Branner.
He bit his lip, and turned to his work.
At dinner that night the mood was grim. Everyone wondered what
had happened to Jenkins.
"People have been known to snap under stress," said Half
Commander Filler. "And we are under a ton of it here."
"But why there, and why at that particular time?" said Ensign
Filler shrugged. "It can happen at any time."
"Do you think he's still alive?"
"As we've seen there are a number of lethal hazards on this
ship," said Captain Carton. "But I think that yes, he probably still is
"Does he have any food?"
"No," said Carton. "Perhaps hunger will drive him to return to
"Or make him crazier," said Kenner. He turned to Branner. "What
progress did you make on the machinery?"
Branner gave him a tired look. "None."
"We cut the machines open, and started testing parts, but I can't
make any sense of it."
"So far," said Carton. "You've only been at it for less than a
"Yeah," said Branner. He turned to Kenner. "What luck did you
have with the shuttle? That should be easier, you're not cutting open
equipment, simply using control panels."
"You'd think that would be easier, wouldn't you?" said Kenner,
looking at Natasha. She looked away.
"It's going to take time," said Carton. "We have to be patient."
No one was in the mood to be feeling patient that night.
If the crew was jittery, they became even more so when they heard
a thumping noise at the door separating the ship from the abandoned
Crewman Moldar was on guard, alone. He instantly jumped back and
thumped the alert button. The ship's alarm rang harshly as the crew,
most of them half-asleep, ran for the docking port.
Carton was among the first to arrive, half dressed and carrying a
blaster. "What?" he said.
"A thumping noise, from the door, Captain," Moldar gulped.
"Did you open the door?"
"No way!" said Moldar.
The crew talked in low voices among themselves.
"Quiet!" Carton barked. He listened for a moment. "I don't hear
"I'm telling you I heard something," said Moldar.
"Do you think it's Jenkins?" said Filler.
"Maybe. Let's see what's there," said Carton. He raised his
blaster, as did everyone else with a clear shot of the door. Carton
nodded, and Moldar thumbed the contact.
The door slowly opened, revealing the blackness of the destroyer
interior. Several hand flashes panned the interior. Nothing.
"Is anyone there?" said Carton.
There was no answer.
Kenner raised a hand scanner.
"Anything?" said Carton.
Kenner paused, then said, "No. Not a thing."
"I'm telling you there was something banging against the door,"
"I believe you," said Carton. "Close the door and seal it," he
Everyone gave a sigh of relief when the door closed.
From that moment on every night watch had not one but two crewmen
on guard duty.
Chapter 7: Stranded
With only 23 crewmembers left (not counting Jenkins), two larger
teams of ten each were sent out the next day. There was some dissension
among crewmembers who felt that they were abandoning Jenkins, since the
Captain wouldn't authorize the search party. But most of the crew
either understood that the Monumental ship was too large for them to
search, or was secretly glad that they wouldn't have to roam those
sinister corridors any longer than they had to.
This time when Major Von's team got to the shuttle they explored
a little further, and found what appeared to be other shuttle entrances
along a long corridor. They split up into three subteams to explore
three of the shuttles. Kenner found himself with Branch and Moldar in a
smaller version of the other shuttle. This shuttle had only one control
panel, while the other shuttle had had five.
"You think this is a smaller shuttle?" said Moldar.
"Maybe," said Kenner. "Or an escape pod."
"An escape pod," said Moldar, sounding disappointed.
"If it is, the controls should be simpler," said Kenner. As if to
demonstrate, he pressed a button. A screen lit up, showing alien
"Eh?" said Kenner. "Can I cook, or can't I?"
They spend much of the day on the console, making slow but steady
progress in figuring out the controls. Near the end of the day they
thought they had a rough idea what perhaps a quarter of the panel did.
Their sense of self-congratulation was interrupted by a scream.
They ran out of the pod, blasters drawn. They caught a glimpse of
someone disappearing into the dark room at a run. Several other crewmen
skidded to a halt just outside the dark room.
"Who's running in there so quickly? He'll get himself killed!"
"It's Crewman Benton," said Von. "Come on, we've got to go after
him." He activated his hand flash.
They entered the dark room. Despite their sense of urgency, they
went slowly, cautiously, getting to the other side of the room in just
a few moments.
Branch was mildly satisfied to see that all nine of them had
crossed over safely. But when they got there, there was no sign of
"Do you think he fell in?" Branch asked.
Von shook his head. "We didn't hear him scream or fall. I think
he got through."
"While running?" said Branch.
"Nothing is for certain. Come on."
They retraced their route back to the accelerator strip. There
was no sign of Benton.
"This is no good; he could have gone in any direction," said
Major Von. He turned to Sergeant Torse, his fellow security officer.
"It's almost time to return to the Tidy Sea. We'll make a 20 minute
sweep of the area. The rest of you wait here."
"We should all go together," said Branch.
"There are nine of us; if we start running down corridors, more
of us could become separated," said Von. "If the seven of you stay
here, there's no chance of that happening."
"That's an order, Lieutenant; we'll only be gone 20 minutes,"
said Von. He turned to Sergeant Torse. "Come on, Sergeant."
They headed off.
Branch turned to Natasha. "You were with Benton. What happened?"
"He started screaming that 'it' were out to get him."
"Your guess is as good as mine, Lieutenant," said Natasha. "He
became hysterical and started running."
"Did you notice anything odd right before this?"
"No," said Natasha. "Well, nothing really."
"What?" said Branch. "Even the smallest thing...."
"I did feel a cold breeze...."
They waited 20 minutes for Von to return.
They waited 30 minutes.
They waited an hour.
"He's not coming back," said Kenner.
Branch glared at him but said nothing.
"We have to go back," said Kenner.
"No!" said Branch. "We have to look for them-"
Kenner grabbed her by the arms. "If we go looking for them, we
may get lost too."
"No," said Branch, pulling away. "We're going after them. I
"Try to think rationally, Lieutenant," said Kenner. "We started
out as a party of ten. We lost one, became a party of nine. Now we lost
two, and are a party of seven. Don't you see what's going on here?"
Branch turned away for a moment.
Then she turned back to face him. Looking pained, she nodded
slowly. "All right."
No one else objected before they boarded the accelerator strip to
take them home.
"Gone," said Carton, stunned. "Major Von?"
They had just linked up back at the Tidy Sea and Carton was
clearly not taking the news very well.
"He went after Benton with Sergeant Torse," said Lieutenant
Branch. "He said he would only be gone 20 minutes. He never came back.
I say we launch a search party to find him."
Carton still looked out of it.
Half Commander Filler filled the silence. "The ship is simply too
big. If we had a hundred searchers we couldn't hope to cover the ship
in several weeks."
"But as it so happens we only have 20 left," said Kenner coolly.
They all looked at him.
"Well, that's the truth," said Kenner. "And if we don't want to
join our friends, I suggest we get out of here while we still can."
"How?" Filler asked.
"I've found what looks like an escape pod, and made some headway
in deciphering the controls."
"An escape pod!" said Branner. "But would that have enough power
to get us out of the nebula?"
"I don't know," said Kenner. "And there's another problem. The
escape pod can only fit four or five people, tops."
They all looked at each other.
"What about the shuttle controls?" Branner asked.
"It's still a mystery to us," said Natasha. "They are much more
complicated than the pod's."
"Do you know enough to operate the pod's controls?" Branner
"No, but give me another three or four days and I think I will,"
"Who would stay and who would go?" Natasha asked.
"That's something we don't have to decide," said Branch. "Because
we're not abandoning the A-1 missiles."
"If that's what we have to do to survive, we most definitely
will," said Branner.
"I'm the senior security officer here," said Branch, suddenly
feeling the weight on her shoulders. With Von and Torse gone, she was
suddenly the ONLY security officer left.
"You're not in charge," said Branner.
"That's correct," said Carton, speaking for the first time in a
while. His voice was quiet, but it immediately silenced everyone.
"Lieutenant Branner, what do you think the prospects are for utilizing
the Monumental generator equipment?"
"Limited," said Branner.
"Are you satisfied that you can't get any of it to work?"
Branner paused. "Truthfully, I'd need at least a day or two more
to be sure. But the chances are slim to none."
"Sir?" said Kenner.
"You say you'll need three days to finish figuring out the pod's
"At least," said Kenner.
"Since that means we'll be here for at least three more days,
Lieutenant Branner, you can use that time to experiment further. If we
can't figure out a solution in that time then we will use the pod."
There was a babble of voices. "Who gets to go and who stays
behind?" "Why can't we simply take our chances in the Tidy Sea?" "What
"Quiet!" said Carton. "Who gets to go will be decided by me, when
and if the time comes. As for the Tidy Sea, we no longer even have
enough battery power left to clear the nebula. That's no longer an
option. Now I suggest you get some rest. It's going to be a long day
The crew's morale couldn't get any lower that evening. For the
first hour after dinner all they could talk about was who was going to
get to ride in the pod.
"The scientists, he'll send the scientists, naturally," said
Kenner. "Us regular navy types are expendable."
"No offense, but our information is vital to the League's war
effort," said Lerret.
"That doesn't make any of us feel better," said Filler.
"What do you think happened to him?" said Branch. She was having
a private meeting with Captain Carton.
He sighed. "I don't know. The only bit of good news I can find in
all of this is that I don't think it's our saboteur."
"Then what is it?" Branch asked.
"What killed the crews of all these other ships?" Carton asked.
"We haven't seen anyone killed," said Branch. "We don't know that
any of them are dead."
Carton gave her a cynical look. "Von was an capable officer. If
he were alive, he would have found his way back here by now."
"What do you think is out there?"
"A thing... a... something," said Carton. "I've had the feeling
several times over the past few days of being... watched. Haven't you?"
"Once or twice, in a vague way," said Branch. "I chalked it up to
"Maybe that's it," said Carton. "Maybe there's something in this
ship that's just making us crazy. That's why we have to leave as
quickly as possible."
"All right," said Branch. "But as the surviving security officer,
I have to keep an eye out for our Slurian spy. And Ensign Kenner is at
the top of the suspect list."
"Kenner?" said Carton, looking surprised.
"What?" said Branch.
"No, I think you're on the wrong track with Kenner," said Carton.
"I really don't think he's the one you're looking for."
"What makes you say that?" Branch asked.
Carton was about to speak further, when there was a buzz at the
door. "Come," said Carton.
It was Half Commander Filler. "Trouble with the crew, sir."
The crew didn't want to go out again. They were worried that
whatever happened to Major Von would happen to them.
"Get a grip on yourselves," snapped Captain Carton, speaking to
the assembled crew in the messhall. "You're League and Alliance
crewmembers, start acting appropriately. We're under a lot of pressure,
but we've got to do our duty."
"I don't want to go back there, sir," said a crewman.
"You WILL go back there, Crewman Gasha," said Carton. "You will
go back because if we all stay here we shall surely die. But more
importantly, you will go back because you are ordered to and if you
disobey my orders you will face a summary court martial. Am I
Crewman Gasha nodded.
"Is there anyone else who doesn't understand their duty?"
The room was silent.
"Then I suggest you all get some sleep," said Carton. "We have
another long day ahead of us."
The next day two teams of ten were sent out again, leaving two
crewmembers behind to guard the ship. This time Captain Carton led one
team, while Lieutenant Commander Filler led the other. Lieutenant
Branch accompanied Captain Carton's team, at his request, for once
leaving Kenner unwatched.
"Why must I go with you?" said Branch.
"Because if something happens to me, I want you there to take
charge," said Carton.
No one was enthusiastic about that day. When they passed through
the abandoned destroyer and saw the crazy message "Appreciate Beauty
Above All Else", some in the crew wondered how long it would be before
they would go insane as the destroyer crew obviously had.
One team went to the reactor, while another team went to the
escape pod. Everyone couldn't fit into the escape pod, so six team
members stayed just outside the entrance to the escape pod, in line of
sight of each other.
Meanwhile Lieutenant Branner and his engineers tried to make
sense of the Monumental components, under the watchful eyes of Captain
Carton and the other crewmembers who were guarding them. And each
After several hours of tense work, Carton felt a cold wind at his
back. He spun around, and saw a figure, standing there, in the middle
of a long hallway.
"Weapons!" Carton yelled, raising his blaster. The others turned
and raised their weapons.
The figure just stood there, in the dim corridor.
"Announce yourself!" said Carton, peering in the distance. Was it
Jenkins? Or Benton? Or even Von or Torse? Or was it something else
The figure took a tentative step forward. Then another, then
another. It walked haltingly.
The figure came down the hallway. Weapons tracked it every step
of the way.
Then it stepped onto the catwalk, and the light from the reactor
poles revealed a familiar face.
It was Sergeant Torse. The security officer who had gone with
Major Von to look for Benton.
"Torse!" said Branch. She started to take a step forward, but
Carton stopped her.
Torse looked at her. "Yes," he said.
"Torse, where were you? Where is Von?"
"Von," said Torse slowly. "I was with Von."
"Yes, yes you were," said Branch. "Where is Von now?"
"Von isn't here," said Torse.
"What happened to you?" Carton said. "Snap out of it, man."
"Happened?" said Torse.
"When you went looking for Benton."
"I went looking for Benton," said Torse.
"With Major Von," said Branch.
"Yes," said Torse. "We went looking." He blinked twice. "But we
didn't find him."
"Why didn't you come back to the ship," Branch asked.
"We got lost," said Torse. He was speaking slightly more rapidly
now, but still had a blank expression on his face. "Why are you still
"We're trying to get generator parts, don't you remember?" Branch
"Generator parts," said Torse dully.
"Torse, what happened to Major Von?"
"Major Von," said Torse.
"Yes, Major Von, where is he?"
"Would you like to see him?" said Torse, giving an odd smile.
"Yes, we would," said Branch.
"I will take you to him," said Torse.
"Hold on a moment," said Carton. He pulled Branch back, and they
held a quick whisper conference.
"He's out of his mind," said Carton.
"He's obviously in shock," said Branch.
"Or something," said Carton. "Should we really trust him to lead
us who knows where?"
"Major Von could be alive."
"Then why isn't he here?"
"He could be injured," said Branch.
"Or this could be a trap," said Carton.
"That's why I should be the one to go," said Branch.
"What?" said Carton.
"We can't afford to lose you, sir," said Branch. "Major Von is my
"Isn't that the other way around?"
"I'm the senior duty officer, and we are in the same service,"
said Branch. "Now, will you permit me to go and find out what I can?"
Carton looked doubtfully at Torse. It didn't take a genius to see
that something had unnerved Torse. Whether Von was even alive was an
open question. But it might be worth the risk, to get Von back.
"All right," he whispered. "But under two conditions."
"Take Moldar and Janner with you," said Carton. "And don't let
him take you more than 20 minutes in any direction."
"20 minutes? That might not be far enough to get to Von-"
"20 minutes," said Carton. "You won't do us any good if you get
"Understood, sir," she sighed.
Carton called over Ensign Janner and crewman Moldar and gave them
their assignments. He watched uneasily as they headed off with Torse.
Only 20 minutes. Wasn't that the length of time that Major Von
had promised to be gone?
Torse grew very talkative as they walked down the corridor.
"You're concerned for Major Von, aren't you?" said Torse.
"Yes, aren't you?" Branch said.
"Why is that?" Torse asked.
Branch looked oddly at him. "He's a fellow officer and a friend."
"What makes someone your friend?" Torse asked.
Janner and Moldar exchanged glances as if to agree that Torse was
obviously out of his mind.
"A friend... is someone you like, and who likes you," said
Branch, watching him closely.
"You're a lieutenant, that makes you an officer," said Torse.
"Why did you become an officer?"
"Why are you asking all these questions?" Branch asked.
Torse stopped walking. He gave a small smile. "Because."
Branch felt her heart pump wildly. "Because what?"
Suddenly she felt a great fear grip her. "Shouldn't we be
moving?" she said.
Torse nodded, as if he had forgotten, and started walking again.
He started asking questions about her personal life, her interests, her
perspective on life. They were oddly disjointed and sometimes very
personal questions. What was going on in Torse's mind?
Branch looked at her chrono. "We're almost 20 minutes out."
Torse looked unconcerned. "We're almost there."
In a few moments he stood by the entrance to a dimly lit room.
"Is Major Von in there?"
Torse considered the question for too long, before saying, "Yes,"
with a small smile.
Weapons raised, Branch, Janner and Moldar entered the room.
The room was filled with rubbish and discarded equipment, making
it difficult to see.
"Where is he?" said Branch, looking around.
"He's here," said Torse, entering the room. He picked up a box
with a small hose that was laying around. Branch was about to ask him
about it when Moldar gave a shout.
She immediately looked down to see where Moldar's flash was
A patch on the ground covered with a degraded gloppy substance.
The same kind they had seen in the abandoned destroyer.
Branch ran a hand scanner over it. It was human remains. She cast
her hand flash around the floor. She saw a second puddle of the gloppy
substance several feet away. A second set of remains.
A second set?
She looked up at Torse, to see him spraying a black substance
around the room with the hose that was attached to the small box.
"What are you doing?" Branch said.
Torse continued to spray the black substance.
"Let's get out of here," said Janner.
Weapons raised, they ran past Torse, who simply stopped and
When they got into the corridor, they felt a strong gust of wind.
It was cold, and fear was riding it. Down the corridor, they could see
a black shape, like a black cloud of gas, whirling and spinning in the
air. Coming towards them.
They were all gripped with intense panic. But then Janner started
running, and that snapped Branch and Moldar out of it.
They ran back the way they had come, their hearts pounding.
They felt rather than heard the black cloud coming towards them.
It seems to get closer with each step that they ran.
Suddenly, as if they were frozen in time, the black cloud zipped
past Branch and Moldar, and grabbed onto Janner, who was ahead of them.
Janner fell to the ground, screaming. The black cloud whirled
around him like a tornado. The scream abruptly cut off, and they could
see bits of residue start to drip from the cloud.
Branch fired her blaster, and after a second's hesitation, so did
Their shots entered the cloud but didn't exit. It seemed to have
no effect as more residue dripped out.
"Run!" Branch screamed. She and Moldar ran the other way....
Captain Carton waited 20 minutes, and then 30, and then 45
minutes. He knew he shouldn't have let them go. And now they were gone
too. It would be pointless to send another search party; he couldn't
afford to lose any more people.
Lieutenant Branner caught his eye. He knew that Branch and the
others were lost too. But what could they do?
Suddenly they heard pounding footsteps, coming towards them fast.
Carton and the others raised their blasters.
Two figures ran down a corridor towards them.
"Halt! Identify yourself!" said Carton, his thumb on the trigger.
The two figures raised their hands, which were still carrying
"It's us," came a familiar voice. Walking forward, they stepped
onto the catwalk.
Lieutenant Branch and Crewman Moldar collapsed with exhaustion
and fear onto the ground.
It took Carton several minutes to get a coherent story from them.
When the story was told, the faces of his team were as pasty as those
of Branch and Moldar's.
"What was it?" Carton asked again.
"I don't know... some sort of dark cloud...." said Branch.
"What happened to Torse?" said Carton. "Did that thing attack
"I don't know," Branch said again. "Maybe he was under that
thing's control. It felt like we were being lured into an ambush."
"And what was that stuff he sprayed around?"
Branch shook her head. "We didn't get a chance to take a
Carton looked grim. "That does it. Everyone back to the ship.
"What about Filler's team?"
Carton activated his comm, calling for Filler. But all he got was
static. "It's probably interference from the reactor. We'll try to make
contact with them at the accelerator strip. Now MOVE!"
They made they way back to the strip, always keeping an eye
behind them. But there was no sign of pursuit. When they got to the
strip Carton tried again to make contact with Filler. This time he got
"Return IMMEDIATELY," said Carton. "AT ONCE!"
"Yes sir," came Filler's staticy reply. "But may I ask-"
"We will wait 15 minutes for you at the strip," said Carton.
"MOVE IT!" He closed the comm.
"Was that wise, sir," said Branner. "We're sitting ducks here."
"I don't want us to go back alone," said Carton. "There may be
some safety in numbers."
They waited in silence. Each was keenly waiting for that gust of
cold air, that sense of fear. They all felt it, or thought they felt
it, to some degree, but it easily could have been their minds playing
tricks on them.
Twelve minutes later they heard footsteps from the other side of
the accelerator strip.
"What is it?" said Filler, who was in the lead.
"I'll explain once we get back to the ship," said Carton.
They boarded the strip and headed back.
When they reached the ship, they found the door between the
abandoned destroyer and the Tidy Sea wide open.
Just inside the Tidy Sea were two small puddles of human
Carton gave them all a minute to freak out, and then cut it
short. "All right!" he barked. "We've got to search the ship. Larret
and Erikson, you close the door and stand guard. The rest of you,
divide into two teams-"
"I'm not standing guard!" said Crewman Erikson, avoiding the
sight of the two puddles.
Carton reached up and grabbed him by the front of his uniform.
"You ARE standing guard unless you want to be tossed back into the
Erikson gulped and nodded.
"We'll have one team of ten and one of nine," said Carton. "Do
not under any circumstances stray out of line of sight of your
"What do we do if we come across something?" said Kenner.
Carton tried to find words to say. Obviously, he hadn't thought
that far. "Get out of there," he said grimly. The crew started to
murmur. "I'm sorry but we have to secure the ship! This has to be done!
Now get going!"
The teams started to move out.
Fortunately the Tidy Sea was a small cargo ship, but every second
of searching one compartment after another was filled with tension.
What was behind that door, in that closet? The crew was terribly afraid
and morale was at zero.
The crew spent an anxious two hours searching the ship, section
by section. Finally, they reported nothing; or rather, that they could
Carton held a meeting in the main hallway of the ship leading to
the docking area; Erikson and Lerret refused to remain on duty alone
any longer, and no one blamed them. The puddles had been cleaned up and
removed, by a very unenthusiastic crewmember who didn't volunteer.
Carton had Branch tell the story again; members of Filler's team
had gotten a rough idea during the trip back to the ship what had
happened, but didn't have all the details. There wasn't a happy face in
the room when Branch was done.
"What kind of creature is it?" Filler asked. "Is it... a
"Possibly," said Branner. "Or maybe it's a watchdog."
"A watchdog?" said Filler.
"Internal security. Meant to protect their ship."
Dori turned to the Meddler Capybara. "Do you know what it is?"
The Meddler shook his head. "I don't have enough information. But
whatever it is, it's no watchdog."
And he would say no more than that.
"Whatever it is, we know what happened to the other crews," said
Crewman Moldar. "If we stay here any longer, it will happen to us.
We're wasting our time fiddling with alien generator parts."
"I agree with Moldar," said Branner suddenly. "I have no idea
what I'm doing. If you want to get out of here quickly, you're not
going to be able to do so with generator parts from the Monumental
"Then what does that leave us with?" said Filler. "We no longer
have enough battery power to get us out of the nebula."
"What about the destroyer," said Kenner softly.
"What?" said Branch.
"The destroyer," said Kenner.
"Their engines are too badly damaged, we've already been through
that," said Filler.
"But what about their batteries?" said Kenner. "Remember, we
accessed their library logs."
"They didn't contain much, they had been wiped," said Branch.
"Yes, but we had enough power to do it."
Branner suddenly looked interested. "How much power was there?"
"I don't know," said Kenner. "But it might be enough to get us
out of the Nebula. It's certainly worth a look."
They all exchanged glances. None of them wanted to leave the ship
again, even to go as far as the abandoned destroyer.
"It's a good idea," said Captain Carton, giving Kenner an
impressed glance. "But we all need some rest first."
"Rest? How can any of us rest at a time like this?" said Ensign
"If we can salvage the batteries it will take hours," said
Carton. "It will require a lot of precision work to disconnect them and
reconnect them without damaging them. We'll only get one shot at this;
if we're asleep on our feet, we may lose our only chance."
"How can we sleep with that thing out there?" Larret asked.
"We'll double the guard on the door," said Carton. "And they'll
be issued blaster rifles."
"Blast pistols didn't seem to work," said Branch. "What makes you
think blaster rifles will?"
"We can only work with what we have," said Carton. "We'll also
alarm the door. If that... thing comes, at least we'll know it." He
paused. "I understand you're anxious to get started. But I suggest you
all get some rest." He set up the night duty shift, and left the
corridor for his quarters.
"He's crazy," said Moldar. "He's leaving us open to attack."
"Maybe he's right," said Kenner. "If the creature wanted to
attack us, it could have. Locked doors don't seem to stop it; from what
Branch tells us, it could have taken her or you at any time."
Branch nodded, shivering as she remembered the creature dashing
past her. It easily could have overtaken her and Moldar, long before
they had gotten back to Carton. Why hadn't it?
"It's toying with us," said Kenner. "It could have killed us all
"Then why didn't it?"
Carton shrugged. "Maybe it's lonely. It's been alone here for a
"Possibly because it keeps killing everyone who comes here,"
"Or maybe it's curious," said Kenner. He turned to Branch. "You
said that Torse asked you a lot of odd questions."
"Yes," said Branch.
"Maybe it was trying to find out about us."
"If it controlled Torse, why didn't it ask him?"
Kenner gave no answer.
Kenner fell into a fitful, uncomfortable sleep that night. He was
surprised that he was able to sleep at all; but Carton had been right
about one thing; they were all really tired. When he got up the next
morning the first thing the Captain ordered was a head count. Everyone
was present; the guards at the door to the destroyer reported no sign
of any intruders in the night.
Carton addressed the crew. "We didn't encounter this creature
until we were deep inside its ship. Today we're not even going inside
its ship; we're just going into the abandoned destroyer."
"We found that residue in the destroyer too," said Branch
"We have to hope for the best," said Carton. "My suggestion is
that we send in one team to check the battery status and another to
seal the door from the destroyer to the alien ship. We'll leave two
crewmembers behind at the entrance to the Tidy Sea. They should be
reasonably safe since we will all be on the destroyer, and not far
Still the two crewmembers he assigned to guard duty didn't look
enthusiastic. With 19 crewmembers and scientists left, and two on guard
duty, that meant two groups of nine and eight. One group, under
Commander Filler, went to secure the door from the destroyer to the
alien ship. Another group, under Captain Carton, went to engineering to
check the battery status. Since they were all in the same ship they
should be able to maintain a constant comm contact.
As Carton boarded the ship with his team he tried to ignore the
mad scrawlings on the wall. Beauty? Who could think of such a thing at
a time like this?
They were halfway to engineering before they heard a crackle on
the comm. It was Filler's voice. "The door to the alien ship is
Which only meant that the creature couldn't get through the door
without someone noticing. The destroyer itself was most definitely NOT
secure, and the creature could already be aboard. But first things
first: it was time to check the battery status.
They entered engineering. The place was a mess. But while the
engines and generators were in poor shape, the batteries looked intact.
But how much power did they have, after all these years?
Carton held his breath as he checked the power levels.
He did a quick calculation in his mind. Because the destroyer was
a larger warship, its batteries held more than merchant batteries. That
should be enough to get them out of the nebula, and maybe a few days
extra life support, if they conserved every ounce of power. Once the
batteries were disconnected, it would be a relatively simple task to
connect them up in the Tidy Sea's engineering room. The only trick
would be to disconnect them without accidentally draining their power,
and finding some way to move them. Each one was about five feet tall
and weighed several hundred pounds. But several crewmembers should be
able to carry it together.
First things first. The destroyer had to be secured so the crew
could move around in relative safety without immediately fear of being
attacked. That meant the destroyer had to be combed from stem to stern.
The destroyer was a much bigger ship than the Tidy Sea. If they split
into only two groups that could take hours. Carton, figuring the danger
was less on the destroyer, split the crew into four groups.
They started searching. Each group was required to check in by
comm every five minutes. Carton mapped their progress. After an hour
they had combed more than half the ship. Good.
And then they heard a scream on the comm.
"Who is this? Report!" said Carton.
There was a babble of confused voices and then. "Ensign Janner,
sir," came a voice. "Ensign Kenner, Erikson, and Natasha and I were
searching one of the storage bays. Erikson and Natasha were on one side
and Ensign Kenner and I were on the other. We heard a scream and came
running. They were both gone--Erikson and Natasha.
"Was there any residue on the ground?"
"...Not that I can see."
"I? Where is Kenner?"
"He went off to-
"No!" said Carton. "You must all stay together!" He pressed
another button, activating general comm. "All teams! Be on the lookout
for Erikson and Natasha, status unknown. And if anyone sees Ensign
Kenner, I want to talk to him on comm immediately!"
The teams stopped the methodical combing they were doing and
started looking for the lost crewmen. There were periodic reports over
the comm, all negative, and then Carton felt a lurch that almost send
him off his feet. He got up, looking very scared as a thought occurred
He raced back to the Tidy Sea, with his team close behind.
The door to the Tidy Sea was sealed. Checking the pressure
indicator, Carton knew why.
The ship was no longer docked to the destroyer. It was gone.
They were stranded.
Chapter 8 Desperation
"That's incredibly scary," said Dori. "To be stranded on the ship
with that... thing."
"I am not hampered by emotion, but I do not think I would wish to
be in such a situation either," said 200L.
Croft pointed out the window of the Sky Racer. They could see the
Laklan Nebula ahead. "You soon will be. We're here."
"I have to make some (tweatle tweatle) adjustments to your
scanners, James," said the Meddler Capybara, waddling away into the
"I feel so terribly sorry for those poor crewmembers," said Dori.
"Did any of them survive? Of course, one of them must have survived,
how else would you know this awful story." She looked closely at Croft.
"You were there, weren't you. On the ship, I mean."
"I haven't finished the story," said Croft tightly.
"It sounds like it only gets worse," said Starr.
"All gone," said Carton numbly, staring at the sealed door. His
mind barely registered the absence of the two guards he had placed
here. What had happened to them?
Kenner skidded into the room at full speed; he stopped himself
before running into Carton. "What happened?"
"The ship is gone," said Carton.
"Gone," said Kenner. "Gone. What does that mean?"
"It means someone boarded the ship and undid the docking clamps,"
said Branch. "Someone who slipped away. Someone who wasn't part of a
All eyes were on Kenner. "Wait. Even if I undid the docking
clamps, wouldn't I be in the ship now?"
"Not necessarily," said Branner. "You could have scampered back
here before the ship detached."
"Why would I do this?" said Kenner. "Do you think I want to stay
"You might want us to stay here, if you were a Slurian spy," said
"Are you making an accusation?" said Kenner, looking angry.
"Because if you are, think about the fact that I wasn't the only one
alone. How many of you were apart from your group? And where is
Erikson? And Natasha?"
"Indeed, where are they?" Filler asked.
"We should do a level by level search for them," said Carton.
"What does that matter now?" Branner asked. "We're stuck here."
"There are still options," said Carton. "An accusation has been
leveled against Kenner. We need to find the others to resolve this."
"Assuming Natasha and Erikson are gone, with only 15 of us left,
I suggest we all stick together," said Branch.
Carton nodded. There was no longer any reason to hurry now.
They searched the ship deck by deck. They didn't find Erikson,
but two decks down, they did find Natasha.
She was lying face down on the ground. When Carton cautiously
reached to check her pulse, she flinched and groaned. Slowly, she sat
"What happened?" she said, rubbing the back of her head.
"We were hoping you could tell us," said Carton.
"Ow!" said Natasha, touching a sore spot on the back of her head.
"Let me see," said Branch. She looked. "You have quite a nasty
"It was Erikson. He must have hit me from behind. He's quite
mad," said Natasha. "Did you find him?"
"No," said Branch.
Natasha looked at their faces. "What's wrong?"
They told her.
Natasha looked shocked. She kept that expression as they
continued to search, deck by deck.
But they didn't find any sign of Erikson.
When they finally reached the bottom deck, they stopped. All eyes
were on Kenner. He spoke what was on their minds. "Yes, it could have
been me," said Kenner. "If I were a suicidal Slurian spy, I could have
dashed back to the ship, knocked out the two guards, dashed in the
ship, undid the docking clamps, dashed out again, and ran back here,
assuming, that is, that I was willing to give up my life to thwart your
plans to get the A-1 missiles back to August."
"Do you have a more plausible explanation?" Moldar asked.
"Well, that someone else did it, of course," said Kenner. "Or
perhaps the creature did. You've seen the wrecked shape the engine room
is in. I'll bet the creature damaged it to prevent the ship from
escaping. Perhaps they did the same to us."
"That presumes a certain level of intelligence," said Branner.
"If it's intelligent enough to hypnotize or control our crew, I'd
say it's intelligent enough to do this," said Kenner.
They were still staring at him.
"Oh come on!" said Kenner. "I want to leave here as badly as you
"Enough!" said Carton. "This is getting us nowhere. We have to
focus our energy on our options."
"What exactly are our options?" said Ensign Janner.
"This ship has power, maybe we can use it to escape," said one of
"You forget, while the batteries are functional, the engines
aren't," said Branner.
"Maybe we could get one of the other alien ships to work," said
"We could check, but I'll bet they've been sabotaged too," said
"Well, there is the escape pod," said Filler. He turned to
Kenner. "How close were you to figuring it out. The bare minimum--just
enough to activate it and steer it?"
"It's hard to say until I actually do it," said Kenner. "I need
at least another day to try to figure out more of the controls."
"And what good does that do us?" said Moldar. "Only four or five
people can fit into the pod. There are still 16 of us."
Carton was silent for a moment. Then he said, "There are other
shuttles there. Perhaps we can figure out how they worked."
"They already tried," said Moldar.
"They tried for a day," said Carton. "We can try again."
"There's another limiting factor now," said Filler. "We have no
Suddenly it hit them; they only had left what was on their
person. Not only were the A-1 prototypes lost, and all the schematics
for them, but all their supplies as well. The only weapons they had
were the ones they were carrying.
"Is there any food left on this ship?" Carton asked.
"After 100 years, are you kidding?" said Branner. "We passed the
galley before. There's nothing there you'd want."
"So it will take a day or two to clear the nebula... and at least
10 days to get rescued..."
"Chances are we'll all die of starvation before then," said
Filler. "Unless we want to try foraging for food here."
"I don't want to forage anywhere," said one of the scientists.
"Let's get to the shuttle area and try and figure out what we
can," said Carton quietly.
But first they made a quick search of the ship to see if there
was anything else they could find that was useful. They found some
portable explosives that Filler put into a backcarrier; but little else
that was useful.
They made their way back to the shuttle area. But as soon as they
stepped off the accelerator strip they felt it; a slight wind, and a
tinge of fear. The creature was somewhere around them; not too close,
but not very far.
They made their way through the dark room to the shuttle area.
They divided into three groups--a team to figure out the pod controls,
a team to work on one of the shuttles, and a third team to guard the
first two. Captain Carton took command of this last team. He planted
the explosives in the corridor and kept his hand on the remote
detonator. Two of the troopers had blaster rifles, and he positioned
them as well.
"We haven't tried blaster rifles on it, maybe that will work,"
"Nothing any of the other crews tried worked," said Moldar. "I
doubt blaster rifles will do anything."
"We won't know until we try," said Carton grimly.
The other teams worked for several hours.
Kenner worked frantically at the pod's controls, with Branner at
his side, while Branch watched from behind him, her hand never far from
"This seems to control plotting and direction," said Kenner,
pointing to a set of controls. "But there's one problem."
"What?" said Branner.
"What controls thrust and power?" said Kenner. "None of the
controls we've tried have seemed to access that."
"And how do we actually launch?" said Branner.
"I'm betting it's that button," said Kenner, pointing to a big
button on the right. "But we shouldn't push it until we are reasonably
sure we know how to drive this thing. Otherwise we'll just drift in
"My brain is bursting, I need a break," said Branner, stretching
as he stood up. He walked outside where Carton and some of the other
crew were guarding the corridor. "Any sign?"
Carton shook his head. "Any progress?"
Branner nodded. "We're getting close. A few more hours, maybe."
"A few more hours? Then who gets to go, and who gets left
behind?" Moldar demanded to know.
"Has there been any progress on the shuttle controls?" Branner
At that moment Natasha came out of the entrance to the shuttle,
followed by Half Commander Filler. Carton looked enquiringly at him.
Filler shook his head.
"So who goes and who stays?" Moldar asked again.
"I will make that decision when the time comes," said Carton.
Suddenly, he felt a cold wind, and the corridor went silent.
"Did you feel that?" Carton whispered.
The others nodded.
Kenner and Branch, sensing something was wrong, came out of the
pod. "What's going on?" said Kenner quietly. Then he felt it for
The creature was approaching.
Carton put a hand to his lips, signaling for everyone to be
quiet. Perhaps the creature would pass them by.
But the breeze only grew stronger, and stronger. All eyes were on
the entrance to the room of darkness.
Carton gestured with his hands for the crew to move away from the
entrance to the dark room. In one hand he held a blaster, in the other
the contact to detonate the explosives, which were all laid around the
They waited in silence for a minute, as the pressure built up.
The feeling of fear was stronger now. It was all they could do to
restrain themselves from shouting, or running. But there was no way
They heard a whirring sound that grew louder.
Branch looked at Kenner. Kenner looked grim.
And then a dark cloud suddenly entered the corridor. At first it
looked like a piece of the dark room, a part of it that was spreading
into the corridor.
"Down!" Carton yelled, pressing the button.
There was a loud explosion that threw them off their feet. When
the smoke cleared, they saw the dark cloud hovering in the air.
They all stared at it for a moment, and then, with incredible
speed, it zoomed towards a crewman, covering him. The crewman screamed,
and bits and pieces of flesh were spit out of the cloud.
"Open fire!" Carton yelled, letting go with his blaster. The
others did too, even the crewmen with the blaster rifles.
It did no good. The blaster shots entered the cloud, but seemed
to have no visible effect.
In rapid succession the cloud enveloped another crewmember, and
another, and another, splattering flesh and body parts everywhere.
Fierce winds whipped along the corridor. And then the cloud grabbed
Captain Carton, and he screamed as it ripped him to shreds.
"Get out of here!" Kenner screamed, running for the dark room.
His yell seemed to break a spell, and the others started running.
But the dark room wasn't a room to run through; as Kenner ran,
desperately trying to avoid the pits, he heard the screams of other
crewmen, as they fell into the holes, or were attacked by the creature.
Somehow he managed to cross the room without falling into a hole.
Kenner ran and ran. He didn't stop running until he no longer
The next two days were a nightmare. Kenner didn't allow himself
to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. He didn't see any signs
of anyone else Sometimes he felt the distant edge of fear, and when he
did, he ran. He didn't know if that was what saved him or not. Maybe
the creature could only sense him at close range. Or maybe the creature
was toying with him.
The thought occurred to him that he could make a dash back to the
pod and take his chances with launching the thing, even if he didn't
fully understand the controls. Even if the pod floated in space it
would be a better ending than being consumed by that... thing.
Now he understood how the crew of the destroyer must have felt.
Each of them chased, hunted down by that thing. For the first time in
two days Kenner thought about the message he had seen on the destroyer.
Beauty... who could think of beauty at a time like this? How could a
survivor, fleeing that thing, think of beauty?
Or maybe the survivor wasn't thinking of beauty. Maybe he was
thinking of something else. Maybe the survivor, whoever he was, was
trying to disguise a hidden message.
A hidden message. The survivor was presumably long dead; what
kind of message could he have left that could be helpful?
Kenner considered. His options were few. He was starting to get
hungry; he could only survive a few more days without food. In the end
he would have to make a dash for the pod. If he could learn something
about the creature, maybe that would improve his chances. He decided to
head back to the destroyer.
Cautiously, Kenner made his way to the destroyer. He was alert to
every sound, every noise, every slight breeze of wind. He crept from
corridor to corridor.
Finally, he made it. He entered the ship. The first thing he saw
was the scrawled message "Appreciate beauty above all else" above a
Kenner ignored the message for the moment and headed belowdecks.
First, he had a matter of personal curiosity to satisfy. He went to one
of the storage bays. It only took a few minutes, and he found what he
Then he returned to looking for the "beauty" messages. He found
one, a small one. He kept walking, and saw another, also a small one.
Kenner followed it. Then he entered a room with two exits. Above one
passageway was written the beauty message in equally small letters;
above the other, the same message, in slightly larger letters. Kenner
followed the lattermost passage.
He kept following the trail of messages, going back and retracing
his route when he ran out of messages, always preferring larger
versions of the message to the smaller ones. Kenner found his trail
leading to the crew quarters.
The trail led to a large private quarters. It looked like the
Captain's quarters. Kenner entered cautiously. Inside the room was
written, in the largest letters he had seen "Appreciate Beauty Above
And beautiful it was! The room was filled with little sculptures,
artworks, and paintings. The Captain must have been a collector. This
must be the end of the trail. The room was certainly filled with
beauty, though the art wasn't really to Kenner's taste.
But what did the message mean? Kenner looked at the message
again. It was rather high up on the wall. "...Above all else."
Kenner looked around and found a high mounted painting. Reaching
over he pulled it down.
There was a safe behind the painting. It was slightly ajar.
Kenner opened it. There was a an old-style recording block
inside. He looked around and found a holoplayer. With the battery power
still functional, it should work. He plugged the block in, and pressed
the play button.
The holographic image of an officer in a League uniform appeared
on the bridge.
"If you're hearing this, you're probably trapped here too," said
the man. "I don't have much time, so I'll have to be quick." He looked
over his shoulder quickly, as if he were listening for something.
"If you can leave this ship, do so immediately. Forget about all
the Monumental treasures. They aren't worth it. If you haven't already
encountered it, there's a creature on this ship, a terrible monster
that utterly destroys all forms of life. My name is Captain Childi; I
believe I'm the last survivor of a crew of 120. All my crew was killed
by this thing."
Captain Childi licked his lips. "Our ship was damaged, we
stumbled in here for repairs and found this Monumental ship. Once we
were docked here we couldn't get away. The thing saw to that. It came
in here and slaughtered the engine room crew, damaging the engines.
It's highly intelligent."
"It has a... curiosity. It poses as members of the crew to try
and find out information about us. Once it feels it's found out all it
can, it attacks," said Childi. "It seems to relish our fear. We tried
to escape but the other ships docked here seem to be sabotaged too. We
found what looks like some ship's boats but they're either non-
operational or we can't figure out how to get them working.
"The creature can't be stopped. Nothing we've tried-lasers, blasters,
explosives, has done anything to stop it. The only thing that might
stop it is the energy suppression field. There's what looks like some
kind of... lab, or maybe a containment cell, inside the ship. When a
certain button is activated, all power in parts of the room are
drained. We know that the thing doesn't like to go there. You might be
able to survive there for a while. Here's where it is."
A holographic map appeared in place of the Captain for a moment. It
showed the general structure of the ship and a blinking dot. Kenner
paused the broadcast to study it for a moment. Then he let the
"There's not really much else I can offer," said Childi. He turned
around again, as if he had heard something. "The creature understands
our language, but doesn't understand larger concepts, like art and
beauty. I've planted a chain of messages that should lead explorers to
this tape without tipping off the creature. I hope this proves useful
to you. Good luck."
The image faded. Kenner looked down sadly. His eyes widened when he saw
a residue on the floor. Was that the Captain? Had he died right after
recording this message? It was not possible to tell.
Suddenly, Kenner heard footsteps. Slow, measured footsteps.
An outline of a person appeared in the doorway. It was Half
"Why are you here?" Filler said, in an odd tone.
It was the creature. The creature was controlling Filler. And now
it was after Kenner.
Chapter 9 The End of the Story
Kenner forced himself to remain calm. He remembered what Captain
Childi said. The creature was trying to gain information. As long as it
thought it could gain information, it wouldn't attack.
"I'm just looking around," said Kenner. He walked towards the
Filler stood his ground.
"Would you move back so I can get out?" said Kenner mildly.
"Where are you going?"
"I'll tell you when you stand back," said Kenner, still in a mild
Filler paused, as if considering. Then he took a step back.
"Thank you," said Kenner, stepping out.
Filler followed him out of the corridor. Kenner walked slowly at
"You are the navigator. What do you like about navigation?"
"The same thing I like about lunch," said Kenner. "It's very
filling." He started to walk faster now.
"Lunch. The eating of foods. Is taste important in choosing what
"Only on Tuesdays when it's raining outside," said Kenner. He
studied Filler, who seemed to accept that.
The creature seemed to understand their language, but didn't seem
to grasp concepts or how they related to each other.
"Do you search for truth?" Filler asked.
Kenner walked faster now. Filler kept up.
"I search for justice and peace, and chocolate pudding and
fairness," said Kenner.
"How does chocolate pudding aid you in your search for fairness?"
They were at the entrance to the alien ship. Kenner continued to
"It has a sweet taste that stimulates the mind," said Kenner.
Filler seemed to accept that. As long as Kenner answered his
questions, he seemed content to keep asking. Perhaps the creature
simply didn't have anyone to talk to. But what if the creature got
bored, or figured out that Kenner was talking nonsense?
"What does it mean to seek beauty in all things?" Filler asked.
"Well, it means not to buy a ground car that's a bright pink, or
a uniform that's got leopard spots," said Kenner, walking rapidly.
They continued with this back and forth as they marched to the
Monumental ship. Kenner kept walking rapidly, knowing exactly where he
was going. Filler continued asking questions.
"As an individual, how do you relate to groups?"
"Poorly," said Kenner. "I'm not much of a team player."
"What do you have to say to art?"
"Not much, I'm not on speaking terms with paintings."
This continued for several more minutes. Kenner saw his
destination in sight and walked more quickly.
"Where are you going?" said Filler.
"Just for a walk," said Kenner. It wasn't far off now.... He
could see the platform next to the accelerator strip.
"You're walking very fast."
"I need my exercise," said Kenner. "I try to do a few laps around
this 20 mile long ship every day to keep in shape."
They were almost at the platform now.
"What is a lie?" Filler asked.
"Something that is not true," said Kenner, getting on the
"Then why do you lie?" said Filler, in a very different tone.
Kenner stopped and looked at Filler. He had a maniacal grin on
his face. And he now held a hose attached to a small box in his hands.
He started spraying it around the platform. A black substance squirted
Kenner leapt up to the accelerator strip. In the distance behind
him he could see a large black cloud. Filler started to chase after
him. But suddenly, he was no longer Filler. He degenerated into a
smaller black cloud, dropping the box and the hose on the ground. The
smaller black cloud surged towards Kenner. Before it reached him,
Kenner leapt up on the strip. He accelerated away when the cloud was
just several feet away.
He looked back the entire way as he sped off. He saw the small
black cloud form up with the larger one.
Was it boarding the strip? Could it? Looking back until the
platform was a dot, he didn't see anything. Maybe a gas cloud couldn't
use the strip.
Kenner didn't stop breathing heavily for several minutes.
He headed straight for the escape pod. If the creature was behind
him, it couldn't also be there. This could be his only chance to
He started off at a run. He got close to the dark room-
And then he felt the faintest of winds.
The creature was there.
How could it be there? How could it get there ahead of him?
And then Kenner remembered how quickly Branch had said the
creature could move. It could fly through the air at incredible speeds.
It could have taken him on the accelerator strip. It was just
toying with him, perhaps because he had amused it.
And it knew exactly where he was going. And it was waiting for
Kenner retraced his steps as rapidly as possible. The feeling of
fear gradually faded. Was the creature letting him go, for now? Or
could it simply not detect him at the same distance that he could
He headed to the reactor area, not because he needed something
there but because it was a good frame of reference for where he had to
When he got there, he was surprised to see a figure standing on
Was it another one of the creature's duplicates?
Kenner peered at the figure. The figure, blaster raised, peered
back at him.
The creature didn't use blasters. It was a person. But who?
Kenner, his hands up, cautiously approached. As he got closer he
saw it was Branch.
She frowned. "I should have known you would still be alive." But
she kept the blaster pointed at him.
"What now?" said Kenner.
"How do I know that you are really you?" said Branch.
"How can I prove that?"
"Say something. Speak for a while," said Branch.
"I'm tired, I was just chased by that thing, I barely got away,
and I'm not going to babble about truth or beauty, if that's what
you're looking for," said Kenner.
Branch nodded, lowering her blaster. "It's ok," she said in a
Two other figures came out of an aisle. It was Lieutenant
Branner. And Natasha.
"That's it?" said Kenner. "Have you seen anyone else?"
Branch shook her head. "You?"
"I just saw Half Commander Filler, but he was one of them," said
"And we saw the thing attack the Captain," said Branner. He
turned to Branch. "I guess that leaves one of us in command."
"Uh, Admiral, there isn't a whole lot left to command," said
"We should make a dash for the pod," said Branch. "Assuming we're
the only ones left, we could all fit in."
"I was just there," said Kenner. "So is the creature, waiting for
"That's twice you've gotten away from the creature," said Branch
"I'm a good runner," said Kenner. "No, we need another plan."
"I don't suppose you have one?"
"Actually, I do," said Kenner. "I tapped into the log of the
"We didn't find any log-"
"I know, but I did," said Kenner. "Those 'Seek out beauty'
messages were a clue to the location of the logs. I found them, and
played them. It was a message from their Captain."
"What did he say?"
"Not much. But he did say that there is one room this creature is
afraid of," said Kenner. "If we can get there, we might be safe."
"Do you know the way?"
Kenner nodded. Suddenly, he grabbed his stomach.
"What?" said Branch.
"I'm just hungry. I haven't eaten in two days."
Branch looked at Branner, who nodded. Branch reached into a small
bag and pulled a few green leaves.
"What are those?"
"We found a large indoor garden," said Branch. "These looked like
the most edible things."
"How do you know they're not poisonous?"
"We ate them."
"Oh." Hunger won out over prudence, and Kenner bit down on them.
The taste was mildly bitter, but he swallowed without any immediate ill
effects. "Yummy. All right, let's go."
The holographic map had shown the general location that Captain
Childi had referred to, and indeed it took several hours of searching
to find it. They found the door to the room on the deck outside, burst
from the inside.
"I think this is it," said Kenner.
They were in a room with consoles, and odd machinery hanging from
the ceiling. The machines cast lights on different spots in the room.
"Are you sure?" said Branch.
"No," said Kenner. He looked at the controls, and started pushing
"That could be dangerous," said Branch.
"I think we're a little past dangerous now," said Kenner.
Suddenly the light in the room changed. They saw a swirling mist around
"What... what is it?" said Branch.
"I can guess," said Kenner. He drew his blaster.
"What are you doing?"
Aiming his blaster at a wall, he fired. Click. Nothing happened.
Branch drew her own blaster and fired it. Same thing.
Kenner flicked another switch, and the mist faded. He raised the
blaster again, and fired. A shot hit the wall.
Kenner checked the blaster. It read half empty. It had been half
drained in seconds.
"That's interesting," said Kenner. He moved under the light cast
by one of the devices, and pressed a button on a nearby console.
Nothing happened. He pressed another button, and the sparkly mist
appeared again, but not under the light. Kenner fired his blaster
again. A beam shot out of the blaster, only to fade when he went out of
the perimeter of the light.
"Interesting," said Kenner. "I suggest we put out blasters
outside before they drain further."
They all did so. But then Kenner ran back to the pile, and
dropped another blaster near it. "My second blaster," he grinned.
Kenner returned to the controls. It seemed the room could be
divided into zones, with different areas subject to the energy draining
mist, and other areas not.
"You say it was a light?" said the Meddler Capybara.
"Yes," said Croft.
"A light... hm...."
"Could it simply be a forcefield that kept the energy mist out?"
said Starr. "If so, that wouldn't help us."
"Yes, that has occurred to me too," said the Meddler Capybara.
Was this only a forcefield that kept the mist out? If so, their
whole trip would be for nothing.
The Capybara mulled this over for a moment. "Do you have any
peanuts?" he asked.
"You know where I keep them" said Starr.
The Capybara grunted and waddled over to another section of the
ship. He came back several minutes later, chewing thoughtfully, while
occasionally spitting out a shell.
"Well?" said Croft.
"I'm thinking," said the Meddler. He turned to Starr. "These
peanuts aren't as good as the last batch."
"I think Clifford is awaiting an answer to a question."
"So he is," said the Meddler. "But peanuts, good peanuts, help me
think." He chewed thoughtfully for another minute, then said, "All
"All right?" said Croft. "What does 'all right' mean?"
"All right means that I think what you saw was not a force
field," said the Meddler. "If it were, that itself would be drained by
the mist. I believe it was a beam of energy that somehow incapacitated
the mist in its sphere of influence."
"So, that's a good thing, right?"
"If we can obtain the equipment, analyze it, and replicate it,
then yes," said the Meddler.
"Please continue with the story," said Dori anxiously.
"So what's the plan?" said Branner.
Having turned off the energy mist, Kenner went to the edge of the
room and retrieved the blasters. He handed them out one by one to the
others, keeping two for himself. Each person checked the charge
remaining on his or her blaster. Only Natasha frowned; the charge on
her blaster showed full. It hadn't drained at all.
"Here's what I think we should do. We should trap the creature in
here and use the energy draining mist on it," said Kenner. "While it's
immobilized, we escape to the pod."
"That presumes that this mist will trap it," said Branner. "If we
lure it here, it may simply kill us."
"It's the only plan I can think of."
"How will we draw the creature here?"
"Using these," said Kenner.
He pointed to a corner of the room which contained the little
boxes with hoses attached. "Whatever is in this chemical attracted the
creature. This seems to be a storage area for these devices."
Branner nodded. "The creature will come very quickly when we
spray that. And the mist may not hold it for long. How long will it
take you to finish familiarizing yourself with the pod controls?"
"Forget about that!" said Branch. "Do you know enough to launch
"I think so," said Kenner.
"Well, obviously I've never done it, but I think I know which
control does it."
"Wait a minute," said Branner. "If we launch the pod and we don't
know how to operate it, we'll simply float in space until we die."
"I don't think we have the luxury of spending any more time
learning," said Branch. "We'll learn after we launch the pod and take
"You're forgetting one thing," said Natasha. "What about food? We
may be in there for days, or longer."
"We'll have to gather more leaves before we go," said Branch.
"Who will go?" Natasha asked quickly. Too quickly.
"There's something else," said Kenner. "I have notes I took on
the operations of the pod on my datapad."
"So?" said Branch.
"I've been camping out at a lab," said Kenner. "I left the
Branch sighed. "All right. You go retrieve the datapad while I go
get some food."
"We shouldn't go alone," said Branner.
"Why don't you go with me?" Kenner asked Natasha. "There are some
things in the lab you might find interesting."
"Don't waste time on the grand tour," said Branch. "All right
Natasha, you go with Kenner. Branner, you're with me. We meet back here
in one hour."
They headed off. Kenner and Natasha walked down the corridor,
alert for the slightest noise or wind or feeling of fear.
After they had walked for some time Natasha said, "Is it much
"No," said Kenner. "In fact, here it is," he said, pointing to a
room on their right.
They entered the room. It was filled with consoles.
"This doesn't look like a lab to me," said Natasha.
"Did I say it was a lab?" said Kenner. "I meant that it was
filled with consoles." He started looking around.
"Don't you know where you put it?" said Natasha.
"I'm trying to remember," said Kenner, looking around and on the
consoles. "It's been a very tense time."
He spent another moment looking, as Natasha got more and more
Finally he said, "I don't know where that could have gone. I
guess I lost it," said Kenner.
"You have no idea where your notes are?"
"None," said Kenner.
"Then you are now useless to me," she said, drawing her blaster.
"What is this all about?" said Kenner, looking alarmed. He had
two blasters, but they were holstered, and hers was pointed straight at
"I think you know," she said.
"You're the Slurian spy," said Kenner.
"You should have figured that out a long time ago," said Natasha.
"You electrocuted those crewmembers on purpose. You pushed that
crewmember into the hole in the dark room," said Kenner.
"Correct," said Natasha, happy to finally get credit for her
"And you... removed the docking clamp on the ship. Why?"
"My orders were to ensure that those A-1 missiles to not get back
to August. That was the only way to ensure that my mission succeeds."
"But if you kill me you just strand yourself here," said Kenner.
"You forget, little man, that I am a scientist. I am sure I can
figure out what little you have learned about the pod in a fraction of
the time. I am, of course, a scientist. But it would have been nice to
have your notes, if you hadn't bungled and lost them."
"Why kill me then?"
"Now that you are of no further use, it is time to eliminate
another," said Natasha. "That will only leave the two lieutenants to
"So they're not in on your plan," said Kenner. "But do you really
think the Slurians will forgive and forget?"
"Forgive and forget?" said Natasha.
"You defected from them 10 years ago. They don't take that sort
of thing kindly."
"I don't know what you're referring to," she said, with a slight
accent. "There was never any defection."
Kenner's eyes widened. "You were a spy all along, from the very
"And now, at the peak of your understanding, I must terminate our
conversation. You are a very irritating man, and it will be my pleasure
to be rid of you."
"No!" Kenner yelled, trying to jump to the side.
But Natasha was quicker, firing a blast shot that hit Kenner
square in the torso. He slumped to the ground.
Natasha allowed herself a small smile for a moment before she
"How horrible!" said Dori. "I had hoped that Kenner was going to
be the one to survive."
"I would project that the Slurian traitor probably used the
advantage of surprise to eliminate the others," said 200L.
"Is that how you found out about this?" Starr asked. "You
captured the Slurian and interrogated her?"
Croft stared at the mist outside the nebula and shivered
slightly. "You have to wait for me to finish this story."
Natasha was surprised to see Branner and Branch return with
company. Two other crewmembers were with them, Zack and Dolan, both
enlisted League crewmen.
"Look what we found," Branch grinned. Then, "Where's Kenner?"
"The creature got him," said Natasha. "He's dead."
"No," said Branch. "Are you sure?"
Natasha made a tactical decision. There were four of them, but
she had the advantage of surprise. Now was the time to act. She raised
her blaster. "I'm sure."
Branch's eyes widened as she understood, much as Kenner did.
"You're the Slurian spy."
"None of you move," said Natasha. With one hand holding the
blaster, she reached down to pick up one of the hose and little box
"What are you doing?" said Branch.
"I'm going to lure the creature here," said Natasha. "You will be
the bait which will give me time to escape."
They watched in horror as Natasha attempted to work the device
one handed. Her hand moved to the controls, and then-
A blaster pushed against the side of her head.
"I wouldn't," said a familiar voice.
"Don't try to elbow me either," said the voice behind her.
"You'll find I'm a lot more capable than you give me credit for. Drop
the device and your blaster."
With a look of intense hatred on her face, Natasha complied.
Ken Kenner stepped out from behind her, casually picking up the
device she had dropped.
"How?" Natasha raged.
"Your blaster was set to nominal, the test setting. All it was
was a burst of light."
"But my blaster was set to full, and it was fully charged."
"Actually, your blaster was one of mine. I did the switch when
you put your blaster down," said Kenner.
"Why would you carry around an empty blaster that indicated it
was charged?" said Branch. "Unless you planned this all in advance."
"You're not smart enough to think of this," Natasha snarled.
"You mean, Ken Kenner isn't smart enough," said Kenner,
confidently pointing the blaster at her. "But Clifford Croft is."
"Clifford Croft?" said Branch.
"That's me," said Kenner/Croft. He spoke a single word that
explained it all. "Column."
"You're a Column operative?" said Branch. "Why didn't you say
"I didn't know who could be trusted," said Croft.
"I work with internal security."
"The Slurians have infiltrated internal security before," said
Croft. "I suspected for some time that this one was the spy. I knew it
for certain when I found Erikson's body, which she hid in the storage
area on the abandoned destroyer. That was a nice job, by the way,
hitting yourself on the head to give the appearance of being attacked."
"If you knew she was a spy, why didn't you act earlier?" Branch
"Our intel indicated that the project had been infiltrated," said
Croft. "We didn't know if it was one spy or two. I didn't want to break
cover until I was sure she was the only one."
"Was that the only reason?" said Branch.
"No," said Croft, looking grim. "There was one other."
They felt a slight wind at their backs.
"Hi gang," said a new voice.
They turned to see Crewman Moldar at the entrance to the room.
"What makes a gathering of people special?" Moldar asked, a small
smile on his lips.
"It could be any number of things, Moldar," said Croft, slowly
moving under one of the spotlights. He frantically gestured with his
eyes for the others to do the same.
"I sense there's something special going on. Can you tell me what
The others each got under one of the spotlights. Croft pressed
one of the buttons. The room turned bright, while the spotlights grew
"What are you doing?" Moldar repeated. Suddenly a box and hose
appeared in his hands. He started spraying.
Croft pressed another button. Some of the areas under the
spotlights turned misty, but not all of them. He and Branch and Zack
were in a misty section, but not Branner and Dolan or Natasha.
Moldar sprayed the black gunk around the room. "I really think we
should talk about this in a civilized way."
They felt a cold draft.
Croft frantically pressed other buttons. Suddenly most of the
room was covered in the mist, but not several of the crew.
When the mist hit Moldar he started to scream; his body started
to melt away; a small black cloud started to come out of it.
Croft frantically pressed another button. He had to get all of
them in the mist.
Suddenly, the mist faded from the entire room.
And at the entrance to the room, a giant black cloud appeared.
They all felt tremendous fear.
The small black cloud merged with the large one. Croft
frantically pressed buttons as the large black cloud hurtled towards
He watched the blackness approaching him, it streamed within
inches, and then... stopped.
Croft blinked. He was covered in the energy draining mist. The
black cloud covered one side of the perimeter. It seemed to be probing.
It touched the perimeter, only generate a spark. It touched again, only
to generate another spark.
Could it get through? Could it get to him?
Croft gulped, very much afraid. The cloud continued to probe the
Croft took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. But with the
cloud only inches away from him it was difficult. He tried to look
around. Several of the crew were covered in the mist as well under
their spotlights, but not all of them were. He started to reach for the
But it was outside the scope of his protective mist. His hand
would be dissolved instantly if he went beyond the region of the mist.
The cloud moved back slightly, as if pausing. Then, with
tremendous speed, it zoomed in on one of the crew standing under one of
It was Crewman Zack. He screamed.
Croft started to move his hand to reach out for the controls, but
a black tentacle, as if anticipating it, reached out to the perimeter,
as if waiting for him to make his move.
In seconds the cloud moved again, and Crewman Dolan started to
Who was covered in the energy draining mist and who wasn't? In
all the confusion Croft wasn't sure.
But then the scream stopped and Croft, peering his neck, was able
to see the situation better.
Natasha was closest, just a few feet away. She was definitely
covered in the energy draining mist. Branner was some distance away,
but he appeared to be covered too. Craining his neck, he could see
Branch, on the far side of the room. She appeared to be covered as
well, so he thought.
He waited another moment, but nothing happen. The thing didn't
attack. They must all be protected.
"Is everyone all right?" said Branner. "Sound off."
"I'm alive," said Branch.
Natasha said nothing, but Croft could see that she was still
"I'm here," said Croft.
The black cloud hung in the room.
"It's waiting for us to come out," said Branch.
"If I could reach the controls, I might be able to turn on the
energy draining mist for the entire room," said Croft. "But it's very
quick. If I stick my hand out, I think it will attack."
"What can we do, then?" said Branch.
"What I hoped we wouldn't have to," said Croft quietly. He was
still holding the hose and box device. He raised it, and pointed it at
"What are you doing?" Natasha said.
"There was another reason I had to wait and be sure you were the
saboteur," said Croft. He depressed the plunger.
Black liquid sprayed out through his protective zone onto
Natasha. She gasped as the black substance wet her shirt. "What are you
"I couldn't do this to one of ours," said Croft, spraying again.
He hit her in the trousers.
The gas cloud started to become quite agitated.
"However, I have less qualms about a murderous assassin," said
Croft spraying a few more times.
The cloud pushed against one side of her protective zone.
Natasha, in horror, stumbled backwards, out of the zone. Realizing
instantly what happened, she started running. The black cloud followed
"That thing is fast enough to catch her instantly," said Branch.
"I think it likes a chase," said Croft. He waited a few seconds,
and then stepped out of his perimeter.
"What are you doing?" said Branch.
Croft looked out of the room. It seemed clear. "We're never going
to have another chance. Come on."
They started for the escape pod at a run. They hadn't run more
than five minutes before they heard a scream in the distance.
"Come on!" said Croft, running even faster.
It took them nearly a half hour to get to the dark room, and they
were virtually out of breath. They started to feel the outer edges of
fear, and went across the room as fast as they dared.
When they got to the corridor, they saw an amazing sight: the
black cloud moved right through the wall, blocking their way.
They watched it for a moment. Then Branner snapped. "Give me
that," he said, grabbing the hose and box that Croft carried.
"What are you doing?" said Croft.
"I've had enough of this," Branner said. He ran back into the
dark room and started spraying.
The cloud immediately ran through a wall into the dark room.
They heard Branner's scream just as they got to the entrance of
They scrambled into the pod.
"The door, close the door!" said Croft.
Branch slammed it shut.
"Get us out of here!" she said.
Croft slammed down the launch control.
They looked at each other.
"What's wrong?" said Branch.
"I don't know," said Croft, pushing the button again.
They both felt a wave of fear, closing in.
"A door isn't going to stop that thing!"
"I know," said Croft, looking rapidly through the controls.
"Hurry!" said Branch, feeling the fear building up. The creature
was getting close. And the closed door wouldn't stop it.
Suddenly, Croft remembered something he had read in the Complete
Imbecile's Guide. Reaching out, he tapped what he thought was the
launch button twice, in rapid succession.
There was a loud vibration and Croft was pushed back into his
seat. Branch, who wasn't sitting, was pushed to the floor.
The pod shot out, away from the Monumental ship.
They only relaxed slightly when the mighty Monumental ship was
just a distant dot on their sensors.
They had time after that, leisurely time to figure out the
"You know, in all this we never figured out how much air this
thing has," said Branch.
Croft pointed to a machine on the wall. "Oxygen regenerator. We
should be fine."
"How do you know that's an oxy regenerator? Are you a Monumental
scholar as well as a spy?"
"No, but one of my best friends is," said Croft. "Where did you
think I got a copy of Starr's book from? He's a friend of mine."
"Oh," said Branch. She thought about the events of the past few
days. "So that's why you spared Natasha. To use her as bait."
"I figured we'd have to use someone," said Croft. "I had hoped we
wouldn't have to have any volunteers from the regular crew, like
Branch looked sad. She turned to Croft. "You know, for the
longest time I thought you were the spy."
"If you had told me who you were we could've saved a lot of
"Only Captain Carton knew my identity," said Croft. "And he was
told because it was absolutely necessary; I was a last minute addition
to his crew. As for not telling you I'm sorry, but I couldn't trust
"Well it looks like the Slurians have won this one," said Branch.
"Maybe," said Croft. "But this is just one round in the war. I
like to think that a vibrant society like ours won't go down to defeat
simply because of a new kind of missile. We'll still beat the Slurians.
We just have to find another way."
"If we survive," said Branch. She held a sack. "Leaves. Should
last us a few days."
"I never realized you were Kenner," said Dori.
"I thought you just somehow appeared in the story later," said
"I knew all along, of course," said the Meddler Capybara.
"Why?" asked 200L.
"Because it made perfect sense," said the Meddler.
"So what happened then?" Dori asked. "Obviously, you made it
"We cleared the nebula in two days," said Croft. "We spent eight
more days floating outside it, waiting for help. We were severely
dehydrated, on the verge of death, when a deep space cruiser picked us
"You were very lucky," said Dori.
"Luck was part of it," said Croft. "But they were specifically
looking for us. Our cruiser escort had managed to radio a message that
we had been attacked, and the Alliance dispatched ships to look for us.
We had to spend a week in the infirmary recovering."
"She was the only other survivor," said Croft. "I lost track of
her, I'm not sure what happened to her."
"I can now understand why this was so traumatic for you," said
"I fail to understand the emotion, but I do understand that you
were almost destroyed by this creature," said 200L.
"Thank you for your understanding," said Croft.
There was a sudden beeping sound. Starr went forward to the
controls. In moments he returned.
"Have a look out the viewport," he said grimly.
They looked. There was a giant Monumental ship docked with a
number of smaller ships.
It was exactly as Croft remembered it.
"Does he have to go?" Dori asked. She turned to the Meddler
Capybara. "You're from a powerful race. Can't you go and retrieve this
"Can this creature harm you?" Starr asked the Meddler.
The Meddler Capybara self-consciously adjusted his bow tie.
"After listening to young Clifford's story, it is difficult to be sure,
but I believe that what you encountered was either a (tweatle) or a
"That didn't translate," said Dori.
"So sorry, I am doing the best I can to work within the (tweatle
tweatle) limitations of your language," said the Meddler.
"What is this creature, part of some sort of Monumental security
"No," said the Meddler. "As I said, it could be one of two
things. It could be a (tweatle), which while uncommon is not unheard
of. They are sometimes kept as specimens of study, in zoos."
"And if it is a tweatle, what does that mean?"
"It could dismember you in seconds, but would be absolutely no
threat to myself, of course," said the Meddler.
"Of course," said Croft.
"It is, after all, just an animal."
"And what if it's the second tweatle you mentioned?" said Dori.
The Meddler Capybara sighed. "That's a different sack of nuts.
It's very unlikely that it's a (tweatle); they were thought to be all
destroyed after the dimensional rift was sealed-"
"Back up," said Croft. "Dimensional rift?"
"A long time ago, there was an experiment done to explore a
certain dimensional rift. What was found was a race full of
tremendously deadly creatures, much like the one you describe. The rift
was sealed at great cost of life, but a handful of the creatures got
into your galaxy. It was thought that all of them had been tracked down
and destroyed, but not before they destroyed life on several planets."
"A handful of creatures from another dimension that could destroy
entire planets," said Croft dully. "That sounds pretty dangerous. Well,
if it is one of them, what does that mean for you?"
The Capybara adjusted his bow tie again, something he seemed to
do when he was nervous. "It would mean, young Clifford, that I am in
just as much danger as you are."
Croft looked out the viewport at the Monumental ship. He wished
that he were almost anywhere else right now. He had a bad feeling about
Chapter 10: Return to the Monumental Ship
"I don't know if I can do this," said Croft. His head was in his
hands and he was struggling to keep his feet from shaking.
Dori put an arm around him. "It was a long time ago, Clifford."
"Seeing that," he said, pointing to the ship outside, "Makes it
feel just like yesterday."
"It's been what, 200 years? The creature may be gone, or dead."
"It's not dead," said Croft evenly. "It's still there."
"Maybe one of us should go-"
"No," Croft shook his head. "I have to go. I'm the only one who
knows where the room with the energy mist is."
"Are you up to it?" Dori asked.
"Do I have a choice?" Croft asked.
"Actually, you do," said the Meddler Capybara. "I will go."
"Just for a reconnaissance trip," said the Capybara, suddenly
appearing in the room. "To see if the machinery is intact, and if that
creature is indeed still on the ship."
"But what if the creature is the dangerous type, and comes after
The Meddler wiggled his whiskers. "You just let me worry about
that. How do I look?" he asked, adjusting his bow tie.
"You're going on a ship with a deadly alien and you're worried
about your looks?" said Croft.
"How do I look?" the Meddler asked.
"You look fine," said Starr, a little puzzled.
"Good," said the Meddler. "Clifford, you will be able to follow
my progress on the holoscreen and guide me."
"You'll be carrying a holocamera?" Croft asked.
"Not exactly," said the Meddler. He turned to Starr. "We should
only dock long enough for me to embark. Then undock and follow my
progress from no less than 500 meters away."
"We'll have to dock again to get you back," said Starr. "What if
we need to get you out of there in a hurry."
"Do not be concerned about that," said the Meddler.
"Are you planning on coming back?" said Croft.
The Meddler chuckled. "This is only a reconnaissance mission,
young Clifford. Relax."
But Croft couldn't relax as the Monumental ship loomed larger and
larger. They docked with the abandoned destroyer, at the same docking
port the Tidy Sea had docked at.
"Good luck," said Starr, as he stood with the Meddler at the
The door opened, revealing the blackness of the destroyer. The
Meddler Capybara hesitated a second, and then trotted through. He
turned back to Starr. "Leave now, James."
The door closed, sealing off the Meddler Capybara. The ship
undocked and took off.
"He's very brave," said Dori, watching the view on the
"Can you hear me?" said the Meddler, as he walked through the
"Yes," said Dori.
"Clifford, you'll have to give me directions. Do you remember the
"Yes I do," said Croft grimly.
The destroyer looked exactly the same as when Croft had been
aboard. So did the alien ship. And when he got there, so did the
Monumental ship, with its gloomy glowing green walls. The Meddler
trotted down the hallway, looking terribly alone.
"Do you feel any wind? Do you feel any fear?" Croft asked.
"No, not so far," said the Meddler. The Capybara trotted down the
large hallway. He looked very much alone.
The Meddler continued under Croft's direction. At one point he
stopped at an intersection and wiggled his nose.
"Do you sense something?" Croft asked anxiously.
"No," said the Meddler. "Just an itch."
Croft led the meddler to the accelerator strip. "Be careful
But he needn't have said anything; the Capybara took to the
accelerator strip quite easily.
Croft told him where to get off. He felt very tense, even though
he wasn't on the ship.
"Are you ok?" said Dori, seeing the expression on his face.
"Yeah," said Croft. "It just brings back memories."
"It's ok, you're safe here," she said.
"But what about him? said Croft.
He continued to guide the Capybara, but at certain points he had
the Capybara go back and retrace his route.
"Are you sure how to get there, young Clifford?" said the
"I was only there twice, and it was nearly 200 years ago," said
Croft. "Let me think... all right, take the right branch." He squirmed
nervously. "If my misdirections causes him to run into that thing, I
don't know if I'll be able to forgive myself."
"Just do the best you can," said Starr quietly.
In a few minutes Croft recognized a familiar hallway, with a
blown out door on the ground. "That's it," he said. "Be careful."
The Capybara entered cautiously. He looked around the room. Croft
could see that it hadn't changed much in nearly 200 years.
"There, there on the ceiling," said Croft. "Notice those
The Meddler looked up. "Yes. You say those were projecting the
beam which canceled out the energy mist?"
"Well, yes, both," said Croft. "I mean sometimes they projected
the energy mist, and sometimes the beam to cancel the energy mist."
"Well, it would see that we would need this device," said the
Capybara. He hummed to himself as he circled one of them, studying it.
Suddenly a breeze flapped through the room. The Capybara turned,
his hair standing on end. It would have been a funny site under any
"Get out of there!" Croft yelled.
The Capybara trotted towards the far exit, but at that moment a
black cloud entered the room. It sped towards the Capybara even as he
Suddenly they heard an animal-like shriek, and pieces of straw-
like fur were flying everywhere.
"Get out of there!" Croft yelled.
The holographic image faded.
"No!" Croft yelled. "No, no, no!" he screamed. He started crying
Dori found that she was crying too. She was a robot, but was
capable of crying, and had been programmed for emotion.
Starr was just standing there in shock. "He's... gone," he
"Not again! Not again!" Croft kept saying.
Only 200L stood there impassively. "My sympathies on your loss,"
he said. "He was an able companion."
Dori glared at 200L with tears on her face, but said nothing.
"I was proud to call him a friend," said Starr, almost choking
"That's very touching," said another voice.
They turned to see the Meddler Capybara standing there. He didn't
look injured in the slightest; not even his bow tie was ruffled.
Dori ran over and gave the Meddler a big hug, still crying.
"What... how....?" said Croft. "How did you survive? How did you
get back here?"
"Yes, I imagine you're wondering these things," said the Meddler.
"You see, I never went over to the Monumental ship."
"But we saw you-you broadcasted an image-"
"Yes, well, I sent a projection of myself over there," said the
"A projection?" said Croft. "A hologram?"
"Infinitely more sophisticated," said the Meddler. "Something
that would be detectable to the (tweatle) as a lifeform. I had to flush
it out, you see, to find out what it was."
"So it was a (tweatle)?" Starr asked.
"I'm afraid so," said the Meddler. "And quite dangerous, too. I'm
sorry I didn't tell you my plans; maybe I should have."
"Yes, maybe you should have," said Croft sarcastically, regaining
"Unfortunately, I will not be able to assist you further," said
"What?" said Croft.
"I cannot board that ship. The risk to my life is too great,"
said the Meddler.
"But... but... we need you!"
"I am happy to help you, and your race, young Clifford, and I
have done so for many years. But this is different," said the Meddler.
"This would put me at great personal risk."
"But if we're not successful, all our planets will continue to be
trapped by the energy mist."
"That's a shame, and if there were a safe way to help them, I
would," said the Meddler.
Croft looked at the Monumental ship on the viewport. "After what
happened, I don't think I can go back either."
There was silence for a long moment, and then several minutes. No
one said anything, or made eye contact with each other. But they knew
time was passing.
"I'll go," said Starr suddenly.
"What?" said Dori.
"I said I'll go," said Starr.
"Are you crazy?" said Dori. "That creature will kill you."
"There are bigger things at stake, Dori," said Starr softly.
"Don't go," said Dori. "I'll go instead."
"I don't want to risk losing you," said Starr.
"And I don't want to risk losing you," said Dori. "I'm a robot.
It probably can't harm me."
"We don't know that," said Starr.
"I'm only a robot," she reminded him. "I can be replaced."
"That's in no way true. It's not even technically possible. You
were build by alien technology," said Starr. "You're not replaceable."
"But I am," said 200L.
Starr looked at 200L with surprise. "You're volunteering?"
"You both seem so attached to each other, that I make the logical
"200L, it could destroy you," said Starr.
"Yes, but since you built me, you can simply rebuild me," said
200L. "I am programmed to serve you."
"Is that all it is, a programming imperative?"
"That's all it ever is," said 200L. "To suggest anything else is
"Even if you can get the projector, how are you going to carry
it?" Croft asked.
"Anti-grav units. We have some in storage," said Starr.
"You'll need two people to carry it," said Croft. "Two of us
still have to go."
That started the long argument again between Dori and Starr.
Croft let it go on for a while. Then, eyes closed, he said, "All
right, all right!"
"What?" said Starr.
"I started this," he said tightly. "I'll finish it."
Dori kneeled down to where he was sitting. "Clifford, are you
He opened his eyes, and nodded.
"You are very, very brave," she said.
"How do you propose to get the generator without being caught by
that thing?" said Starr.
"I may be able to help," said the Meddler. "I can provide you
with a device that may cloak you."
"May? What does may mean?" Croft asked.
"May means perhaps yes, or perhaps no," said the Meddler. "Wait
here." He waddled off.
"Where is he going?"
"Back to his ship," said Starr.
"His ship?" said Croft. "I thought we were on your ship."
"Yes, well we have his ship too," said Starr.
"I don't even want to try to understand," said Croft.
The Meddler returned a few minutes later with a small device.
"It's very simple, even for you. There's a single button for on, and
the same button, pressed again, for-"
"Off," said Croft. "Thanks. My simple mind grasps that quite
"Don't be offended, Clifford," said the Meddler. "I'm only trying
"I know," said Croft. He turned to Starr. "Are we going to be
able to disconnect the projector? If we have to cut it loose we might
"I think so," said Starr. "I've had some experience with
Monumental machinery. I have some idea how to take it apart."
"You'll have some idea?" said Croft.
"That means I'm coming," said Starr.
"If you're coming, I am too," said Dori.
"No," said Starr. "That's an order. It will be me, Croft, and
200L. If anything happens to us, you are to leave immediately."
She opened her mouth to protest, but then meekly said, "Yes
James. But one thing: we're not undocking. You may need to leave in a
"That will expose you to unnecessary risk. That thing can go
"It's a risk we should take," said the Meddler Capybara.
They prepared to go. The Meddler cornered Starr as he was
preparing his tools.
"Are you angry with me, James?"
"No," said Starr.
"Maybe the better question is whether you're disappointed."
"I understand," said Starr. "This isn't your fight."
"It's more than that," said the Meddler. "You have to understand
that you humans are fragile. Almost anything can terminate your
existence. But for us, my people, we are used to being invulnerable to
harm. When we come across a situation like this-"
"I understand," said Starr again. "You've already helped us a
The Meddler said, "I just would feel very badly if anything
happened to you or Clifford. You're two of my favorite humans."
"You said humans," said Starr. "Not semi-sentients."
"Oh, it's all the same thing," said the Meddler dismissively.
Starr met Croft and 200L at the airlock.
"We're docked again," said Dori.
"Good," said Starr. "Undock at the first sign of trouble."
"That's an order," said Starr. He turned to the Meddler Capybara.
"I'll trust you to make sure that Dori gets away safely, if anything
happens to us."
The Meddler Capybara nodded.
Starr turned to Croft. "Are you ready?"
"No," said Croft. "Let's go."
Starr operated the door control. The door slid open, revealing
the blackness of the abandoned destroyer.
"Then let's get started."
They boarded the destroyer. Croft was so nervous that he felt
dizzy and started swaying.
"Are you all right?" said Starr.
"Yeah," said Croft.
"Remember, we have to stay within a few feet of each other for
this to work," said Starr, holding the Meddler's device. He pressed the
button, and suddenly, from Croft's perspective, he and 200L became
black and white.
"I can still see you, but you're black and white," said Croft.
"Now take a few steps back."
Croft did. Starr and 200L disappeared totally.
"Wow," said Croft. He took a few steps forward, and they became
"Just remember, let's keep together, and keep quiet," said Starr.
"You lead the way."
Croft did. They made their way through the destroyer and the
alien ship. They entered the Monumental ship without incident. Croft
didn't feel any warning signs of wind, although he did feel fear; but
it wasn't at the intensity he had felt it when the creature was around.
It was somewhere on this ship... perhaps waiting for them in that room.
They boarded the accelerator strip and headed off. They
communicated through hand signals; the cloak didn't cover sounds.
They got off when Croft motioned them to; then they started
heading to the reactor area. Croft gulped when he saw it; it brought
back a lot of memories. Then they headed deeper into the ship.
Finally, they reached the room. Croft was the first to peer
inside. It seemed empty. There was no wind, no black cloud.
"They're doing well," said Dori. She had been watching their
progress from a remote holocam that Starr carried.
The Meddler Capybara said nothing.
He nodded to Starr, and he and 200L entered, keeping close to
Croft. They went to one of the ceiling projectors. Starr took out a
small scanning device which made a slight whine that sounded loud in
the silence. He panned it around the projector for a moment, and then
raised his eyebrows. He put away the scanner and took out another
He pantomimed for 200L to lift him. 200L grabbed his legs and
lifted him up. Starr used some sort of device on the edge of the
projector. It started to come loose. Starr grabbed the projector with
one hand while using the device with the other. Suddenly, the projector
came loose; Starr grabbed it with both arms, dropping his device, and
200L quickly lowered him to the ground, steadying him so that he didn't
The only sound was of Starr's device falling to the ground. Croft
picked it up, and put it in Starr's bag. Starr put the device down,
indicating that he had hurt his back. It was only surprising that he
hadn't dropped the projector; it looked very heavy.
Starr rubbed his back for a few seconds and then reached into his
pouch and took out what looked like two handles. He clamped them on
either end of the projector and pressed buttons on both handles. The
projector started to lift slightly off the ground.
Starr gave an approving nod. They could go.
Suddenly, they felt a gust of cold wind. Croft and Starr looked
at each other.
A black cloud hovered at one of the entrances to the room.
Starr and Croft stood perfectly still. The mist was not on in any
part of the room, so they were very vulnerable, if the cloud could
The cloud hovered for a moment, and then slowly crossed the room.
It stopped a few feet from Starr, Croft and 200L.
They stood as still as possible, trying not even to breathe.
"Oh... oh no...." said Dori, almost unable to watch. She turned
to see the Meddler Capybara, but he was no longer in the room.
The cloud stood still there.
Then, a few seconds later, the cloud started moving again, across
the room, to the other end.
Starr and Croft allowed themselves to exhale.
The cloud reached the far end of the room, and then, almost too
quickly for them to see, doublebacked and stopped in front of them!
"No!" Dori screamed.
200L leapt into action. He grabbed something at his feet and
started running. In a few seconds he became visible. He ran to the
other side of the room, and started squirting.
He was carrying one of those box and hoses devices.
The cloud immediately started orienting itself on 200L. 200L ran
out of the room, still squirting the device.
"Come on, let's get back to the ship," said Starr, hefting one of
"No, wait," said Croft, turning to the controls.
"We don't have time for that," said Starr.
"We'll never make it back to the ship," said Croft. He started
pressing buttons. The lights in the room changed.
At that moment they heard a screech, as if a piece of metal was
sheered off. And then they felt a wind. The black cloud was returning.
The cloud entered the room, floating in casually, until it
apparently noticed Croft pressing buttons at a console. Then it surged
Only to stop in midroom as the lights changed and the energy mist
enveloped the room.
Screeching with an unimaginable sound, the gas cloud started to
writhe in the mist, giving off flashes of light.
"Now," said Croft, lifting one handle. Starr grabbed another.
They made their way around the gas cloud out of the room.
"Hurry," said Croft, pulling the projector. Although the
projector was hovering above ground it still had mass, and that mass
slowed them down.
"I'm pulling it," said Starr tightly. Between the two of them
they were going at a fast walk.
They made their way to the accelerator strip, and carefully
boarded, still towing the projector.
"200L saved us," said Starr.
"We're not saved yet," said Croft. "You don't know how fast that
thing can travel."
"Hopefully it's still trapped in that room."
The black cloud writhed in the energy mist, still giving off
sparks. Slowly it crawled towards the edge of the room, and the mist
They got off the strip, and started walking quickly with the
projector. "Dori, do you copy?" said Starr, speaking into his comm.
"I copy, James," came her staticy voice.
"Prepare to undock the second we're aboard," said Starr.
"I'll be ready," said Dori. "But there's one problem."
"The Capybara has disappeared."
The cloud crawled out of the room. It's color, which had
degenerated to a lighter shade of black, started to darken again....
Starr and Croft ran into the alien ship, still dragging the
projector. They ran from there into the destroyer.
A shape stepped out of the shadows.
"It's been a long time," said the shape.
Croft looked at the figure. "That it has, Captain Carton."
"What's going on?" said Starr, looking at the figure standing
"Keep walking," said Croft. "We're almost there."
"You've come back," said Carton. "I've never seen anyone leave
before, much less come back. Why have you come back?"
"Get your own answers," Croft snarled, walking quicker.
Carton took out a familiar black hose and box, and started
The entrance to the ship was only a few rooms away.
Suddenly, they felt a cold wind at their backs.
They walked as quickly as they could; beyond the next room, they
could see the entrance to the ship; Dori was standing at the docking
Something whizzed by them, and formed between them and the ship.
The black cloud.
It was dark and formless and it hovered, waiting for a moment of
its choosing to attack.
Croft looked at Starr. He looked back at Croft. He had no idea
Suddenly, "Captain Carton" was thrown against the wall by an
unknown force. He splattered and turned into a smaller black cloud.
"Get (tweatle tweatle) away from them," came a new voice.
The large black cloud shifted shape to reorient on the new
The Meddler Capybara stood there, his snout pointed defiantly
"You can't have them," said the Meddler. "If you value your
miserable existence, leave, now."
The black cloud whirled inside of itself, as if it were
The Meddler stood there calmly, as if he were contemplating
And then the black cloud struck out, launching a tendril at the
The Meddler shrieked, but launched a lightning bolt which slammed
into the cloud, pushing it back.
"Hurry," the Meddler gasped. "I can't hold it long."
The Meddler maneuvered the cloud so that a path was cleared back
to the ship. Croft and Starr quickly brought the device onboard, as
flashes of dark and light were hurtled around them.
Dori opened her mouth but Starr was quicker. "We're not leaving!
Get me a power cable, quick!"
Dori scampered inside the ship.
They heard an animalistic scream as the Meddler was hit again by
another black tendril. He sent another lightning bolt in the cloud, but
this bolt was smaller, and dimmer than the previous ones.
"Hurry!" said Starr.
Dori suddenly appeared with the cable. Starr hooked it up into
the end of the projector. He hefted it up, and aimed it at the
The cloud lashed out again; the Meddler, moving less nimbly now,
was barely able to get out of the way.
Starr pushed a button on the side of the projector. Nothing
happened. He pushed another button, and then-
a mist emitted from the machine, hitting the center of the cloud.
The cloud shrieked, and moved to get under the beam. Starr lowered the
aim to keep the cloud in the beam's path. The cloud retreated farther
back into the room.
"James, it's absorbing our main power, we can't keep this up,"
"Get the Cap," said Starr.
Croft scurried over to grab the Capybara, who was lying on the
ground. But the Meddler was too heavy. Suddenly Dori was at his side,
helping him lift the large rodent.
In seconds they were back at the ship.
The beam from the projector started to falter.
"I need you to undock the minute this door closes," said Starr.
"Get to the controls and let me know when you're ready."
Dori ran for the controls.
The beam started to falter. The black cloud started to advance.
"Ready!" came her voice over the comm.
"Now!" said Starr, closing the door.
The black cloud surged forward. But Dori was undocking even as
the door slid shut; it was so simultaneous, that they started to
experience explosive decompression as the Sky Racer undocked from the
destroyer while the door was partially open. But the hatch was mostly
sealed when this happened, and the last part of the hatch sealed even
as the Sky Racer moved away.
Croft anxiously went to the viewport. He clearly saw the black
cloud at the airlock of the destroyer. It seemed to hover there,
watching; as the Sky Racer pulled away, it disappeared, inside the
They had made it.
He had made it.
He had escaped, a second time.
Dori's voice came over the comm. "James, that device has drained
our main power. I'm not sure-"
"Just get us a healthy distance from that thing," said Starr.
He turned to the body of the Meddler Capybara. He was lying there
on the ground, his head in Croft's lap.
Part of the Meddler's body was "mushy" rather than solid.
Starr said, "Is he...."
"Don't count me out yet," the Meddler croaked.
"You're wounded," said Starr. "What can we do?"
"There's nothing you can do," said the Meddler. He coughed. "I
don't have much time. You have to get us to the nearest monument so I
can synthesize the...." He fainted.
"Cap?" said Croft. "Don't leave us, Cap!" He tried to feel for a
pulse, and found one.
"I'm guessing he's unconscious," said Croft. "I have no idea what
we can do for him."
"I don't think we have the technology to help him," said Starr.
"Excuse me, I have to check with Dori on the damage."
He returned a few minutes later. "One of our generators is
drained. That will reduce our top speed. It will take nearly two days
to get to the nearest monument."
"Does he have that long?" said Croft.
"I don't know," said Starr.
Chapter 11 The Race to Save August
"200L let himself be used as a decoy to save us," said Starr,
sitting numbly in a chair opposite Croft.
"Yes," said Croft. "Those extra few seconds may have saved us."
"He was always so logical, so cold," said Dori. "But in his own
way, he cared."
"How is the Meddler?" Croft asked.
"Not good," said Starr.
"I'm going to see him," said Croft.
He went into one of the aft sections. The Meddler was lying on a
large cushion on the ground. Part of his body where he was hit was
disfigured. But there was no blood.
The Capybara's eyes feebly flickered open. "Ah... Clifford," he
said, his voice a soft whisper.
"You came for us," said Croft. "After everything you said, you
actually risked your life to save us."
The Capybara coughed. After the spasm passed, he said, "Yes. I
was always warned this would be my (tweatle) undoing. That's why my
people don't get involved. So they don't get..." his voice faltered.
"Hurt," said Croft sadly. He stared at the Capybara. "Is there
anything we can do for you?"
The Meddler shook his head slightly.
"What about your people? Maybe they can cure you."
"Maybe they can," said the Meddler. "But the price is too high."
"You forget, Clifford, I'm a fugitive," said the Meddler.
"But if they can heal you, whatever punishment they may give you
can't be worse than dying, can it?"
The Meddler said nothing. He closed his eyes.
"Mr. Towel? Mr. Towel?" said Croft anxiously.
He opened them again. "Please do not yell. Let me know when we
(tweatle tweatle) get there. And contact your War...." He drifted off
Croft waited a moment, and the, frowning, went back to the
"How does he look?" Dori asked.
"Bad," said Croft. "I think he wanted me to contact the War
"Why?" Starr asked.
"I think I have an idea," said Croft. "Can you raise the War
Admiral at this distance?"
"I can try," said Starr.
In a few minutes the staticy holoimage of the War Admiral
appeared. "Croft! It is you! Some of us weren't even certain you were
still alive. I, of course, never had a doubt."
"That's very comforting," said Croft. He noticed that the War
Admiral was wearing an unfamiliar black and dark blue uniform with a
silver streak. What had happened to his League light blue uniform?
Well, there was time to discuss that later. "Listen, the Insects are on
the march on August."
Croft explained the situation. "We're going to try and synthesize
a counteragent to this energy draining mist. But we need your troops to
be there and ready to land to assist in the fight. Every hour of delay
can make a difference."
"What do you need?"
"A brigade of heavily armed troops," said Croft. "Or at least a
few battalions. There's no telling how many-"
"Clifford, you've been out of the loop for a while, so you don't
know," said the War Admiral. "Our numbers are stretched thin. Very
thin. Most of our planets are covered by the energy mist. We only have
a few dozen ships left, and very few marines."
"Well, send what you can spare to August, as soon as possible,"
"I'll do what I can," the War Admiral promised. "And Croft, I'd
like to see you when all of this is resolved. We have a lot of catching
up to do... and a lot of things to talk about."
Croft nodded, and terminated the connection.
The Sky Racer came into orbit around an unnamed planet several
light years away. The ship landed in a field next to a Monumental
"monument", as they were called in the Alliance.
It was nighttime on this planet, and Croft looked around
nervously as he carried one end of the anti-grav stretcher out of the
ship. "Do we know anything about this planet? Are their hostile forms
"I have no idea," said Starr pulling up the front end of the
stretcher. "But we're running out of time."
As if to accentuate that, the Meddler Capybara moaned on the
Dori, holding a blaster, provided security, escorting them to the
They couldn't see much of it in the darkness, even using hand
"Looks great, but does anyone have the key?" said Croft, as he
and Starr gently lowered the stretcher.
Starr reached down and gently roused the Capybara. "We need to
The Meddler mumbled something, and Starr motioned Croft to lift
the stretcher again. They moved it so that the Capybara's face was up
against the monument.
The Meddler mumbled something.
"A little higher," said Starr. He and Croft raised the stretcher.
The Meddler reached over and touched the monument with his snout.
"What's that going to do?" Croft asked.
Suddenly a hidden panel slid open. They saw stairs leading down.
"Oh," said Croft.
As they walked through underground corridors, Croft asked, "So do
all monuments have labs and gateways in them?"
"No," said Starr.
"So how did you know this one did?"
"I didn't," said Starr. "He did."
They reached a lab and set the stretcher down. "Will this
equipment do?" Starr asked.
The Capybara didn't respond.
"Cap?" said Starr. He shook the Meddler again.
"He looks worse," said Dori.
With a great effort, the Meddler opened his eyes. He painfully
got to his feet, wincing as he did.
"You're not well," said Starr.
"We have to finish this," said the Capybara.
"I may be able to figure out how to use this equipment," said
"But not in time," said Capybara. "And you need to understand the
theory behind it." He turned tired eyes to Dori and Croft. "Please
Croft and Dori left. Dori and Croft looked at each other.
Over the next eight days the Meddler grew weaker and weaker. On
the second day he could no longer stand; on the fifth he could only
speak in a whisper. And as time went on, it became harder and harder to
Starr came out once each day to rest, and to give a status
report. On the fourth day, Croft asked, "You have the projector. Why is
it taking so long?"
Starr glared at him. "It isn't easy. It's not simply a matter of
figuring out how to use the projector, but how to replicate what it
does. As you know, I'm the Alliance's foremost expert on the
Monumentals. but even I only have a tiny understanding compared to a
race like the Capybaras. Oh, given enough time I can figure out how
some of their devices work; but I don't know a fraction of the theory
to build something new. The Meddler, on the other hand, is from an
advanced race, but he himself is not a specialist in this sort of
thing. We're making progress; in fact, his help is invaluable. I just
hope he lasts long enough to finish the job." He turned away. "I'm
tired. I have to go to bed."
Four days later, when they had been there eight days, Croft spoke
to the War Admiral again on the comm.
"How is it going?" The War Admiral asked.
"I don't know," said Croft. "They won't let me in there."
"I've had some long range photoscans done of Aridor," said War
Admiral. "You should see this."
An image of Aridor appeared, zooming in on an area close to the
east cost, which in turn zoomed in several more times. The last image
was Insects, swarming over the landscape.
"How many and how long?" Croft asked.
"How many is several thousand," said the War Admiral. "Exact
numbers are hard to tell, at this distance. How long is easier to tell.
11, maybe 12 days."
Croft turned to Dori. "At top speed, how long will it take for
the Racer to reach August?"
"Perhaps 10 days."
"We have a ship in the system, waiting as you requested," said
the War Admiral. "But at this point, without a means to neutralize the
mist, all they can do is... watch."
"I understand," said Croft. "Let me check into things with James
and see how they're going."
"Do that," said the War Admiral. "Because if you don't leave in
the next day or so, there won't be any hurry," he said grimly.
Croft nodded, severing the connection. He paused for a minute,
and then turned to Dori.
"It would take the Racer 10 days to get to August. But what if we
use the gateway to bring troops to August instantly?"
"It would be no use," said Dori. "The energy mist is still in
effect there; their weapons would be useless."
"Hmm," said Croft. "I have to see Starr, now."
"He said he wasn't to be disturbed."
"Well, he's about to be," said Croft.
He headed out of the ship towards the monument.
When he got inside, he made his way to the lab. Just as he got
there, Starr stepped out of the room. He looked grim.
"What?" said Croft. "Are you stumped?"
"No," said Starr. "We have managed to replicate the particles
that neutralize the energy draining mist."
"Just a few minutes ago," said Starr quietly.
Croft looked at his expression. "What's wrong?" Suddenly a
thought occurred to him. "Is he-"
"A few minutes ago," said Starr. "I think he fought to hold on
just long enough to make sure it worked. I now know how to replicate
the particles. But I couldn't have done it without him."
Croft looked really upset. "He's... gone? Can I see him?"
Croft entered the lab. He didn't even look at the new machinery
on one shelf; instead, he looked at a tired, worn body on the ground.
The bow tie was gone; it wasn't even blue anymore. Instead he looked
the beige straw color the other Capybaras did.
"The blue was one of his affectations," said Starr.
Croft looked at the lifeless webbed feet, the closed eyes and the
motionless snout. He started sniffling. "I haven't cried much in the
last few hundred years. But now I do it twice in two weeks, and both
times are because of him."
"He was a great... friend," said Starr, putting an arm around
Croft. "Come on. We've got a lot of work to do."
Croft looked up at Starr. "What do you mean?"
"I know how to replicate the particles we need, but the process
is slow. To replicate enough to free August from the energy mist will
take at least 10 days, at least until I figure out how-"
"We don't have 10 days," said Croft. "We have to leave in the
next day or else my friends on August will be butchered. Listen, we
don't need enough to free the entire planet, just enough for a few
square miles on Aridor."
"If we introduce it piecemeal the effect will not be lasting,"
"That doesn't matter," said Croft. "We just need it long enough
for troop transports to land and blast a large number of Insects."
"I'll get to work," said Starr briskly.
When Croft got back to the ship and told Dori the news she
started crying. They both tried to cheer the other up by telling
stories of the Meddler.
"When I first saw him, he appeared as a glowing towel," said
Croft. "He didn't want his people to know he was operating on August so
he was 'undercover'. That's why I called him Mr. Towel. He was annoyed
because he said he was trying to be a sheet, not a towel!"
Dori gave a small smile. "He always had a little air of
superiority about him, always making digs about how humans were
inferior. But he spent so much time trying to help us, and in the end
he... he....." she started sniffling again.
Some time later Starr entered the Sky Racer. "I'm not going to
sleep," he said quickly. "I'll work through the night if I have to. I
just need a break." He collapsed, exhausted, into a padded chair.
"You poor dear," said Dori, moving behind him to massage his
"Will we make it?" Croft asked.
"It depends on how little of the particles we think we can get
away with," said Starr. "I'll make as much as I can in the next twelve
hours, and we'll hope for the best."
Croft thought about it. "Why can't we use the gateway to
transport these particles, and save us a 10 day trip to August?"
Starr shook his head. "I don't think that would work. These
particles need to be released high up in the air; if you release them
on the ground their effectiveness will be most limited."
"Then we have to leave tomorrow," said Croft.
"Then we have to leave tomorrow," said Starr. He opened a
clenched hand. It contained a small object.
"What is that?" Croft asked.
"A holodisk," said Starr. "The Meddler gave it to me, right
before... I think he wanted us to play it."
He put it into the holoplayer. Everyone braced themselves.
Suddenly, the image of the Meddler Capybara appeared-blue,
healthy, black bow tie and all.
"Greetings," said the Meddler. "I'm making this recording right
before I board the Monumental ship-this time for real. There is a
significant chance that I may come to harm, which is why I make this
recording. I know you humans have a tendency to feel guilty, so part of
the reason for this message is to tell you not to feel that way. This
was my choice, and I made it. The thought of you helpless little humans
fighting that dangerous creature was more than I could bear. I hope all
of you are here listening to this, and that you all got away safely,
with the technology. If I am not around to help I am confident that
James, in time, can figure out how to replicate it; though whether he
will be able to do so in time to save your August is unclear."
The Meddler cleared his throat. "Which brings me to the second
purpose of this message. I hope you've been able to retrieve my body.
If you have, I have one request for you. I do NOT want to be returned
to my people. If you cared for me, James, Clifford, there is only one
thing I want done, and that one thing is very, very important to me."
Suddenly the image of a star map appeared, a planetary system was
enlarged, with coordinates appearing besides this.
"Are you copying this down, James?" the Meddler asked. There was
a pause. "Yes, you can replay this as much as you like, but it would be
nice if you copied these coordinates down the first time."
"All right all right," said Starr, getting a datapad. He read and
punched in the coordinates.
"Good," said the Meddler, after some time had passed. "What I
want for you is to land on the second planet. You will find a small
lake in the northern continent, near the east coast. There is only one,
so you should be able to find it. On this lake is a beach; and on this
beach is a large, flat rock. I want you to leave me there. Will you do
this for me, James or Clifford?"
The room was silent.
"I don't hear you!" said the Meddler.
"All right, all right," said Starr, as if the Capybara could
really hear him.
"Good," said the Meddler. "I'd like to say more, but I have to go
and hopefully save your lives. Be well, my friends."
The image of the Meddler faded.
Starr looked at Croft. "Well, one thing we can say: he was
himself until the very end."
Starr worked feverishly through the night. In the morning, he
brought several large objects onboard the Sky Racer.
"Is that it? Are those enough?" Croft asked.
"We'll soon find out," said Starr grimly. "While I store these in
the hold, as well as the body of our dear friend, we should leave. Take
off, Dori, and set a course for August, fastest possible speed."
The Sky Racer took off and cleared the atmosphere. The ship
buckled as it sped out of the system.
When they were two days from August, they got another message
from the War Admiral. The Insects were on the move, more quickly than
expected, and would be at the Gateway settlement in less than two days.
"Are we at 5% over maximum?" Starr asked Dori, feeling the ship
shudder as it had the past week.
"Yes," said Dori.
"Set it to 10%," said Starr.
"10%? We'll fly apart if we go 10% over for two days," said Dori.
"Hopefully it won't take two days," said Starr. "Go, Sky Racer,
go," he muttered, not for the first or the last time.
Chapter 12 Meanwhile, On Aridor....
"Has the long range scout returned?" said General Arkik.
"No," said Lieutenant Pomiter. "It's not like him to be late. Do
you think he's reliable?"
"After all we've been through, how can you even ask?" said Arkik.
"He's the most reliable scout we have."
"It's just because he is, a, you know...."
Suddenly they heard the sounds of footsteps approaching. "I
recognize his footsteps now."
The scout stepped into the room.
"Report!" said General Arkik.
"Arf arf arf arf arf!" said Quick, the 212(b) mutant Pomeranian.
"I forgot, we need an interpreter," said Arkik. "Get Levi here."
Quick's foxlike ears perked up at the mention of Levi's name.
Levi entered the hut a few minutes later, accompanied by another
officer, Major Rambus.
Quick immediately started talking rapidfire. "Arf arf arf roah
arf arf aaarrrf!"
"What's he saying?" Pomiter asked.
"Not so fast," said Levi, reaching down to pat Quick on the head
in an effort to slow him down. Levi's hand pushed Quick's ears back,
but they came right back up when the hand had passed by.
Quick started arfing again, but this time at a slower pace.
"Um hm, yes, yes, I see," said Levi. He raised an eyebrow.
"Really? You don't say?"
"What?" said Arkik. "What is he saying?"
Levi stood up, an odd expression on his face. "Want bad news
first, or worse news?"
"Just tell us what you know," Arkik said.
"Very well, bad news first," said Levi. "Bugs on the move. Will
be here in a day; maybe less."
"They're less than a day away?" said Arkik. "We aren't nearly
done building our defenses."
"Will have to work with what have," said Levi.
"You said there was worse news," said Pomiter.
"Yes," said Levi. "On return trip, Quick circled down to the
south, to see if advance party of bugs trying to flank us."
"A good idea," said Pomiter, staring at Quick admiringly.
Quick, who of course understood what Pomiter said, stuck out his
tongue and smiled.
"Quick read Sun Tzu," said Levi. "Highly proficient battle
"And farmer and administrator and computer and mayor," said
Arkik. "Can you get to the point? Is there an advance force to the
"Yes," said Levi. "But is not bugs."
"Quick not certain. But sees many boats landing to south. Looks
like bandit invasion force from Concord."
Bandits! They hadn't had any trouble with bandits from the
western continent in some time. This probably explained why. They had
conserved their resources and built up a killer attack force.
"How many were there?"
Levi turned to Quick. Quick arfed a certain number of times.
"Well?" said Arkik, as Levi appeared to be thinking about the
"Just a moment, must convert response from binary." Levi paused,
his lips moving silently. Then he said, "Quick not see them all, but
estimates that there may be several hundred."
"So it's a smaller attack force than the bugs. But we still have
the bandits on one side and the bugs on another," said Arkik. "What are
our options? Retreat?"
"At this point the bugs would catch us, if not the bandits," said
"So I believe," said Arkik. "So that leaves us with our original
plan; making a last stand on Mount Montalk."
"Just a moment," said Levi. "One other possibility."
"Yes?" said Arkik.
"Tell bandits of dangers of bugs. Get them to fight with us,
Arkik gave a bitter laugh. "I don't think so."
"Does not hurt to try to make alliance."
"Actually, it would hurt any messenger we send," said Arkik." They've
come here to either wipe us out or enslave us. Do you really think
they're going to fight with us?"
"At one time we all fight against bugs," said Levi.
"I'm not risking any of my men for this foolish venture," said
"I not asking you," said Levi. "I go, myself."
"You'll be killed," said Arkik.
"I try," said Levi. "You know that our defense plan on mountain
may save some of us, for a time. But in the end the bugs will get us."
"I don't suppose Croft will ride in to save the day," said Arkik.
"Have not heard from him since he left," said Levi.
"I suppose he's safe... wherever he is," said Arkik, a bit
Levi glared at him. "Croft is risking life to try and help us.
You see that before but forget; maybe when you see again you remember."
He turned and stalked out of the room.
"He's going to get killed, you know," said Rambus.
"I know," said Arkik.
"You want me to stop him?" Rambus asked.
Arkik considered, and shook his head. "His plan does have a slim
chance of success. And we're in a very desperate situation. If he's
willing to try it, let him." He paced back and forth. "Where is Croft?"
The exploding console sent Dori crashing to the ground. The ship
buckled, causing Croft and Starr to struggle to keep their balance as
they ran towards the control room.
Croft raised for the controls. Alarm lights flashed like mad.
"There's been an overload!" He quickly shut down the engines. He turned
to Starr. But Starr was on the ground, holding Dori, calling her name.
"Starr?" said Croft.
Dori blinked rapidly, attempted to speak, stopped, then tried
again. "I am all right," said Dori. "Switching to backups."
"I want a full system check," said Starr anxiously.
"Starr, I need you here, now!" said Croft.
Starr, glaring at Croft, looked at Dori, who nodded slightly.
"I'll be ok," she said.
Getting up, he went to the console. "We burned out one of our
main engine systems," said Starr. "We can restart the other three
units, but our speed will be limited." He looked at Croft, leaving him
to say the obvious.
"There's no way we'll make it back to August on time."
"Levi, don't go!" said his wife, Mindy, as Levi explained what
had happened and where he was about to go. "Arkik is right, you be
Levi grabbed her arms. "Mindy, have to try."
"No, Levi, no!"
Levi stopped and looked at her. "We all die otherwise. You know.
Don't want anything to happen to you. If a chance this will work, have
She grabbed him in a hug, and tears came to her eyes.
They hugged for a moment, until Levi had the odd feeling that
someone was watching him. He turned and saw Smiley.
Smiley, the odd settler who was always happy, always cheery.
Smiley the odd settler who didn't need to sleep, or eat. Smiley, the
odd one who could get hit at point blank range by a blaster or impaled
by a spear, yet never get a scratch on him. No one really knew much
about him, where he came from, why he was the way he was. All they knew
was his name.
"Hi Levi," said Smiley, giving a broad smile.
"Hey Smiley," said Levi, slowly disengaging from Mindy. He
started to look about for a few things he might need.
"What're you doing?" said Smiley.
"Getting ready to go on trip," said Levi.
"A trip? I like trips," said Smiley. "Why don't you take me with
"You not want go on this trip, Smiley," said Levi.
"If you're going to make friends with the bandits, maybe I can
help," said Smiley. "I like making friends."
Levi looked at Smiley oddly. "How did you know about bandits? How
you know I going?"
"Maybe I can help," said Smiley.
"How could you possibly know...."
"So many questions, yes, surprising from the scientist man," came
a new, mocking voice.
Levi turned to see Mongo. Mongo was a former Gamma operative for
the Column who had the ability, sometimes, to see flashes of the
"You too?" said Levi. "You want come along?"
"Nooooo!" Mongo hissed. "Esherkol being very foolissssh, must not
"Why?" said Levi.
"Bandits, bandits may say, 'Not like cook, let us stick a spear
through him, cook him over fire.'"
"Bandits may say," said Levi. "That means only one possible
Mongo hissed and shook his head. "Must not go."
"Have to," said Levi.
Mongo turned to Smiley, and a thought struck him. "Yes, Smiley,
you go, you go, go with Esherkol!"
"What?" said Levi. "Will be safe with Smiley?"
"No, not safe. No guarantee. Take Smiley; if you take Smiley, you
may have chance, yes, yes, is possible, one of possibles," Mongo
Levi nodded. "All right, Smiley, pack your things."
Smiley grinned. "I have no things!"
As they crossed the threshold of the guardpost at Gateway's
perimeter, Levi heard rapid footsteps from behind. He turned to see
Quick galloping up.
"Arf arf!" said the type 212(b) mutant Pomeranian.
"No, Quick," said Levi.
"Arf arf!" the Pom insisted.
"No!" said Levi. He pointed back to Gateway. "Go back."
"Arf!" said Quick.
"Go back," Levi repeated. "Be good mutated dog."
Quick bowed his head. Slowly he turned and walked two steps back
towards the settlement. Then he turned around again in Levi's
direction, his head lowered, looking guilty.
Levi, knowing better, was still standing there, with his finger
pointed back to the settlement. "No sulking!"
The Pomeranian scampered away.
Levi and Smiley started walking. According to Quick's
intelligence, the bandits were only a few hours south of the
settlement, and closing rapidly.
As they walked Levi struck up a conversation. "What you about,
"I mean, you're obviously not human," said Levi.
"What makes you say that?" Smiley asked.
"Humans eat," said Levi. "Humans sleep. When humans are shot by
blasters, they die."
"Not always," said Smiley.
"When humans are shot at point blank range, they die," said Levi.
"Also, when they are impaled with a spear, they usually die.
"Almost always. And they always bleed. You don't."
Smiley gave a grin.
"So what exactly are you?" said Levi. "Where are you from?"
Suddenly, he heard a rumble. He turned to see that Smiley had stopped
And he no longer smiled.
Staring intently at Levi with a newfound hardness Levi had never
seen, Smiley spoke very, very quietly.
"I don't like to talk about that."
And then, as if a spell had been broken, he was all smiles again,
and he grinned ear to ear as he walked with Levi along the path.
It was about three hours later when they were ambushed. Four
bandits, obviously an advance party, jumped out from behind a group of
boulders. All had spears.
"What do we have here?" said one of the ruffians.
"I have message for your leader," said Levi.
The ruffian laughed. "Well, what a coincidence; I have a message
I want you to deliver to your leader!"
"What?" said Levi.
The ruffian lunged, intending to impale Levi. Levi, startled,
moved back a step, and Smiley quickly moved forward, taking the spear
in the stomach.
The ruffian grinned as he impaled Smiley. He looked up at
Smiley's face, expecting an expression of agony.
Instead, all he got was a smile.
"I really think you should be more open minded," said Smiley. He
pulled the spear out of his gut, with no more effort than pulling a
toothpick out of a saniholder. "I think you misplaced this, my friend."
The bandits looked at Smiley with wonder and fear, wondering if
they could believe their eyes.
"Does this all the time," said Levi.
They were led, under escort, to the main bandit force, which was
traveling about an hour behind the advance party. Levi gulped when he
saw them; there were indeed hundreds of bandits there, maybe a
thousand, and they were all well armed, with homemade spears, swords,
and bow and arrows. A few even had body armor.
And then, when he turned a corner, he saw that even Quick hadn't
seen the full force; there weren't just hundreds, there were thousands!
Perhaps three or four thousand, by the looks of them.
Their leader was a man with a scar on his face being carried in a
large chair. A runner ran up to the leader, whispered something, and
the bearers slowly lowered the chair. Levi and Smiley were brought
before the leader.
"You must be very brave, or very foolish!" said the bandit. He
gave a nasty grin. "Do you know who I am?"
Levi shook his head.
"The name is Cutter," said the bandit, suddenly drawing a sharp,
serrated blade. "Wonder how I got my name?"
Levi shook his head again.
"Maybe you need a demonstration anyway," said Cutter, moving
"We have a message for you, my friend," said Smiley.
"What?" said Cutter, turning his attention to Smiley. "What did
you call me?"
"My friend," said Smiley.
"Do you know what I do to people who call me their friend?" said
Cutter, thinking Smiley was mocking him..
"You stab them with your shiny sharp thing?" said Smiley.
Cutter, convinced now he was being made a fool of, lunged with
his sword. And then Smiley did something that caused even Levi, Levi
who had seen Smiley in action before, to be very, very surprised.
Smiley held up one hand. An open palm. The point of Cutter's
blade jabbed into Smiley's hand, and-
Bounced off, with a clang. The sword, jarred, fell from Cutter's
"Who, what, are you?" said Cutter, grasping a sprained wrist.
"We have a message for you," said Levi. "You have come to attack
our settlement. But there is greater enemy we have to face."
"Greater enemy?" said Cutter. "You mean, another gang?"
Levi shook his head. "Insects."
"Bugs?" Cutter gave a laugh, joined in by his closest sycophants.
"Do you think I'm an idiot?"
"Some of them survived," said Levi. "Mutated, colony on east
coast of Aridor."
"East coast? That's thousands of miles from here," said Cutter.
"Been on march for months, will be here any time now," said Levi.
"Well, isn't that just a coincidence," said Cutter. "That the
bugs would arrive at just the same time as we do. Let me guess-you want
us to retreat so we won't get hurt, right?"
"No," said Levi. "Want help fighting bugs."
"Oh, I see," said Cutter. "We join up with you, and get a blade
in our back for our efforts. How dumb do you really think we are?"
"Levi said you were no smarter than cretins," said Smiley. He
looked troubled for a moment, then added, "What does cretin mean?"
"Any sign of them?" said General Arkik. He was patrolling the
outer fence along the rim of the Gateway settlement. He squinted in the
late afternoon light.
"None when I checked 15 minutes ago," said Major Rambus. He
looked up at the watchtower they had built just inside the fence. "Let
Suddenly, they heard a little dog yapping. "Arf, arf, arf arf!"
"Open the gate!" called a voice from the watchtower.
The gate opened to reveal a small dog.
The dog ran up to Arkik.
"What is it, boy?" said Arkik.
"Arf, arf!" said Quick.
"Why did we let our only translator go?" said Arkik
"Arf arf!" Quick insisted.
Suddenly they heard a shout from the watchtower. "I see them!"
they heard Lieutenant Pomiter yell from above.
"How many?" yelled Major Rambus.
"Hard to say," said Pomiter. "Several columns. And they have
Torches. They could burn down the fence.
"Action stations!" said Arkik.
Major Rambus yelled "Action Stations!" and a group of runners
stationed near the fence started off to various points in the
settlement, each repeating his message. In under two minutes the fences
were fully manned. They should have been; General Arkik had drilled
them frequently enough.
"What's happening?" said Mayor Goodmon, stumbling outside towards
"We're being attacked," said Arkik. "I suggest you join the other
non-combatants and head up Mount Montalk." One side of the camp was
bordered by the imposing mountain.
"All right," said Goodmon. He started heading in the other
"Where are you going?" Arkik said.
"To pack," said Goodmon.
"Quick!" said Arkik.
"Escort the Mayor to safety."
The small Pomeranian moved in front of the Mayor, blocking his
way. The Mayor moved to go around him, but the Pomeranian matched him,
step for step.
"Get out of my way!" said Goodmon.
"Grrrrrrrrr!" said Quick.
Goodmon, shrinking back, said, "All right, all right!" and turned
towards the mountain.
The troops waited in silence by the fence as the columns
approached. It took several minutes for them to get close, and then
they stopped altogether, just forty feet from the gate.
A spokesman for the bandits stepped forward. He said, in a loud
voice, "You are only going to be given one chance. Surrender, now, and
no one has to get hurt."
Arkik stepped up on the walkway over the fence. "If you don't
call slavery, rape, and murder hurt."
"Who are you?" said the spokesman.
"My name is General Sirry Arkik," said Arkik.
The bandits started murmuring to themselves.Another bandit
stepped forward. It was Cutter.
"General Arkik!" he said, his voice booming. "I salute you,
General. As a fellow warrior, I give you a chance to step down, and
leave. You and your troops will not be harmed. We only want the food
and the civilians."
"I'm afraid that's not possible," said Arkik.
"We outnumber you, General," said Cutter. "A good soldier knows
when not to fight."
"Then you should know not to fight," said Arkik. "We're about to
be overrun by the Insects. If we wear each other down, the bugs will
feast on us afterwards."
Cutter gave a belly laugh. "Yes, we heard that story too. Let me
show you a more concrete danger you face." He gave a shrill whistle.
Two wooden boards were rolled up. Levi was tied to one board,
Smiley to the other.
"If you don't surrender, I'll have to execute your two fine
friends," said Cutter.
Rambus looked at Arkik; Arkik was expressionless.
"Well, General, what will it be?" said Cutter. He drew his sword,
and started walking casually towards the captives.
Arkik wet his lips and said, "You can't seriously believe that I
would place two lives over the rest of ours?"
Cutter gave him an odd look. "I don't know that," he said. "These
may be valuable to you. Let's find out."
Pomiter, in the watchtower, gasped; so did a number of other
soldiers on perimeter duty as Cutter stood before Levi, raising his
Suddenly, a burst of something small and furry raced from the
settlement towards the captive.
"It's Quick!" "How did he get out there!" "He'll be skewered!"
Cutter stood with his blade raised, staring into Levi's eyes.
Levi quivered, shaking furiously. Cutter smiled. He was going to enjoy
every second of this.
He was about to plunge the blade down, when he felt a sharp pain
in his leg.
"Ow!" he yelled, looking down to see a small dog clamped on his
leg. Cutter roared, and kicked out, sending the small animal flying. It
landed in a heap, just a few feet from Smiley.
"What is this?" Cutter roared. "A mutt with more courage than all
of you put together!"
He casually walked over to Quick, who was moaning, slowly shaking
"Let's have some fun with this one first," said Cutter, standing
over the wounded Pom, swishing his blade experimentally. "Who wants the
top half?" he roared, raising his blade.
"No!" Levi cried, fumbling against the ropes holding him. But he
The blade came swinging down, and Quick, either too hurt or
disoriented to move, just lay there, as the blade moved down.
Levi closed his eyes, and heard a meaty chunking sound. He heard
a gasp from the other bandits.
"No!" Levi cried out again.
Involuntarily, he opened his eyes.
Cutter was standing there, his sharp blade thrusted down,
plunging into and through Smiley's lower arm. Turning his gaze, Levi
saw that Smiley's ropes had been broken as if they were nothing more
than tissue paper.
Smiley slowly pulled the blade out of his arm. "I'm sorry, but I
can't allow you to hurt my little animal friend," said Smiley. He
looked down at Quick. The animal was whining softly.
"You have hurt him," said Smiley. And then his face grew harder.
Suddenly, everyone felt a tremendous tension.
"Maybe I should hurt you," said Smiley. He was no longer smiling.
Everyone heard a rumbling sound. Cutter, a look of fear on his face,
took an involuntary step back.
Suddenly, the silence that followed, they heard a sound. No,
actually a group of sounds, like a whine... or a buzz.
They all turned and looked to where the sound was coming from, a
nearby hill about a half mile away. They watched silently as a single
figure came over the hill.
Then a small group.
Then a larger group.
In a few seconds, thousands of Insects were swarming down the
Levi clenched his fist. Finally! The bandits saw the danger. They
would have no choice now but to join up with the settlers to-
"Bugs!" "Let's get out of here!" Levi's communitarian thoughts
were interrupted by a stampede as the bandits fled as fast as their
feet could take them. They raised such a dust cloud as they ran that it
took a few seconds for it to settle down.
When it did, they were gone.
Smiley came over and snapped Levi's bounds with his fingers. He
carried the semi-conscious Quick in one arm.
Quick had a small trail of blood coming out of his mouth. That
meant one thing: internal injuries. On a planet without technology,
that was a death sentence.
"No," Levi cried, taking Quick into his arms. The wounded animal
cried out in pain.
"Get inside, get inside!" General Arkik yelled, as the horde of
The swarms of bugs closed on the settlement. Levi got inside just
as the first wave of bugs appeared around the bend in the road.
"Close the gate, close the gate!" someone yelled.
The flimsy gate closed almost in the face of the first wave of
attackers. The bugs hurtled themselves against the fence. Others
started climbing over it. In minutes, the defenders would be overrun.
But all Levi could think about was his little dog. "My poor brave
animal," he cried, as he let Smiley lead him away.
Quick mumbled something and then fell unconscious.
The first Insect heads started to poke over the fence, and the
screams of men could be heard.
"They're climbing the fence," said Rambus, looking at Arkik. "We
won't be able to hold them!"
Arkik didn't respond, but instead hobbled off to yell a command
to his troops valiantly defending the fence. The Insects were pouring
over the fence now. The troopers were stabbing them with their spears,
but there were just too many; when one was stabbed, several would
appear to replace the fallen one.
"Fall back, fall back!" Arkik yelled, as he watched the black
hoard get closer and closer.
Where was Croft? WHERE WAS CROFT?
Chapter 13 The Standard Imperium Comes to the Rescue
"We're 100 million miles from August," said Starr, nursing the
engines as best he could.
"We're getting a transmission," said Croft. He pressed a button,
and the image of the War Admiral appeared.
"We're almost there!" said Croft, before the War Admiral could
"I'm not sure if it will matter," said the War Admiral slowly.
"We have a ship in the area conducting long range photo recon."
"And?" said Croft.
"The Aridor settlement has been overrun," said the War Admiral.
"Totally?" said Croft.
"It's hard to tell," said the War Admiral. "Get there as soon as
you can. My people are waiting."
Starr feverishly worked the controls. From behind him, Dori whispered,
"Go Sky Racer, go!"
Several dozen Insects charged up the mountain path. They swarmed
over the crushed bodies of their predecessors, climbing higher and
higher. Then, all of a sudden, there was a rumble. The bugs turned to
flee, but were quickly overtaken by boulders, that crushed them and
left green fluid leaking over the path.
"20 down, 10,000 more to go," said Major Rambus grimly. He stood
at the current defense perimeter, halfway up the mountain.
Lieutenant Pomiter approached, saluting. "Sir! We only have
enough rocks for three or four more assaults at this level. Then we'll
have to retreat upwards."
"That's all right," said General Arkik calmly, as he hobbled
forward. "Look, over there, and there."
The Insects were climbing up the sides of the mountain even where
there was no path. The going was tough, and for every one that climbed
up two would fall off, but they kept coming.
"They'll flank us within an hour or two," said Arkik calmly, as
if he were talking about the weather.
"We still haven't used the archers, sir," said Rambus. Since the
path was so winding, there was little space for them.
"Rest assured they will see action before the end," said Arkik.
The Insects continued to advance. At the base of the mountain
their only way up was the path, but as they climbed higher and higher
they found alternate routes that were scalable. It no longer made sense
to have troops drop boulders on the path, as the bugs were climbing
from all sides.
Arkik stood on the top of Mount Montalk, watching the sun rise.
It had been a bitter two days. They had taken only a relatively small
number of casualties, but that was because they had been able to keep
the Insects penned in the path. Now that the Insects were spread out
over all sides of the mountain, they wouldn't be able to hold out much
Arkik turned away for a moment to watch the civilians huddled on
the mountain top, and his soldiers standing guard. Some of the braver
settlers had taken up arms with his soldiers, while the others, the
"Goodmon crowd", as he dubbed it, simply sat on the rock face,
shivering in the breeze.
He turned back to watch the sun rise. It might be the last
sunrise he'd ever see.
"Yesss..." hissed a voice.
Arkik turned to see Mongo slinking around. "So?" said Arkik.
"You wants to know what happens, yes," said Mongo. "Always,
always they ask Mongo."
"Does Croft return?" said Arkik.
"Yes," said Mongo. "Always in all futures I see Croft returns."
"Really?" said Arkik, allowing himself to hope for the first time
"Yes," said Mongo. "See many futures with Croft, sad Croft,
"Yes, comes here, looked at bodies on mountaintop. Says tribute
to his friends-the cook, you, some others, even silly fluffy white dog.
Doesn't say anything about Mongo, of course; complete forgets that
Mongo is here," said Mongo. "Very typical," he adds.
"So he won't get here in time?" said Arkik.
Mongo shrugs. "Sometimes he does, sometimes he does not."
"You seem very calm at the prospect of your own death," said
"Oh, Mongo not die," said Mongo brightly. "Mongo know how to
hide." He scampered off and disappeared in the distance.
Arkik turned and let the sun and wind bathe him.
August. It loomed large on the screen.
The holoimage of an officer appeared on the Sky Racer's comm
system. "That's as far as you go," said the officer. He wore the same
style of unfamiliar uniform that the War Admiral had been wearing. "The
entire space from here to August is blanketed in that stuff. Can you
clear it up?"
"That's what we're going to find out," said Croft grimly.
"We'll have to clear a path from here to August," said Starr. "I
don't know if we have enough of the particles to do that."
"I think we're about to find out," said Croft. He aimed the
"Is the payload ready?"
"Yes," said Starr.
"Fire!" said Croft, stabbing the button.
A spherical ball shot out of the Sky Racer. It sped into orbit
around August, and exploded. A misty spray, not unlike the energy mist
in appearance, spread out over the sky.
They waited a moment. Starr anxiously checked the sensors.
Starr shook his head.
"Load the second canister into the launch tube," said Croft.
"My poor poor little dog," said Levi. Mindy was holding him in
her arms, rocking him gently. His eyes were closed. Every so often Levi
felt anxiously for a pulse. It was thin and thready.
"Can't operate?" said Mindy. "Even without power?"
"Need facilities," said Levi. He gestured around the mountaintop.
"Have no surgical instruments, anesthetics. Quick so weak, that
operation without electrostasis might kill." He reached out to pet the
They heard shouts and sounds of combat around them.
"They've reached the top," said Mindy. "What are we going to do,
The mass of unarmed civilians looked nervously around as Insects popped
their heads up around the edges of the mountaintop. Guardsman ran to
spear them down as they approached, but more and more kept appearing.
"Maybe we can surrender," said Mayor Goodmon nervously. "We're
Levi snorted derisively, and said nothing.
General Arkik directed the battle as best he could. "More
flankers to the north face!" he bellowed, sending a platoon of spearmen
to the northface where there was an Insect breakout.
When the Insects started to breach the mountaintops in ones and
twos, the soldiers could spear them and push them down; when they
breached in fives and tens, the soldiers had their hands full; when
they breached in groups of twenties and more, the soldiers were slowly
When a mass of Insects had gathered on the surface of the rock
plain, Arkik saw the opportunity. "Archers!" he yelled.
A company of bowmen formed up in well rehearsed rows. They
notched their bows.
The Insects scampered towards them.
They fired; a wave of Insects went down. But they kept coming.
They fired a second volley; another wave went down. But more kept
They managed to get off a third volley, and a forth, before the
Insects were on them; barely giving them time to switch to spears.
That's when they started taking heavy losses.
Always they were pushed back, back to the center of the
mountaintop, where the civilians were waiting in a huddled mass; they
were pushed from the north, from the south, from the east, and from the
west; and there was no escape.
As soon as one bug was cut down, several more would replace it;
and more and more frequently, a person would be bitten, or cruelly cut
by the bugs, and fellow soldiers would try to pull him back, if he were
still alive. But the circle kept tightening relentlessly.
"Firing 7," said Starr. The canister ejected from the ship, and
burst into a fine mist into the upper atmosphere of August. He went and
studied the readings on the scanner.
"Well?" said Croft anxiously.
"I'm detecting a partial clearing."
"Partial?" said Croft.
"The energy mist has been partially neutralized," said Starr.
"Largely in some places, partially in others," said Starr. "I did
warn you that a piecemeal effort was not likely to be effective."
"We didn't have the time to replicate more of these particles,"
said Croft. "Fire another one."
"We can't," said Starr. "There are only three canisters left, and
those are the bare minimum we need for the lower atmosphere."
"Then we're going in," said Croft grimly, taking the controls.
"But the energy drain-"
"We're going in," said Croft again, angling the Sky Racer towards
August. "Signal the warship to follow us in."
The circle of defenders tightened considerably. The mountaintop
was now covered with hundreds of Insects, with many on the sides of the
mountain clammoring to get to the top.
The odd thing was, that Arkik made some soldiers retreat faster
than they needed to. He always made sure that the defending forces were
in an almost exact circle around the central mass of civilians.
Goodmon and the others who were wondering about this soon found
There hadn't been time to construct defensive structures or
fortifications on the top of Mount Montalk; that's why several thousand
settlers stood shivering on a barren mountain top. But they did have
time to create one, last ditch defense effort.
The defense circle tightened, and the soldiers retreated back
into a thin ditch that circled the encampment. The ditch was only about
two feet deep and four feet wide; it had hastily been constructed over
the past few days. At the inner edges of this ditch were large pots
manned by guardsmen.
"Phase 1!" Arkik shouted, and the guardsmen poured the jugs into
An oily black substance started to cover the ditch.
The soldiers were still fighting for their lives, with several of
them getting hacked every minute in an effort to hold the perimeter
just inside the ditch. As the black substance sloshed into the ditch
the soldiers made sure not to come in contact with it. When a thin
layer covered most of the ditch, Arkik yelled, "Phase 2! Everyone
Everyone took two steps back. The Insects roared and charged.
Flaming torches were thrown into the ditch. Instantly, they burst into
Screeching, burning Insects burst through the wall of flame, some
dead on contact, some still attacking even when on fire. The defensive
perimeter was so tight that the remaining defenders didn't have much
room to maneuver.
The Insects screeched from behind the wall of fire. Every so
often one would attempt to jump through where the fire was weaker; and
some soldier would have to risk his life again to stab the burning
"Keep pouring the oil!" Arkik said. He eyed the reserves. They
had enough for perhaps 10 or 20 minutes more.
He looked up at the sky. Where was Croft? Where was he????
"We don't have a clear reading," said the hologram of the officer
on the warship. "How can we tell if it's safe?"
"Just follow us in," said Croft. "If you see we don't crash, then
"You can!" Croft snapped. "My friends are dying down there. I
risked my life on something more terrible than you can ever imagine,
and I didn't do it just to stand here and watch them die!"
The officer looked stunned by the intensity of Croft's
determination. Then he nodded, and said, "Yes sir. Following you down."
The Sky Racer raced down into August's atmosphere.
"So far so good," said Starr, studying the instruments.
A few seconds later, however, the power levels flickered.
"We're losing power!" said Starr. "It must be another pocket of
energy draining mist!"
The power levels continued to drain. "I'll have to fire another
canister!" said Starr. He fired away.
In a few seconds, power levels regained some of their former
"Two canisters left," said Starr. "And we're still 30 miles up."
The Sky Racer streaked down into the atmosphere. It wasn't long
before the power levels started to flicker again. Starr was forced to
fire a canister. That left one left.
"That's the last of it, sir," said Pomiter, reporting on the
supply of oil.
Arkik nodded. He watched the wall of flame burn. How long would
it be before it went out? He could see the teaming Insects behind the
wall, clicking their mandibles.
"Sir?" said Pomiter.
Arkik looked at him.
"It's been an honor serving with you, sir," said Pomiter.
Arkik put a hand on Pomiter's shoulder, and nodded.
The wall of flame started to lose its intensity. The Insects
steeled themselves for a final rush.
And then-all of a sudden they heard a popping noise above them.
Something exploded above them.
"What was that?" said Arkik. He looked up, and could see nothing.
But a moment later, a fine mist seemed to drop down on him.
More of the energy draining mist?
But this mist didn't look like that mist... it sparkled more.
And then they heard a loud sonic boom, and they saw something
that no one had seen in years.
A spaceship. A small scoutship, plowing straight down towards the
At first Arkik wondered what the ship was doing when he realized
that it was out of control. It was going to crash, right on the mass of
The ship sped down, and everyone looked up, even the Insects,
helpless to do anything but look and watch, and then they heard the
roar of the ship's engines kick in, and at the last minute, it leveled
out, flying parallel to the mountaintop, mere feet above their heads;
and the gust of wind from that flyby was so intense that it knocked
many off their feet, Insect and human alike.
Suddenly everyone in the perimeter was cheering, or clapping, or
yelling, or some of all these things; and as the Insects started to
cross the perimeter, which was burning out now, there was renewed hope
and the defenders fought back with intensive vigor.
And then something started to come out of the sky above them. It
looked like little bits of metal, coming down from the sky; as they got
closer, they looked like people in spacesuits; as they got really
closed, and turned on their suit jets, they realized it could only be
Elite jumptroops. Every armed forces had a small number of these,
troops in powered armor who could maneuver in the air at will. Somehow,
somewhere, someone had gotten their hands on some jumptroop armor.
The troops landed down just inside the perimeter, and started
blazing away with blaster rifles.
Blaster rifles! If it hadn't been apparent before, it was now;
power was working again on August, for the first time in years!
The Insects charged, shrieking their terrible sounds, and the
jump troop mowed them down. But there were only a handful of jump
troop, not more than two dozen, and even they started to be
overwhelmed. Whenever a jump troop fell a guardsman would attempt to
pick up his blaster rifle, but all too often the body of the jump
trooper would be covered with large live or dead Insects. There were
still too many of them.
And then they heard a second roar and saw above them a destroyer;
in fact, it was a fast attack destroyer, the fastest the War Admiral
had been able to dispatch. Fast attack destroyers were never intended
to enter a planet's atmosphere, but no one had told the captain of this
ship that fact; the ship hovered over the mountain top briefly; its
main torpedo launcher could not be used, because it would decimate all
life on the mountaintop. Even the secondary laser weaponry could not be
used close to the frontlines of the battle. But it could, if carefully
deployed, be used against the rear echelons.
In seconds the destroyer opened up, mowing down lines of Insects
along the edges of the mountain trying to get to the front lines. The
ship fired and fired, and hundreds of Insects died, making horrible
And then the ship did what it was never intended to do, landing,
setting down on the edge of the mountaintop it had just cleared. As it
set down more Insects climbed up the mountaintop and were crushed under
the ship as it landed.
A door opened, and troopers streamed out of the ship. There was a
company in all, 120 regular army troopers, joined by 40 volunteers,
half the naval officers and crew of the destroyer, all armed with
blaster rifles. The ship's guns opened fire to give them cover as they
established a perimeter and surged towards the settler perimeter.
The Insects, caught from behind, turned to face this new threat;
and though they outnumbered the troopers 10 to one on the mountaintop
(with new reserves constantly climbing the mountain), they didn't have
energy weapons. A trooper could kill five Insects in ten seconds; an
Insect might kill one trooper, if he could get close enough without
getting shot. Troopers fell, but many more Insects died.
"We've got to do something," said Croft, observing the scene from
the Racer, which was hovering above the battle.
"You're not going down there," said Dori, before Starr could
speak. "You're only two blasters, you won't make a difference, you'll
just get killed."
"Maybe there is something we can do," said Croft. He tapped
Starr on the shoulder as he sat down in the copilot's seat. "Strafing
The Sky Racer zoomed down over the mountaintop. Its small frontal
lasers streaked out, blasting rows of the attacking bugs. The Sky Racer
made a tight turn as it passed the mountain, turned around, and
attacked again, guns blazing. But more bug kept coming up the sides of
the mountain. The supply seemed endless.
A brave combined force of 30 army and naval troopers surged
towards the settler lines, losing casualties left and right until they
could get there. But 20 of them made it there, and hooked up with the
15 or so jump troopers who survived as well as the spear equipped
The fighting continued for close to two hours, as piles and piles
of Insect bodies formed around them. Although the troopers were holding
their own, they were running out of spare blaster power packs.
Croft could hear the reports that the troops were running low on
"There's just too many of them!" said Dori.
Croft, looking grim, nodded. He could see that the settlers would
be overrun. The destroyer was in danger too. "Get me the destroyer
Dori hesitated, fearing what he had in mind.
"Do it!" Croft snapped.
The weary defenders, still blasting away, were startled to hear a
loud noise and saw a sight which drove fear into all of them. It was
the destroyer. It was taking off. It was leaving them behind!
"They're abandoning us," said Major Rambus, looking stunned.
"I don't believe it," said one of the troopers.
The destroyer took off, and dropped below the mountaintop.
Suddenly, they heard the very loud sounds of weaponsfire.
The destroyer blasted at the sides of the mountain, slowly
maneuvering around to get access to all sides. The mountain was
crawling with Insects climbing up, but the ship's guns made short work
of large numbers of them exposed on the rockface. The ship blasted
again and again, killing several thousand in the space of a few minutes
as it circled the mountain again and again, opening fire.
And then, as if somehow the Insects knew they had reached a
casualty point they couldn't sustain, the Insects started to change
direction. No longer were they climbing up the mountain, but rather
With the Insects on top no longer receiving constant
reinforcements, the bugs on top suddenly became finite. Most of the
troopers ran out of blaster energy as they were wiping out the last
groups of bugs, and the last three or four troopers with active blaster
packs could be seen running from one part of the mountaintop to
another, assisting spearwielding guardsmen and troopers in taking down
And then, finally, it was over.
The Sky Racer set down on the mountaintop, crushing a large pile
of mostly dead Insects. Croft bounded down the steps, followed by
"Oh my," he whispered, looking at the piles of bodies. And not
all of them were Insects. Of the 5,000 settlers and guardsmen, nearly
300 had been killed, and 700 had been wounded, many of them seriously.
And that didn't count the casualties among the rescuing troopers.
When people saw Croft many of them came over and shook his hand.
He had delivered. A dirty and bloody General Arkik hobbled over. "You
made it," he said.
Croft nodded. "I'm sorry I'm late; I almost didn't make it."
Arkik nodded, sensing there was a larger story to be told. They
watched the casualties being helped by the field medics.
Something was odd about the regular army and navy soldiers. It
was those uniforms again. The navy people were wearing black and dark
blue uniforms, very different from the standard League light Blue, and
the army were wearing similar colors.
Suddenly Croft caught Levi hobbling over to him.
"Levi!" said Croft, breaking out into a smile.
"Quick!" said Levi. "Does ship have electrostasis facility?"
"We don't," said Starr. "But maybe the destroyer does."
They hurriedly grabbed a medic. It turned out that the destroyer
"Must hurry!" said Levi. He waved an arm and Mindy, escorted by a
naval officer, came over, carrying a small dirty furry animal.
Croft saw it was Quick, and that he was bleeding.
They ran for the Sky Racer. As Starr, Quick, and Mindy raced
inside, Croft stopped the naval officer. "What's with the uniform?" he
"My uniform?" said the officer. "It's standard issue in the
"Standard issue in the Standard Imperium?" said Croft, looking
"Didn't you know?" said the naval officer. "That's right, you
couldn't have. The energy mist. There have been a lot of changes since
you've been out of circulation. The Alliance and the League have been
dissolved. The government is under direct military rule now."
"Military rule? Whose rule?"
"War Admiral Norman North, of course," said the naval officer.
"Of course," said Croft ironically.
Croft stood on the ramp of the Sky Racer, watching the sun dip
into the sea in the west. The War Admiral, the Meddler Capybara, and
Starr had all failed to mention this minor change in government. Croft
eyed the mounds of Insect bodies, and the wounded being attended by the
field medics. He felt a cool breeze and let himself be bathed by the
He felt himself take a deep breath, the first deep easy breath he
had taken in some time. He felt as if he were waking up out of a
nightmare, as if better times were ahead.
Part II Rise of the Standard Imperium
Chapter 14 Reconstruction
It was only a month later, but things were already brighter.
Literally-since the energy mist had been dissipated, the sun burned
more brightly in the August sky. Croft squinted as he put his hand up
against the morning sun. He had forgotten how bright it really was.
As he walked up to the tarmac of Sarney Sarittenden Spaceport, he
noticed the black and blue clad soldiers in position. The War Admiral
didn't have nearly enough troops to secure the planet (yet), but a
garrison had been sent down to restore order at Sarney.
Croft had to admit that at first he hadn't known what to think of
it. A military coup? The War Admiral, a dictator? It was all very new
Croft eyed the ground troops. They had a streak of gold in their
black and blue uniforms. That meant they were regular army. Well, the
uniforms were certainly striking. Maybe that would be enough to make it
all work, he thought wryly.
He had to show his ID when he entered the spaceport, and again
when he got to the entrance of the hospital ship Partan. Alert troopers
scanned the spaceport, their blaster rifles slowly rotating. The gangs
and looters had been largely driven out, but there were still pockets
Naturally, all the facilities were long since looted and
destroyed; they had been in bad shape after the Insects had been driven
out, and years of energy deprivation hadn't improved the situation. So
all the badly wounded were tended for on the Partan.
Croft thought back to the situation after their heroic stand on
Mount Montalk. Once the area was clear, the war-weary survivors gave
them a rousing cheer. But cheer turned to alarm when the destroyer
reported that the energy draining mist was intensifying again. The
destroyer and the Sky Racer took on all the wounded they could, and
blasted out into orbit. Power levels fluctuated but they made it.
The first thing Starr did was return to the monument to
synthesize more of the particles to combat the energy draining mist. He
took several scientists with him to speed the work. He returned two
weeks later, releasing a round of globes in orbit which exploded,
carrying mist (the good kind) down into the atmosphere. Within hours
most of August was free of the energy draining mist.
The War Admiral managed to muster a brigade to reoccupy Sarney.
The fleet was stretched very thin, and the ground forces weren't in
much better shape.
Croft walked through the corridors, only stopping to ask
directions at a nurse's station. He made a few more turns and then
entered a private hospital suite, reserved for top VIP's.
He entered the room to see a patient lying on his back in bed and
watching a holovideo. The patient's body was under a sheet up to his
waist, but his paws stuck out on top of the sheet.
"Arf! Arf arf arf!" said the patient.
Croft smiled as he entered the room.
Quick stuck out his tongue by way of greeting.
"He smell your gift," said Levi, who was sitting by Quick's bed.
Croft took a small wrapped package out of his pocket.
Quick shook his head.
"He not like dog food," said Levi.
"I should have known," Croft sighed. "How're you doing, boy?"
"Arf!" Quick stuck out his tongue and panted again.
Croft motioned with his finger for Levi to come with him to the
other side of the room.
"How did it go?" Croft said in a low voice.
"Was saved just in time," said Levi. "But should make full
"That's a relief," said Croft, in a low voice. "You told me he
was injured when a bandit kicked him. Did you ever think of making a
larger, more robust-"
"Shhh!" Levi warned.
"Arf!" said Quick, from the other side of the room, his foxlike
ears perked up.
Levi took Croft out of the room. "Is very sensitive," he said.
"Quick not designed for combat; designed to be smart-"
"-and cute, I know, I know," said Croft. He sighed. "Well, I'm
glad he's going to recover. I already lost one animal friend this
He sat down and told Levi about his adventures on the Monumental
ship, and the loss of the Meddler Capybara.
Levi looked very sad when the story was told. "You've been
through a lot. Very sorry to hear of loss of Meddler. Was my friend
Croft nodded. "I have to go and get ready."
"Ready?" said Levi. "For what?"
"Didn't you notice all those capital ships in orbit?" said Croft.
"Didn't you know the Glory is here?"
"The Glory? The War Admiral?"
"Now that the capital of the Alliance has been reclaimed, at
least for a few square miles around Sarney, he's going to formally
announce the formation of the Standard Imperium," said Croft.
Levi gave him a look. "What you think of all this?"
"I'm for it," said Croft.
"Why?" said Levi.
"The War Admiral is giving me another medal," said Croft.
The sight was truly impressive. Hundreds of dignitaries stood in
the Plaza of Leaders, just outside the Sarney palace. Two squadrons of
Wildcat145-D and 150-B's streaked over the sky, followed seconds later
by four squadrons of Trobadore B-34 fighters. A few seconds later a
pair of battleships streaked by, followed by a heavy cruiser squadron.
The sound of the flyby was almost deafening. Everyone looked up to see
those powerful ships merely several hundred feet above their heads.
And then the ships were gone, and several companies of troopers,
all in black and blue and gold, marched into the square. They were
followed by naval troops, in black and blue and gold, and even naval
marines, in black, blue, with a combined gold and silver twist. They
were even followed by a platoon of gravitator tanks.
Croft found the display impressive. But he would have been more
impressed if he hadn't known that these troops and ships on display
were a large part of the Imperium's forces. Take those two battleships-
those were two of only four battleships left. In the entire fleet. Or
those Wildcat and Trobadore squadrons. From what Croft had heard, that
was an entire quarter of the space fighter fleet. The army was in
little better condition.
Part of the problem was supply. With only one shipyard free of
the mist interference, few ships were built during the past few years.
With most planets under the influence of the mist, rebuilding of the
army and manufacturing of weapons could only take place on a handful of
But the rebuilding was beginning. Starr was working overtime to
manufacture the counteragent mist so that the other planets could be
freed. The economies of planets which had suffered both occupation and
the mist would certainly be in shambles; but in time, they would
Trumpets blared, and someone came down the bright blue carpet,
escorted by an armed guard. It was the War Admiral. Decked out in the
new official Imperium Uniform, he walked slowly to a podium, which had
just been set in front of the giant stone throne. There was wild
cheering and applause from the gathered audience (who was mostly
military, Croft couldn't help but notice).
When the War Admiral got to the podium, and his senior officers
stood behind him, he motioned the crowd for quiet. Reluctantly, the
crowd quieted down.
"Greetings," said the War Admiral into the broadcasting unit.
The crowd cheered again, for just a moment.
"We have once again liberated August!"
The crowd cheered louder, and the War Admiral raised his fists
into the air and gave a triumphant grin.
When the applause had dissipated, after a long moment later, the
War Admiral resumed.
"The Insects thought they could stop us," said the War Admiral.
"They intended to imprison us on our planets and send us back to the
stone age, using advanced Monumental technology. We struggled for a
time, but we showed them! We showed them!" He pointed up to the bright
shining sun in the sky, as if to indicate that the mist was a thing of
The crowd cheered again.
"But many lives have been lost, and even our costly victory would
not have been possible without the tremendous efforts of a few who have
risked their lives time and time again for us," said the War Admiral.
And then, in a booming voice, he said, "Clifford Croft! James Starr!
Please step forward!"
Both Starr and Croft looked a bit embarrassed but stepped
forward, as the crowds cheered them. They stood before the War Admiral,
who said, "Gentlemen; there is nothing I can say, nothing I can give
you, which can adequately express the thanks of the billions of lives
you have helped to save."
Croft noticed that the War Admiral, though he had been briefed on
their experiences, had been very careful not to discuss exactly how he
and Starr had saved August. It made sense; they didn't want the
technology of the Monumental ship to become common knowledge. But the
crowd seemed to believe they were heroes, if only accepting the War
Admiral's word for it.
"-the medals of the past aren't appropriate either, as we are
building a new system of government," said the War Admiral. "Therefore
it is my great pleasure that you are the first to be awarded the
Standard Imperium's highest award, the Platinum Star!"
The crowd broke out in cheers yet again as the War Admiral pinned
the medal on them. Holographers captured the image which would be
retransmitted across the Imperium. For hundreds of years afterwards
Croft kept a copy of the holo to remember this day by. The honor of
being so highly decorated by the War Admiral moved him deeply.
"And now we must move forward and rebuild," said the War Admiral.
"It will not be easy. It will require much hard work. That is why we
have decided to change our system of governing. The politics and
politicians of the past have failed us. That is why we have decided to
form the Standard Imperium. I know that many of you hearing that name
will find that term unfamiliar, perhaps even scary after centuries of
Alliance and League rule."
"But it was League and Alliance rule that brought us to our knees
with the Insects; it was League and Alliance rule that caused our
worlds to be pillaged, our people enslaved. It was the weakness, the
delusion of so-called representative government that caused our planets
to fall prey to our enemies. When this happened, I vowed never to let
this happen again. The only way I could keep this vow was to create the
"Why do we call it the 'Standard' Imperium? This is to be no
petty dictatorship. Although I am in charge, I am not an Emperor, nor
do I have any special title. My goal is to create a rational,
minimalist government that will help with rebuilding and creating a
strong defense force, without oppressing the population. Imperiums of
the past have had bad track records. I propose a different kind of
Imperium, which puts the welfare of the people first, one that doesn't
let us down. In short, I propose to set a new standard for Imperiums."
Trumpets blared on cue; the crowds cheered. The War Admiral
caught Croft's eye, and mouthed something. Croft nodded.
Two hours later Croft found himself on the bridge of the Command
Carrier Glory. Captain Stacy Wren was there to greet him. "Clifford,"
she said, smiling. "It's so good to see you again."
"Same here," said Croft. He looked around the ship. "It hasn't
"Still battered as always," said Wren. "They keep wanting to
retire her, but with only three carriers in operation, they don't have
much choice. The War Admiral is waiting to see you in his office."
Croft nodded, and after buzzing, entered the War Admiral's
The War Admiral nodded as Croft entered and the door closed
behind him. He was on the comm as Croft took a seat.
"Yes... yes... of course we have to discuss it... we'll meet in
one hour," said the War Admiral. "No, I forgot, I have another
meeting... make that two hours... yes... yes..." He looked up at Croft.
"I have to go. North out."
The War Admiral pressed another button. "Captain Wren!"
"Hold all my calls for the next fifteen minutes."
"Yes sir," came her voice.
The War Admiral looked at Croft. "I'm sorry Clifford, that's all
the time I can spare."
"I guess that's what happens when you become the head of a
galactic government," said Croft.
"You think I'm crazy, right?" said the War Admiral. "But I have
zero interest in running things. You've been out of touch; have you
heard of President Zorin?"
"My predecessor," said the War Admiral.
"I take it he didn't do very well."
"He was willing to starve an entire planet for political reasons,
Clifford," said North.
"I don't want to take charge, you see, but I can't trust anyone
else to do the job right," said the War Admiral. "The last time I sat
around the people on Herefor almost starved to death; the time before
that, our fleeet was destroyed and our population enslaved. So I
decided to take charge."
"The Standard Imperium."
"Has a ring to it, doesn't it? I wasn't going to create a sham
democracy or republic and pretend it's something it's not; I've always
believed in calling things as they are."
"I've just never imagined you as, as...."
"A dictator?" said the War Admiral. His expression changed. "I
don't like the word either. Don't think of it that way; just think of
it as me running the show. I hope it will only be temporary."
"When things steady down, when our planets get back on their
feet, I hope to turn over power to elected authorities."
"If it's temporary why the new name? Why call central casting for
the new wardrobe?"
The War Admiral smiled. "At first I thought the uniforms were
gaudy too, but now I kind of like them. We've always had a tradition of
understated uniforms, which I believed was in pattern with the
Alliance's tacit devaluation of the military. Well, now that's changed.
Getting back to your question, yes, I hope to turn over power. But it
may take years. I have to wait for things to stabilize." His expression
changed, as if he had something difficult to say. "I'm sorry Clifford,
we're short on time and I need to get to the point. Do you have any
qualms about working for my government?"
"Qualms?" Croft suddenly understood why he had been called here.
"Our intelligence service, like everything else, is in shambles.
You probably have more experience in intelligence than anyone alive, or
left alive," the War Admiral corrected himself. "More than that, I need
someone in charge of intelligence I can trust-"
"Sir," said Croft. "I'm not cut out to head the Column, or
whatever you're calling it nowadays. That's administration; I don't do
The War Admiral sighed. "I thought that might be your answer.
Well, then how about becoming a special agent, a troubleshooter
reporting directly to me and whoever we find to head the intelligence
Croft sighed and looked away.
"You really don't want to work for me," said the War Admiral.
"No, it's not that," said Croft. He looked at the War Admiral.
"But I'm tired, sir. Do you know what I just went through."
The War Admiral nodded. "I read your report. It must have been...
"Terrifying is an understatement," said Croft. "I need time off.
I need a break."
"Understandable," said the War Admiral. "Why don't you take a few
"Sir, sorry to interrupt, but I need something longer than that,"
"But Croft, we need-"
"Sir, I have served the Alliance way beyond the call of duty,"
said Croft. "Now I need some time for myself." Suddenly, he felt like
the Meddler Capybara, when he had explained to Croft that he couldn't
spend every minute on the job.
The War Admiral thought for a moment, then nodded. "What will you
"Starr has instructed his gang how to replicate the counteragent
particles. He and I are going away for a vacation, a real vacation."
"Where will you go?" said the War Admiral.
"We're not sure. Maybe Wilderland."
"Just the two of you, on a forest planet?"
"I was thinking we might take a couple of sensual robot women
The War Admiral's comm buzzed. He pressed a button. "Just a
Croft got up.
"I was under the impression that Starr only had one 'sensual
robot woman', as you call it, and that their relationship wasn't a
romantic one," said the War Admiral.
Croft shrugged. "Maybe I can get him to build another." He headed
for the door, which opened as he approached; as he stepped out, the
last thing the War Admiral heard was. "And I never said anything about
having a relationship with them."
The War Admiral chuckled, allowing himself a rare grin.
The War Admiral was immersed in meetings for the next few weeks,
consulting with other senior military leaders and planning his next
move. A few weeks later, even before all the Alliance worlds were clear
of the energy mist, he decided that there had been enough talk and that
it was time for action.
The War Admiral held the meeting at the palace in Sarney. He
would have preferred to do it on the Glory, but the Palace conferred
more legitimacy. The people around the long conference table and
participating via holo were all senior officers, mostly but not
exclusively admirals, though there were a few sprinkling of generals.
"Gentlemen," said the War Admiral. "We have been talking about
the shape of this Imperium for weeks, and I think we've reached the
point where we're spinning our wheels, saying the same things over and
over." He took a deep breath. "Therefore, I am going to break the
stalemate, and simply tell you how it's going to be."
Everyone watched the War Admiral in silence. They had all taken
an oath to obey him in theory, but practice was always another thing.
"I have decided to carve up the planets formerly aligned with the
League or Directorate into regions governed by military governor. Each
military governor will govern anywhere from four to twenty solar
systems. Each governor can appoint lower ranking officers to administer
individual planets in the governor's region."
The audience started murmuring. One admiral asked, "How much
latitude will one of these governors have?"
"Near absolute," said the War Admiral. "Subject to a very small
set of broad rules I will hand down. If I don't like the job you're
doing I'll tell you, or remove you from office. Otherwise I see no
sense in having a supervisory layer of bureaucracy peering over your
shoulder. Either you do the job well and you're left alone; or you
don't, and you don't stay on the job long."
Another admiral said. "We're navy men; we don't have experience
in civil administration."
"You'll learn quickly on the job," said the War Admiral grimly.
"There probably isn't much left of the past civil administration on
each planet, but you can recruit where you can. The key element is that
you can utilize civilian expertise, but it is you who will have command
authority and make the decisions."
"What about planets that weren't formerly in the League or
Directorate, like the Pushkin sector?"
"They will also be subject to our rule," said the War Admiral.
"But they were never in the Alliance before," said a general.
"They are in as bad shape as the Alliance worlds," said the War
Admiral. "Think of them as being lucky enough to share our expertise."
The murmuring increased. Then another admiral asked, "Who will
these governors be?"
The War Admiral smiled. "I will read the initial appointments in
a moment. Keep in mind that I may rotate governors, to bring in fresh
perspectives, or to allow other officers to innovate. These are not
lifetime appointments. Also keep in mind that I do plan to hold
elections and turn over authorities to civilians, when the
infrastructure is sufficiently restored. But we will have no more
The War Admiral pulled up a list on the screen. "The following
planets will be governed by-" he started to read off a list of planets
and corresponding admirals.
The murmuring grew louder and continued even after the War
Admiral had convened the meeting for the day and left.
The War Admiral sat in the former quarters of the President in
the Palace. Of course, this room like most of the others had been
sacked, but Imperial Quartermaster had provided basic furniture for him
and his staff. The War Admiral found it amusing that such a regal room
had such utilitarian furniture. Well, there would be time to fix that
He was joined in a few seconds by Admiral Myster Harkness,
followed by Captain Stacy Wren.
"Don't you even knock?" said the War Admiral reasonably.
"What are you up to, War Admiral?" Harkness asked.
"It's been a long day, can you be more specific?" said the War
"Making me a military governor," said Harkness. "I'm no
administrator. In fact, you gave me the second largest fiefdom, after
"That's because the War Admiral trusts you," said Wren, stepping
Harkness snorted. "He trusts you too, but I didn't see him making
you Napoleon of 15 solar systems."
"Stacy is still a Captain," said the War Admiral. "Although she
now has more combat experience than many of our Admirals, pre-
"I'm no administrator, War Admiral."
"No, you're not," said North. "But you do have common sense.
That's what I need in this job."
"Let me finish!" said the War Admiral sharply. "Hire
administrators, all that you need. But I trust you to be there to make
the final decisions, to make sure that things are done right, honestly,
without politics. If there's one thing I know about you, you don't
dabble in politics."
"That's certainly true," said Harkness. "But-"
"But I need you, Myster," said the War Admiral. "I need you!"
Harkness closed his mouth. He stared at the carpet for a moment,
one of the few things to survive from the last occupant. It was still
"All right," said Harkness, nodding.
"Good," said the War Admiral.
They made some small talk and he left.
"Well, that went as well as could be expected," said the War
"I suppose," said Wren. "I'm not criticizing your choices, but-"
"You'd like to question one of them, maybe?"
"It's General Karn," said Wren. "Do you think he's really up to
managing the Pushkin sector?"
The War Admiral sighed. "We've been over this before. He's been
managing the region up until now anyway-"
"-and you expanded his responsibilities with more planets-"
"-because he's been trustworthy," said the War Admiral. "We've
been dealing with him for several years. Has he ever given us reason
not to trust him?"
"Not yet," said Wren. "But-"
"But he's a former Slurian, and Slurians are always Slurian,"
said the War Admiral. "I know how you feel, Stacy. If you recall, I
spent hundreds of years fighting the Slurians too. But Sluria doesn't
exist anymore; it hasn't, for quite some time. Yes, he's a former
Slurian officer, but he's adapted to the new circumstances, he's
efficient, he seems to be trustworthy, and if I put a non-Slurian in
charge there without cause, there will be riots."
Wren mumbled something.
"I'm glad you agree."
"What about me?"
"What about you?" said the War Admiral.
"I'm surprised you didn't make me a governor," said Wren. "You
know I was a civil administrator on Ulos. I probably have more civil
administrative experience than any other officer in that room."
"Are you actually complaining that I didn't make you a military
governor?" said the War Admiral. "You, who challenged every promotion
I've given you on the grounds that I was showing favoritism on your
"No," said Wren. "I was just wondering...."
"I have something more important in mind for you," said the War
Wren waited expectantly.
"How does Chief of Staff sound to you?"
"Chief of Staff?" said Wren. "For which military governor?"
The War Admiral cleared his throat.
"For you?" said Wren. Her eyebrows shot up. "For the ruler of the
"Is that high-level enough to suit you?" said the War Admiral.
"I... I don't know what to say...."
"You don't have a say in it," said the War Admiral. "I'm a
military dictator, remember, and I won't take no for an answer. Your
legs are shaking; why don't you sit down?"
Wren, nodding, stumbled into a chair. "War Admiral, I'm not sure
"Of course you can," said the War Admiral. "You can start by
helping me with a minor task."
"Drawing up a constitution."
"I only have an hour until my next meeting; we have to get this
"You can't draw up a constitution in an hour!" said Wren.
"Actually, I have other things to do before the next meeting, so
we'll have to keep it down to 20 minutes," said the War Admiral. "But
don't worry, we have some help."
He plopped a thin book on his desk; a real, printed out book, and
started flipping through the pages.
"What is that?" said Wren.
"Quick's Quickguide to Governance," said the War Admiral. He
rapidly skimmed some passages he had underlined.
"Let me get this straight," said Wren. "You're going to write a
constitution in 20 minutes, based on a single book, no, let me amend
that, a summary guide to a single book?"
"More or less," the War Admiral said. He pressed a button, and a
large blank holoscreen appeared. As he spoke, he pressed a button which
caused his words to appear on the holoscreen.
"Standard Imperium Constitution," said the War Admiral. "Skip a
The cursor moved to the next line.
"The following are crimes," said the War Admiral. His words
appeared on the screen. "Murder. Treason. Assault."
He flipped through a few pages, and then added, "Use or
distribution of illegal drugs or other brain stimulants. Theft of
property. Damage of property. State taking of property without
Then he stopped, and looked at Wren. "What do you think?"
"It's ok, for a start, I suppose," said Wren.
"For a start?" The War Admiral looked hurt. "I'm done."
"What do you mean, you're done?" said Wren. "What about detailing
the structure of government?"
"Oh, you're right, I forgot that part," said the War Admiral. He
spoke again. "The government shall have one branch, which shall have
unquestioned rule of the Standard Imperium. This government shall
consist of one individual. War Admiral Norman North. The War Admiral
may delegate authority to regional governors, who may in turn delegate
authority below them."
The War Admiral made a face. "Now look what you've done. I was
hoping we could have it down to 20 words or less."
"But aren't you going to need more detail-"
"I'm going to trust people to do their jobs and to exercise
common sense," said the War Admiral.
"And what if they don't?"
"Then they will be removed," said the War Admiral. "I want as
little bureaucracy and red tape as possible. The more rules we have,
the more time and energy we spend arguing about them. I'm going to
create the absolute basic minimum rules and let the system work it out
Wren looked over the two paragraph constitution. "Well, I don't
think the lawyers will be happy with you."
"They won't be the only ones," said the War Admiral.
When the admirals were convened the following day, they were just
as surprised by the brevity of the constitution as Wren had been. But
the War Admiral only said, "You'll just have to use common sense. If
that's the only thing you use, at least we won't be gulled into a trap
that will destroy our fleet and allowed ourselves to be enslaved."
Despite the War Admiral's promise to keep it simple, he found
himself spending the next few weeks setting up more a framework for the
One day he met with leading journalists.
"I want to reassure you of my commitment to a completely free
press," said the War Admiral.
The journalists, who looked nervous, nodded approvingly. In
nearly all dictatorships, the private press was usually outlawed, or at
least closely watched and censors.
"And there will be no censorship at all, except for closely
guarded military secrets," said the War Admiral.
There was some mumbling.
"Much the same as in the Alliance, I might add," said the War
Admiral. He studied the expression of the journalists before continuing
"However, there will be one change from former Alliance
procedure," said the War Admiral.
He had their attention now.
"Subject to the restriction on printing military secrets, I'm
giving you a free hand. You can write whatever you want. However, you
can no longer use unattributed sources."
The mumbling in the room returned.
"You can write whatever you like. You can write that my
government is corrupt, inept, or unfair. You can write any opinion
piece you like," said the War Admiral. "However, if you intend to write
a factual story, where you quote sources, you have to name those
"That's unfair," said a journalist. "Many of our sources won't
speak out if they have to be named, for fear of retribution."
"Quite right," said the War Admiral. "But by the same token, some
irresponsible journalists, and I don't mean anyone here, of course, use
the cover of 'unnamed sources' to write stories where the 'unnamed
source' either is lying, or doesn't exist. The press outlet then
portrays the story as fact. This we will not allow."
There was a babble of outraged voices.
"Quiet!" said the War Admiral. Silence was restored. "I do not
mean to silence the press," he said without a trace of irony, since he
literally did just seconds ago. "If your sources feel so strongly about
an issue, they will allow their names to be used."
One journalist said, "But they could lose their jobs-"
"If it's that important, they'll be willing to," said the War
Admiral. "I've checked my new constitution, and I don't believe that
there's right to a government job." He paused. "Now, if someone speaks
out, and points out some corruption or inefficiency, well, they won't
fired; they'll probably be promoted. But if a member of my government
states an untruth, then that person must be identified to suffer the
The journalists looked distinctly unhappy.
"Now, I'm sure we'll all get together well," said the War
Admiral. "So well, in fact, that I don't see any circumstance where
I'll have to shoot you."
The room was stone silence.
"That was a joke," said the War Admiral dryly.
"You can't just tell people you're going to shoot them, even as a
joke," said Wren afterwards.
"I thought they had a sense of humor."
"You're a military dictator, you can't joke about such things!"
"Oh, sorry," said the War Admiral. "Won't happen again." He
turned to his schedule. "Who's next?"
Prominent representatives of law firms throughout Alliance space
sat in the conference room. "Gentlemen," said the War Admiral broadly.
"It is always a pleasure to be seated with members of the bar."
The lawyers looked skeptically at the War Admiral.
"Now, I know you've had a lot of questions about my new justice
policy, so I thought we'd meet to clear the air," said the War Admiral.
"One of the things the last administration was criticized over was the
slow pace of justice. I intend to speed things up."
"How?" asked one of the lawyers.
"Well, for one thing, all trials will be conducted in one day,"
said the War Admiral.
"One day!" the lawyer exploded. The others started to babble.
"How can you hold a trial in one day!"
"Gentlemen!" said the War Admiral sharply. "Each side will get
four hours to make their case, counting opening and closing
"Each side can use that time to detail their strongest points and
make their strongest arguments. They can also alternate-each side gets
an hour at a time and a chance to rebuff the other side's arguments."
"Too often some lawyers, and of course I don't mean you
gentlemen, delay trials endlessly and drive up costs for their clients
by getting into tiny minutiae that have little or no relevance for the
case. For a typical case of assault, or murder, or theft, one side
should be able to tell their story in four hours. They can call
witnesses, but witnesses should not be asked 500 questions; they should
only be asked the most important questions," said the War Admiral.
"But that's not thorough"
"Our current system is not thorough," said the War Admiral. "Come
now, gentlemen, do you really believe that juries pay attention to
trial proceedings for days and days on end? Of course not. By
condensing things down we'll boil things down to the most important
elements of the case and make things clearer."
Another lawyer broke in. "What about complex cases like
securities fraud? That's not a simple hit-and-run!"
"You're right," said the War Admiral. "In such cases judges will
be empowered to have lengthier trials-"
The atmosphere in the room seemed to lift.
"-from one day to two."
"Impossible!" "This can't be done!" "Jury selection alone will
take that time!"
"Gentlemen, gentlemen!" said the War Admiral, using the term
rather loosely. "You don't have to worry about jury selection."
"We don't?" said one lawyer.
"I erroneously referred to juries earlier in passing, and that
was my error, I apologize," said the War Admiral. "In the Standard
Imperium we do not believe that the common citizen can grasp such
complex issues as securities fraud. That's why we intend to do away
with juries altogether and used highly trained military judges."
"Military judges! That's not fair! What safeguards-"
The War Admiral raised calming hands. "Do not worry. Any court
decision can be immediately appealed to a military appeals court. There
will be judicial oversight."
"Preposterous!" "This is crazy!" "How will military officers
learn the rules of evidence-"
"There's no need to worry about that," said the War Admiral.
"Why not?" asked the lawyer who had mentioned it.
"There will be no rules of evidence."
"How can that possibly work?"
The War Admiral spoke in a slow voice usually reserved for small
animals and children. "Each side will stand before the judge, and
simply tell exactly what happened."
"But then... what use will there be for us?" a lawyer asked.
"Ah, now you get to the point," said the War Admiral, giving a
wide grin. "And your answer is, not very much!"
The lawyers looked dismayed.
"Don't pout, gentlemen. Although you won't be able to charge
clients for months of research and representation, there will still be
a need for your services. Although most clients will now be able to
represent themselves in court, they can still choose attorney
representation if they wish," said the War Admiral. "And you will still
be needed for corporate matters, to draft contracts and the like."
The lawyers looked very crestfallen.
"I have another meeting I have to go to, but I just want to say
how wonderful it's been to meet you," said the War Admiral, grinning.
"The sergeant of the guard will show you all out."
Back in his private office, Wren said, "You enjoyed that."
"Of course," said the War Admiral, gathering his notes for the
"But I don't remember anything in the Quick Quickguide about
using military judges."
"I'm adapting it a bit for the circumstances," said the War
Admiral. He stopped what he was doing. "Which meeting am I gathering
"The monopolies, and then the trade unions," said Wren.
"That's right," said the War Admiral. "And I know what comes
after that. My favorite."
It was early evening before the War Admiral's anticipated
favorite meeting occurred. Even though he was tired he still had the
energy to enjoy this meeting. When he entered the briefing room he saw
a number of officials there, one or two he distantly recognized.
They were all former senators and representatives of the old
League and Alliance government, who had been recently liberated from
worlds formerly under the influence of the energy draining mist.
The senior and most dignified of them was former Senator Rgane.
He alone had logged hundreds of uninterrupted years in the League
The War Admiral nodded a greeting to them and sat down at the
head of the table with a friendly smile on his face.
"Gentlemen!" said the War Admiral. "It is such a relief to see
you again. I've had the military working over time to deliver the
counteragent to the mist which has freed you from your planets. Shall
we all give a hand for the military?"
He started clapping, and the other delegates, despite themselves,
were also forced to clap.
When that was done the War Admiral said, "Now, I understand you
have some concerns you wish to discuss."
"Concerns is putting it mildly," said Senator Rgane. "What you
have done is clearly extra-constitutional, War Admiral."
The War Admiral let himself looked puzzled. "It's clearly within
the bounds of the Standard Imperium Constitution."
"The League Constitution. The Alliance Agreement," said Rgane.
"You know what we're talking about, War Admiral."
"What is your point?"
"War Admiral." This was a new speaker, former Senator Wullington,
who was a bit more diplomatic. She said, "We don't want to appear
ungrateful. We understand how you have fought to free our planets, and
the key role you played in saving us. We are not ungrateful, sir. But
that does not entitle you to set up a military dictatorship."
"We are not ready to return to a civilian government," said the
War Admiral. "The experience with President Zorin should prove that."
"Zorin was a fool," said Wullington. "You cannot judge a
democracy by one fool."
"No?" said the War Admiral. "How about a second fool, President
Hov Marshall? How about a third fool, Lawrence Mitterand?" He was
referring to the officials who had negotiated the armistice which
resulted in the ambush at Vitalics, and they all knew it.
"You can't take your anger at them out on us," said Wullington.
"They made mistakes-"
"Our economy is in tatters and our defense forces aren't in a
much better state," said the War Admiral. "We can't afford to make any
more mistakes right now."
"So when do you plan to restore the democracy?"
The War Admiral shrugged. "When the situation has stabilized."
"Impossible to say right now," said the War Admiral.
"War Admiral, may I be blunt?" said Rgane.
"Senator Rgane, I believe that is what you are most known for,"
said the War Admiral.
Rgane frowned but let that slide. "You are obviously using the
circumstances to make a grab for power. We cannot allow this."
"We?" said the War Admiral suddenly. He looked around the room.
"Who else here agrees with the Senator?"
Suddenly, they were all conscious that they were in a palace
surrounded by troops loyal to the War Admiral. No one said anything.
Except Rgane. "I will not be silenced. I will speak out against
"You are free to do so."
"Eh?" said Rgane. This wasn't the response he had been expecting.
"You are free to do so," said the War Admiral. "In an earlier
meeting I guaranteed the freedom of the press. As long as you don't
organize an armed rebellion, you are welcome to say anything you like."
"Really?" said Rgane.
"Of course, if you try to stir up trouble, I may also exercise my
right to free speech," said the War Admiral, and there was a glitter in
his eye when he said it.
"What do you mean?" sad Rgane.
The War Admiral snapped his fingers, and an aide brought forward
a datapad. He read from part of it. "'-and I fully support Ambassador
Mitterand's peace agreement. There may be weak-kneed resistance among
the more stolid ranks of the military, but I think that in the end the
signing of the armistice at Vitalics will create an era of great
friendship between the Insects and our Alliance.' Do any of you know
who said these words?"
"I didn't know," Rgane whispered. "I had no idea-"
"That's right, it was Senator Rgane who said these words," said
the War Admiral. "You didn't expect the people to forget you were one
of the biggest supporters of the treaty, did you?"
"What are you saying?"
"Simply that if you speak out, so will I," said the War Admiral.
"I imagine that the public will not enjoy a reminder of who was in
support of the very agreement that made them slaves for 20 years or
more... Senator, your face is turning white and you're shaking. I hope
you're not getting weak-kneed."
The other representatives looked grim. Many of them had supported
the treaty with the Insects too, and their remarks were all on record.
"I'm glad we were able to find a way to resolve things
peacefully," said the War Admiral.
As the delegates filed out, one of them turned to the War Admiral
imploringly. "But all I know is politics... what will I do now?"
The War Admiral put a fatherly arm on the man's shoulder. "Have
you ever considered hard labor?"
Chapter 15: Whatever Happened to the Silencer?
The date: shortly after the first liberation of August, when the
Insects were driven off.
The Silencer sat weeping at the console inside Sarney Sarittenden
as Levi told him what the databank contained.
About his wife. About Annie.
At first he had thought she was dead, killed when her transport
It was only years later he had learned that Annie had been
captured by the Insects.
Now that the Insects were gone, he was to learn her fate.
And it wasn't pretty.
"She... is dead," said Levi.
The shock was incredible. But the Silencer managed to speak.
Levi grimaced. "Complications from... gene surgery."
"Bugs trying to create army to fight Graftonites, tried to
genetically engineer Graftons into part-bugs. Annie die during gene
surgery," said Levi with difficulty. There was no easy way to say it.
The Silencer had screamed at the top of his lungs. Levi had tried
to console him, but then his comm bleaped, and when he turned around,
the Silencer was gone....
No one knew where he had gone, but it seems clear now that he had
gotten off August before the energy draining mist had struck the
planet. Where he spent those intervening years is unclear, but what is
clear is that he surfaced on Grafton shortly after the energy mist was
Even his best friend, Bob Range, couldn't get him to talk about
those missing years. He was dull and despondent, much like he was when
he first thought Annie had been killed.
Only now he knew for sure it was the truth. She wouldn't be
coming back this time.
The Silencer threw himself into his work. Bounty hunting. He
chose the most dangerous assignments he could. Some people thought he
was trying to get himself killed.
Only Bob could ask him about it. The Silencer, never loquacious
to begin with, rarely talked to anyone now, and he fixed Bob with a
cold stare when he asked.
But he did answer the question.
"I'm not trying to get myself killed," he rasped.
"Then what are you trying to do?" Range asked.
"To feel again," said the Silencer.
"I used to feel truly alive only when I was on a job. And then I
met Annie, and I realize what I felt on the job was only a small
fraction of what I felt around her," said the Silencer. "Now that
Annie's gone, I don't feel anything, even when I'm on the job. But
sometimes, when I have to go in shooting, I feel something. A little
something. I'm not sure what it is I feel, but it's something. So
that's what I'm trying to do again. To feel," he added tonelessly.
"John, I know you loved her, but maybe you could meet someone
A blaster pistol was out of the holster and pointed straight at
He held his breath for a moment.
"Don't say that," the Silencer whispered. "Don't ever say that."
And that was the last time Range brought up the subject. Things
continued on like that for a few years; the Silencer lived
mechanically, collecting bounties, but enjoying very little of life.
How could he, when the Insects had taken that which was most valuable
And then, one day, when Range was visiting again, and the
Silencer was half paying attention to him while half watching a
holobroadcast, he showed the strongest display of emotion he had in
He sat up straight and shouted at the holoimage. "Annie!"
"What's wrong?" said Range. He looked at the image. It was a
collection of newsclips. He didn't see anything unusual.
"Annie," said the Silencer. "I just saw her."
Range said gently, "John, you know that's not possible."
"I JUST SAW HER," said the Silencer.
"Where? On the holobroadcast? What was she doing?" said Range
"I don't know," said the Silencer irritably. "It was a collection
of newsclips, and the sound was down. I think I saw her in the
background in a field somewhere."
The Silencer got up, and headed for the door.
"John, where are you going?"
"To the Channel Ten Broadcast Syndicate."
There were armed guards outside the broadcast center; the
syndicate had had trouble with disgruntled viewers before. When the
Silencer identified himself to the guards at the gate, they looked at
him with awe but asked him to state his business. Bob Range stood a
respectful distance behind the Silencer.
"I just want more information about one of your broadcasts," said
"You're not looking to kill one of our journalists, are you,
The Silencer shook his head. "I just want some information."
One of the guards used the comm, and in a moment he nodded.
The Silencer and Range walked up to the building. They were
greeted by a young woman. "Silencer! This is a tremendous honor! I was
hoping we could get an interview!"
The Silencer looked at her coldly. She recoiled.
"You broadcasted a transmission two hours and eighteen minutes
ago. It was a collection of newsclips. I'd like to see that again."
"I'll have to track down the broadcast manager for that, and he's
busy right now," said the woman.
The Silencer stared at her expressionlessly.
She sweated nervously. "Of course, if it's that important, I can
have him look into it right now."
"I'll go with you," said the Silencer. "Perhaps it would help if
I impressed the importance of this on him personally."
Ten minutes later they were sorting through recordings of the
"No, no, no, no," said the Silencer, as the images flashed across
the screen. And then-
"Stop!" said the Silencer. "Replay, slowly."
"-and now we're going to take you around Grafton in 90 seconds!"
The sounds of superficial music filled the air. The image of rows of
blaster pistols came on the screen. "The Zeratz corporation, in an
effort to get rid of excess inventory is offering a special deal, if
you buy a weapon for your self and bring a child, the child gets a
starter kit for free (Children must be ten or older). " The image of a
spaceport came on the screen. "They've finally cleared the last of the
old burned hulks from Regular Spaceport. The company which runs the
spaceport, however, says that the additional landing fee levied must
stay in place to fund further improvements."
Range watched the imaged and sighed inwardly as each report came
on. Of course there was no one on the screen even remotely resembling
Annie; it was all in the Silencer's desperate imagination.
The image of people in a field came on the screen. "Olympic
tryouts started this week for-"
"There! Stop the image!" the Silencer yelled. The broadcast
engineer fumbled to obey. "Go back 10 seconds, one tenth normal speed."
Range peered forward to watch. The image of an Olympic contestant
appeared on the screen. He was hefting a blast pistol. But that wasn't
what held the Silencer's attention.
"Freeze image!" he shouted.
For an instant, behind the contestant, was a woman with long
brown hair. Range peered at the small image. It was hard to tell, but
she did bear a general resemblance to Annie. Of course, it couldn't be
"Can you zoom in?" The Silencer asked. When the technician
nodded, he said, "Zoom in here," he said, pointing to the face.
The image zoomed in.
"More," said the Silencer.
The image zoomed in more.
"More again," said the Silencer.
The face in the background was now in the foreground, but it was
"Clarify!" the Silencer barked.
"Silencer, our equipment wasn't made to-"
The Silencer shot him a withering glance. The technician gulped
and turned to his controls.
The image grew more fuzzy, and then clearer, until they could see
the face. The resolution still wasn't great, but one could make out the
"It's her," The Silencer whispered.
Range looked at the face. There was a resemblance. But the
picture was hardly clear, and there were any number of women who
probably looked like any number of other women. He opened his mouth to
say so, but shut it when the Silencer glared at him.
"You think what you want," the Silencer said. "But I'm going to
find Annie." He turned to the broadcast engineer. "I want to know
exactly where and when this image was taken."
Several hours later, the Silencer and Range were at one of the
Olympic trial grounds. They met a local olympic officials named Reger.
"Her name is Annie Oakley," said the Silencer. "She was here
Reger held up a datacomp. "And I'm telling you, Mr. Silencer, we
have no ID for a contestant named Annie Oakley."
"Check again," said the Silencer.
"I have already checked twice." But Reger, seeing his expression,
gulped and said, "Checking again." He looked down as he thumbed through
the list on his datapad. He looked up fearfully, and shook his head.
"Are you sure that's a complete list?" said the Silencer.
"I'm sure," said Reger. "Unless she's using another name. That's
not uncommon, Mr. Silencer," he said pointedly.
The Silencer thought a moment. "Her name used to be Susan Day. Is
that name there?"
Reger checked the list again. Then he looked up, and shook her
"Then she must be using another name!" said the Silencer.
"John, why would she do that?" said Range.
"She's here, I saw her," said the Silencer.
Range said, "We appreciate your help, Mr. Reger."
Reger nodded and quickly left, grateful to get away.
Range wondered how to approach the Silencer about this.
The Silencer, looking away, raised a finger. "Not a word, Bob. If
you're going to say that she wasn't here, I don't want to hear a word."
Range sighed. "All right, my friend. Say she was here. What can
you do now?"
"Wait for her to come back."
And that's what the Silencer did, for the next week. If any of
the Olympic trialists noticed anything odd about the somber figure,
standing as still as a statue, no one dared to say anything in his
At the end of a week Range returned.
"John," he said.
"I saw her," said the Silencer. "I know I did."
"I know," said Range. "But there's nothing more to be learned
The Silencer, nodded, turned and went home. Could he have
imagined it? Doubt started to enter his own mind.
The Silencer returned to work, taking dangerous bounties. He
tried to drive the thoughts of Annie from his mind but he couldn't.
One day when he was returning from a successful mission he was
standing on the platform waiting for the hoverrail to take him to the
new parking area. This was one of the superfluous improvements the
airport authority had built to justify the additional entry fee. They
had moved the parking area, which was within walking distance of the
spaceport, to a distant area, and used the nearby area to build the
machinery for the hoverrail.
He stood on the platform and idly eyed the platform across the
way, where people were waiting for the hoverrail to take them in the
opposite direction. An woman with attractive long brown hair stood
facing away from him. Something about her looked familiar.
Get a grip on yourself, John, he told himself. There were plenty
of women with long brown hair.
And then the hoverrail on the other platform arrived, in a small
gust of wind. The woman reflexively turned away from the gust, facing
the Silencer's platform.
And when the Silencer looked at her face, he knew. He just knew.
This was no grainy holoimage; he was seeing her with his own eyes.
There could be no mistaking that face, none at all.
"Annie!" he yelled. Although his voice carried across, she didn't
seem to notice. She started to board the hoverrail.
"Annie!" he yelled again, as the doors to the hoverrail hissed
closed, and the hoverrail started off.
The Silencer ran down the platform at a breakneck speed. When he
hit the bottom he stood in the middle of the road and drew his blaster,
firing warning shots in front of an approaching ground car.
The ground car skidded to a halt. The Silencer marched to the
driver side, and before the driver could protest the Silencer pointed
his blaster at him and said, "I need your car. You have two seconds to
move over or get out."
The Silencer drove like a madman to the hoverrail's destination
point. But the hoverrail had had a head start on him; when he arrived,
the hoverrail was already disgorging passengers.
"Annie! Annie!" the Silencer screamed, running through the crowd.
People in the crowd looked at him like he was insane. He looked around
as the passengers slowly moved to their groundcars. No Annie. He ran
around the parking area.
It took him 20 more minutes to accept the fact that if she had
been there, she was gone.
"I tell you Bob, I saw her!" said the Silencer.
"I know," said Range.
"You don't believe me!" said the Silencer.
"John, I'm your friend," said Range. "Do you want the truth?"
"You think I've gone crazy," said the Silencer.
"No," said Range. "I just think you're still grief stricken. I
think you're seeing what you want to see. That's not insanity."
The Silencer's face grew as cold as stone. "I'm not delusional,
and I did see her."
"John, you got the flight manifest for every ship that landed
that day in Regular," said Range. "Of the 727 women who landed on
flights, none of them had the name Annie Oakley."
"Then she's using a different name," said the Silencer.
"Why John, why?" said Range. He moved his chair closer to the
Silencer's. "John, if she were alive, wouldn't she use her real name?"
And then, more softly, "Wouldn't she come back to you?"
The Silencer, closing his eyes, nodded. In the background, he
could hear the distant voices of the first round of the Olympics,
playing on his holo.
"John, the Insects killed her. You can't continue like this,"
said Range gently.
The Silencer opened his eyes, and stared past Range.
"I know how difficult this is for you," said Range.
The Silencer's eyes widened.
"But when are you going to be able to let up on this?"
"When I stop seeing her on holo!" said the Silencer, pointing. He
grabbed the controls, and rapidly raised the sound.
"-placing first in the trials for the trick shooting competition
was Miss Cindy Pascal," said the interviewer, turning to a very
familiar young sweaty woman with long brown hair. "What do you have to
say, Miss Pascal?"
"I'm pleased to have made the cut for the team," said Pascal, in
the same exact voice as Annie's. "I had hoped to make the cut, but
never expected to be first-"
"Well?" the Silencer almost yelled.
"It looks like her," Range whispered. "And it sounds like her."
"It is her!" said the Silencer.
Now he had a name. As a bounty hunter, he had succeeded in
finding his bounties with far less.
The next day the Silencer showed up at the practice range. It was
no coincidence that Cindy Pascal was there. She spun a blaster in the
air; as it came down she simultaneously caught it and fired,
decapitating a straw target in the distance.
The Silencer couldn't restrain himself. Trick shooting had been
"Annie!" he said, his heart beating rapidly.
Cindy turned around to see the Silencer. "Who are you talking
"You!" said the Silencer, tears in his eyes.
Cindy took a step back. "Do I know you?"
"Do you know me? I'm your husband," said the Silencer. "John
"Husband?" said Cindy, giving him an odd look. "I'm not married."
A beefy man came walking over. Eyeing the Silencer, he quickly
appraised the situation. "Cindy, is this guy giving you any trouble?"
"I'm your husband, John Norman," said the Silencer. "Surely you
Cindy shook her head without a trace of recognition. "I'm sorry,
but you must have me confused with someone else."
"I think you should leave," said the man.
"I didn't ask your opinion," said the Silencer, and his voice was
"Are you challenging me?" said the man. "Do you know who I am?"
"Come on, Bret, let's go," said Cindy, grabbing his arm. Casting
a last worried glance at the Silencer, she walked away.
"How can this be?" the Silencer whispered. "How can this be?"
Later, back at his ranch, Range said, "I've done a little
digging. Cindy Pascal. Age 29. First time contender for trick shooting-
"No, that's not right," said the Silencer. "She's not a first
time contender, and she's much older than 29! We've been together
longer than 29 years!"
"I'm still digging for information about her past," said Range.
"I did find out one thing about the present. That's her boyfriend you
met, Bret Yarnu. He's a silver medalist in distance shooting. I'd be
careful of him."
"I think he'd better be careful of me," said the Silencer. "Tell
me it's not her, Bob. Tell me that now."
Range sighed. "I have to admit she looks and sounds like her.
Even has the same trick-shooting skills. But I don't see how it can be
her. The records-"
"Maybe the records were wrong. Maybe they lied-"
"The Insects," said the Silencer. "Maybe instead of killing her,
they erased her memory."
"Why would they do that?"
"The bugs were trying to create a pliable proxy army. Maybe they
thought they could do that if they erased her memories, and her past
"It's a theory," said Range. "At least, it's the first realistic
one I've heard. But even if that's true, what can you do about it?"
"I can try and stimulate her memory," said the Silencer grimly.
"That could be dangerous," said Range.
The Silencer tried sending her messages. She didn't respond. He
tried calling her. She didn't respond either. She knew he was pursuing
her, but she didn't want anything to do with him.
So the Silencer opted for the direct approach. He went back to
the practice field. Cindy was practicing with her blaster trick
shooting, like she had during their previous encounter. She looked
annoyed when she saw him.
"Go away," she said.
"Not until you explain this," said the Silencer.
She turned and looked at a two-dimensional picture of her and the
Silencer, arm and arm.
"That's sick," said Cindy. "Taking my image and doctoring it. My
boyfriend is coming back here any time now. If I were you I'd be gone
when he returns."
"And what about this," said the Silencer, taking out a
miniholoprojector. He pressed a button and an image of Annie came on
the screen. "Happy Birthday John!" she yelled, reaching over and giving
him a big kiss. "I have a special surprise for you!" she said, reaching
over bringing a large cake into range of the holorecorder.
The image of the Silencer laughed and kissed her.
As the playback continued Cindy watched openmouthed. "But... how
can that be... she looks and sounds...."
"Just like you," said the Silencer. "She is you. What I think we
"What are you doing back here?" said a new voice. It was Bret. He
knocked the holoprojector from the Silencer's hands, and it fell to the
ground, deactivating the image.
The Silencer eyed him coldly. No one dared touch him like that.
Cindy stared speechlessly, not sure what to say.
"You're upsetting her," said Bret. "I'm giving you one last
chance to leave and never return."
"Or else?" the Silencer asked. He was very very still now,
staring at Bret intently.
"I think you know what else."
"No Bret!" said Cindy. She looked at the Silencer. "Bret's a
silver medalist, you haven't got a chance."
"She's my wife," said the Silencer softly, ignoring her as he
stared coldly at Bret.
"You're crazy, and you're getting me angry," said Bret. "I'm
going to count to three. If I don't see the back of your ugly head by
the time I get to three-"
"No, Bret, no!" said Cindy.
The Silencer appeared to be staring past Bret, standing as still
as stone, as if he were sampling the wind, or waiting for some signal
that no other could see.
Bret Yarno, the renown silver medalist, drew his blaster
lightning quick. But he might have been moving in slow motion compared
to the Silencer. Before his gun was halfway out of his holster, the
Silencer had shot him square in the chest.
Bret, with an expression of extreme disbelief on his face,
dropped to the ground. Cindy grabbed him and felt for a pulse.
"You killed him!" she screamed. In anger, she drew her own
blaster; the Silencer, without thinking, reflexively shot it out of her
"Get out of here!" She screamed. "If I see you again, I'll kill
you!" she said, her voice positively shrill.
The Silencer watched her sob over the body of her boyfriend. The
Silencer's expression was unreadable. He left without looking back.
It took him two days to tell Range what had happened. Range shook
his head when he heard what had happened.
"Did you have to kill him, John?"
"He challenged me," said the Silencer. "Where would I be if I let
those who challenge me live?"
Range said, "I'm sorry to hear what happened. But I've come over
to tell you that there's something funny going on about Cindy Pascal."
"Funny?" said the Silencer, not looking in a mood to laugh.
"She's 29 years old, right? But there's no record of her existing
earlier than 10 years ago."
"What do you mean, no record?"
"No date of birth, no hospital records, no parents. An orphan,
apparently," said Range. "But even an orphan would have more records
than these. Apparently, for all intents and purposes, Cindy Pascal did
not exist ten years ago."
"Ten years ago," The Silencer whispered. "The end of the Insect
"Quite a coincidence, I agree," said Range.
"The Insects had a small facility on the west coast, as I
recall," said the Silencer.
"They were never able to establish more than a small perimeter,"
"I think it's time we had a look at their base."
"I'm sure it's long since abandoned."
"Perhaps," said the Silencer.
They flew out to the west coast in the Silencer's fighter. When
they landed, they rented a ground car and asked for directions, and in
an hour were at the site of the old base.
There were guards at the entrance. They were wearing the black
and blue and gold of the Standard Imperium.
"Let me in," said the Silencer woodenly.
"I'm sorry sir, but this is a restricted area," said a guard.
"Grafton is not a member of the Imperium," said Range. "What are
you doing here?"
One of the guards looked at his companion, who nodded. "We have
permission to be here from local landowners. We pay, ah, rent, to use
the facilities here. Intelligence work on the former Insect base here.
That's all I can say."
"Let me in," said the Silencer again.
"I'm sorry sir, but I have my orders-"
The muscles in the Silencer's hand tensed.
"John!" said Range. "You have friends in the Imperium. There's
other ways to do this."
The Silencer looked angry, but nodded.
"Let's make some calls," said Range.
In an hour they had General Arkik on the comm. He certainly
remembered the Silencer from the days of their resistance on August.
"Silencer! I wondered what had happened to you."
The Silencer got to the point. "General, I need access to the
former Insect base on Grafton."
"Why do you need to go there?"
"I need access now," said the Silencer, with an expression on his
face. If he didn't get into that base soon, he would kill any living
thing that stood in his way.
The General read his expression, and nodded. "I need to relay
this through the chain of command. Give me a day-"
"A day will be fine," said Range, cutting off the Silencer's
response. "Can't we wait a day, John?"
The Silencer, after a pause, forced himself to nod.
They spent a very restless night in a nearby town.
The next day they approached the gate again.
"Let us in," said the Silencer woodenly.
"We have authorization," said Range. "My name is Bob Range and
this is John Norman."
The guard checked a datapad. "I don't see anything-"
The Silencer reached for his gun.
"Wait," said the guard, scrolling down and saving his own life.
"I see it now. Yes, go right in."
"Thank you," said Range, smiling in relief.
They entered and parked the vehicle. Even now, 10 years after the
Insects had been driven out, the battle damage to the compound was
still visible. They could see burned out and blasted buildings.
"Doesn't look like much here," said Range.
"If there weren't much here, the Imperium wouldn't be here," said
the Silencer. He and Range entered one of the partially destroyed
buildings. Sure enough, they saw a stairway leading down which lead to
the first of several sublevels which were intact.
They passed a lot of laboratories that looked like they had been
used for experiments. Range wondered if the Silencer knew where he was
going. The Silencer kept walking, stopping only when he came to a room
filled with computers and white coated lab technicians. He entered.
"I need information," said the Silencer.
One of the lab techs looked up. "I'm rather busy now."
The Silencer drew his blaster so fast that the tech didn't see it
"I think you should clear your appointment calendar for the next
hour or two," said Range.
The lab tech scoured through the online records.
"Oakley, Annie Oakley...." He said, scanning, "You realize these
translations are approximate, given our limited nature of the
He looked up to see the Silencer's blaster pointed at him.
"He understands," said Range. "Continue."
The tech searched more, and then said, "Here it is. Annie
Oakley." He gulped, reading it.
"What?" said Range.
The tech stammered. "She died. During one of their ghastly
experiments. It's all here," he said, turning the readout screen to
The Silencer read the screen, his face impassive. So that was it.
Annie was really dead. But then something caught his eye. "What's
this?" he said, pointing to one line.
"What?" sad the tech.
The tech peered at the line. "It looks like some sort of cross
"What does that mean?" said the Silencer.
"Well, I'm not sure, but I think it means her file is somehow
attached or related to another file."
"Can you bring this other file up?"
"Let me try," said the tech. He pressed a few buttons, and gave a
low whistle. "Well, would you look at that!"
The Silencer turned the screen his way and did just that. So did
Neither said anything for a moment. Then Range spoke first.
"A clone!" he said.
"Yes," said the tech. "It looked like they cloned her from a
sample of her tissue."
"What kind of clone?" said the Silencer thickly. "One of those
inhuman half-insect monsters?"
"No," said the tech, scrolling down the page. "It looks like a
complete human copy, without any changes to the genome. We know that
towards the end of their stay that the Insects had given up on their
hopes of creating a hybrid race. Our research here is highly
classified, but I can tell you that we have seen indications that they
tried to create their own army of Graftonites, conditioned to obey
"Was this army ever created?"
"I don't think they had the time to," said the tech. "Look at
this date here. According to these records, she was processed, formed,
and given only basic brain programming for language and perception only
one day before this base fell. I don't think they had time to brainwash
her." He looked up at the Silencer. "For all intents and purposes,
she's a copy of the original Annie Oakley, but without her memories and
experiences. When the Graftonites overran the base, they must have
found her and taken care of her."
"And so that is Cindy Pascal," said Bob Range. "It seems neither
of us was entirely right, Silencer."
The Silencer said nothing, but walked quickly out of the room,
without saying a word.
She didn't have Annie's memories, but she was the closest thing
to Annie that existed-but she hated his guts so badly that she would
kill him on sight.
What should he do now?
For once, the Silencer just did not know.
Chapter 16: Investigating a Conspiracy
The Standard Imperium flourished.
It took months for all the planets to be liberated from the
restraining influence of the energy mist.
It took years for the shattered economies of those planets to
begin to rebuild.
It took even longer for the war-weary populace to start to get
their confidence back.
But slowly but surely, the planets of the former Alliance started
Even more surprisingly, they started to prosper.
Many had been nervous about the prospect of military rule; but if
the Imperium were a military dictatorship, it was one where the
military tried to be as unobtrusive as possible in day to day affairs.
The War Admiral kept his promises about the freedom of the press,
though one or two reporters had to be made an example of when they
violated his "no unattributed sources" rules. After a few weeks in the
brig, they saw the merits of quoting their sources on the record. The
press was filled with all sorts of articles, both for and against the
Imperium, but the War Admiral kept his word and never cracked down on
publications merely because of opposing points of view.
He also kept his promise about individual freedoms; taxes were
kept low, to stimulate growth, regulations were kept to the barest
minimum, and individuals were only investigated for cause. In fact, the
War Admiral spent more of his time trimming the bureaucracy than he did
the population he ruled. If a regional or planetary governor imposed
too many taxes and fees, or imposed too many regulations, or harassed
opponents who were only expressing verbal opposition to the government,
that official would be disciplined or removed. After the first few
examples were made of some generals and Admirals the War Admiral found
that he only had to do it infrequently.
He encouraged the military governors to select civilian
administrators, but to exercise genuine oversight. That was the way it
should work down the line, he reflected, from War Admiral to regional
governor to planetary governor to civil administrator. Each level
should have a hands off attitude but closely watch the level below it,
only acting if the level below it wasn't doing the job properly.
The system sounded naively simple, but it worked. Cynics said the
Imperium couldn't last ten years. But when it lasted 20 years, and then
40, and then 50, and then 100, the cynicism was replaced with a
complacency, even a comfort level with the Imperium that one wouldn't
have expected after centuries of elected rule.
The Imperium shined not only in efficiency but in eliminating
corruption as well. A week didn't go by when some official wasn't on
trial for corruption, a testament to the War Admiral's constant efforts
to weed out crime and fraud in his government. While corruption could
never be wholly rubbed out, it was reduced to only a fraction of the
levels it was under the Alliance. Unnecessary cost overruns in the
military became a thing of the past after the War Admiral made an
example of a military contractor who took "liberties". The same applied
for domestic expenditures.
Institutions grew and flourished under the Imperium. The USS, the
University of Sarney Sarittenden, largely ruined during the Insect
invasion and subsequent sacking by gangs of looters, was rebuilt and
renamed the Imperial Academy, and became known as a tremendous center
of academic excellence. The central library was also rebuilt as the
Imperial Library, with ten times the number of texts that the previous
underfunded library had, and the most up to date equipment. The arts
also flourished under the Imperium, as a branch of the Academy, known
formerly as the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences, inspired the
best and the brightest artists and scientists to join. New works of
art, literature were produced at a rapid pace during this period, as if
the pent up energies from years of occupation needed somewhere to go.
With the rebuilding effort there was also a boom in architecture,
with fresh ideas going into reconstruction not only in August but all
over the Imperium.
Of course, the military was hardly neglected during this period,
and gradually the fleet was rebuilt to over and above its pre-Vitalics
levels, with the most advanced and up to date equipment that honest
military contractors could provide. Now that corruption and graft had
been largely eliminated, an Imperial credit went a longer way towards
purchasing goods and services.
If the people had been anxious about the restoration of the
Alliance in the first decade or two, they were still interested in it
in the third and forth decade, toying with the idea in the fifth and
sixth decade, but by the seventh decade hardly anyone wanted to go back
to those days. Why should they, when things were going to well? After
all, hadn't representative government led to the tragedy at Vitalics?
Even planets that had never been in the Alliance came to like
being under the Imperium. For many of those years, it was all one, big
The Imperium still faced threats, some large, some small, over
the years, but the War Admiral, with the help of a supportive populace,
a capable fleet, and even more capable troubleshooters like Clifford
Croft, James Starr, and Levi Esherkol, managed to turn aside every
After the Imperium passed the first century mark, the War Admiral
started to slow down. Not because of age-the anti aging serum
effectively suspended aging, and other treatments could be use to reset
one's age to an earlier period-but because of another kind of
The War Admiral hated administration; he was, after all, a
military man. After he saw that things were running relatively
smoothly, he turned more and more authority over to one of his most
trusted deputies, Admiral Roger Dulin. Dulin complained that he
couldn't manage the additional load; after all, he already had his own
region of space to govern. But the War Admiral simply told him to
delegate and shifted more responsibilities onto him, preferring more
free time either to patrol with the fleet, or to pursue leisurely
Whenever Stacy Wren, his constant companion, would push him to
get more involved, he would often threaten to resign. But mostly he
said that just to get a reaction from her.
And so the Standard Imperium really did set a new standard,
certainly for military governments, and passed its century mark without
incident. And then 110 years passed, and then 120, and then 130, 140,
and finally, at the 150 year mark, things started to change. At the 150
year celebration, he started to talk seriously of retiring. After all,
he hadn't promised to take the job forever.
He talked with some of the most senior admirals about it. None of
them, including Roger Dulin, the presumed successor, would hear a word
of it. In the face of their opposition, the War Admiral agreed to table
the subject for now, but warned them the situation would not continue
And that was the situation 150 years later. No one knew it at the
time, but that was to be the last year of the Standard Imperium.
Superspy Clifford Croft took a shuttle down to the planet
Pushkin. He was annoyed, for a number of reasons.
Pushkin didn't bring back pleasant memories. The only woman he
had ever loved had practically died into his arms there. Croft winced
at the memory.
Pushkin was also the home of the Slurian empire, which he had
fought for hundreds of years.
And lastly, Croft was tired, and didn't know why he was
personally summoned when a holoconference would have sufficed. Why did
General Karn want to see him anyway?
Croft frowned, his eyes focusing on the occupant of the shuttle
opposite him. There, now he had still one more reason to be annoyed.
Carl Compor. Croft had nothing against Compor personally; he
didn't even know Compor. Oh, he knew that Compor was a newly minted
graduate of the Imperial Academy, and that he had gone through the War
College's Intelligence Training School, and he was just starting on his
exciting career, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Croft didn't know him
well enough to dislike him. But Croft nonetheless resented Compor's
He had been forced on Croft; another new trainee for the Column
that Croft was expected to housetrain. He, Croft, who had served
loyally and above the call of duty for hundreds of years; He, Croft,
who had saved the Alliance and its predecessors countless times; he,
Croft who had more experience and seniority than practically anyone
else alive, was still saddled with trainees.
It was that last fact that was turned against him. The Chief had
said, "But Clifford, it's because of your experience that you're so
valuable as a teacher."
Croft had rolled his eyes.
"What if something happened to you-all your experience would be
irrevocably lost. Don't you want to spread your knowledge and learning
"Not really," Croft had said. But he hadn't been given a choice
in the matter.
His thoughts returned to General Karn. Again he wondered why it
was necessary for him to report in person. Well, Karn could call for
him, but he would make Karn wait. When the shuttle landed, Croft took
off time to head to the main hospital in the capital city, Relshev.
"What are we doing here?" said Compor. "Aren't we supposed to be
meeting with Governor Karn?"
"Wait here," was all Croft said. He showed his ID to a guard at
the entrance and was escorted to the cryo unit.
Croft stared impassively at the woman trapped in ice. The love of
his life. She had been only moments from death. She looked unchanged,
frozen in time from that moment.
Croft touched the glass tube around her. "I promise I would try
to free you," he whispered. "But I don't know how."
He stayed there for several more minutes, and then left.
Croft left the hospital, picking up Compor along the way. They
made his way to the palace, and he shuddered as he looked at the
grotesque architecture. A different government, but the same buildings.
Or was it a different government? The Slurian government had been
a dictatorship, and now General Karn was dictator of the former Slurian
empire, so what difference did it make?
Plenty, he told himself. Karn was only a governor in the War
Admiral's Imperium, and the Standard Imperium allowed a lot more
freedoms, politically, economically, and culturally, than the Slurian
Empire ever did.
And Karn wasn't a bad fellow. Croft had briefly had contact with
him from time to time in the past when his work brought him to the
Slurian sector, and Karn had always been supportive, even friendly.
But Croft was still in a bad mood as he and Compor passed through
five layers of security as he got progressively deeper inside the
Compor checked his chrono nervously. "We're late."
"Uh oh," said Croft with mock concern.
When they finally reached Karn's outer office, Croft was
surprised to find himself waved in by his secretary. He had fully
expected to be kept waiting in revenge for his purposefully being late.
Karn was waiting for him in his giant office. It was all the
same; the huge ceilings, the fancy artwork, even the roaring fireplace
in the corner-an anachronism, but perhaps that suited him.
"Welcome, Clifford, welcome," said Karn, motioning for Croft to
sit. He looked a bit surprised to see Compor, and so Croft mechanically
made the introductions. If Karn objected to Compor's presence, he
didn't say anything.
Croft looked at the General, or Governor, as he was now also
called. Croft still thought it was odd to see Karn in the black and
blue and gold of the Standard Imperium; something inside told him that
Karn should still be wearing the drab greens of the Slurian Union.
"We've been waiting for you," said Karn, motioning as if to offer
Croft shook his head. Of course when Karn said "We" he meant the
Imperial We. "I'm sorry but-"
"You wanted to see her," said Karn. "I understand."
Compor looked puzzled.
He didn't seem upset that Croft had prioritized a dead girlfriend
over Karn's live summons. Karn was definitely acting out of character.
What was going on here?
"I need your help," said Karn.
"My help?" said Croft. "You mean the Column?"
"I mean you," said Karn, casting a glance at Compor. "Have you
heard of Xylomite-D?"
"I've heard of Xylomite A and B," said Croft. "Have they been
running wild with the alphabet again?"
"Running wild is an understatement," said Karn. "Xylomite-D is
ten times more potent than the B variants."
"So?" said Croft.
"We have it flooding into our worlds now," said Karn. "It's
creating thousands of new addicts every week."
"That's too bad," said Croft, not trying very hard to make it
sound like he cared. What was he doing here? The Column didn't normally
deal with drug smuggling.
"Yes, it is," said Karn.
"But why have you called for me?" said Croft.
"I want your help in tracking down the source of these drugs,"
"Let me get this straight," said Croft. "You called me here for a
face to face meeting, to get my help with criminal drug smuggling?"
Compor looked wide eyed.
No other agent in the Column or any other organization would dare
talk to Karn that way. But no other agent had the direct ear of the War
Admiral, and Karn knew it.
"Drug smuggling is a big threat, as big as espionage or spies,"
"This is a criminal matter," said Croft. "Why don't you have your
own military police or investigative units look into it?"
"I have," said Karn. "For several months now, in fact."
"They have succeeded in doing little more than arresting a few
low level dealers," said Karn. "Either these dealers are much cleverer
than your average dealers, or they have informers inside my
"So you want an outsider to investigate, so these hypothetical
informers won't be tipped off," said Croft. He paused. "You took a
mighty big risk asking for outside help."
"How so?" said Karn innocently.
"Well, if word got out that you couldn't handle your own
problems, and you had a big drug problem, it might not look good with
the other military governors." The regional governors were fiercely
competitive, each trying to make their region outshine the others.
"Clifford, Clifford," said Karn. "We're all on the same side
here. I'm not concerned that you will badmouth me to the council; we've
worked together before, and I know I can trust you." Karn walked around
his desk. "The fact is that drugs is a problem throughout the Imperium.
I'm just facing up to it honestly. If you can clear this problem out
more quickly and efficiently than my own people, well, I'm more than
happy to let you take the credit. It's the accomplishment that's
important, not who takes credit for it."
"Uh huh," said Croft, not believing a word of it.
"So will you help me, Clifford?" said Karn.
This was even more uncharacteristic of Karn. Karn rarely asked;
he almost always told.
But he had no clear jurisdiction over Croft and realized that
this was the only way to get his help.
"Drug smuggling, huh?" said Croft. He sighed. "Well, as long as
I'm here, I might as well look into it."
"Excellent," said Karn. He handed Croft a datadisk. "This has
information you might find helpful. Please keep in constant touch and
let me know your progress."
"Yes sir," said Croft. He caught Compor's eye, and they got up
"So what do you conclude from all this, my young apprentice?"
said Croft, as they walked outside the palace.
"The General seems really impressed with you, to call you all the
way here for this important assignment."
"How much do you know about General Karn?" said Croft.
"Well, the basic things most everyone knows, I suppose."
"Does General Karn have a reputation for being gracious?" Croft
"Well, gracious isn't the adjective that comes to mind," said
Compor. "Why, have you been adversaries in the past?"
"Not since the Imperium was formed; in fact, we've worked
together on some issues from time to time, and I'd even go so far to
say that he's been helpful," said Croft.
"Then why are you so suspicious?" Compor asked.
"No Column agent is called all the way to Pushkin to deal with
drug smuggling," said Croft. "Certainly no top Column agent is called
all the way to Pushkin to deal with drug smuggling. I can't believe his
own security forces are so incompetent that he needs top level help
"Then why did you agree to help him?"
"To find out what's really going on," said Croft.
They rented a room at a local hotel and Croft spent much of the
rest of the day going through the data. He found what he was looking
for very quickly and nodded.
"We're going out," Croft announced.
"Where?" said Compor.
"For a cup of gauche," said Croft.
"I hate gauche," said Compor.
"I don't drink it either," said Croft, putting on his coat.
They passed several gauche places without stopping until they
came to one in a dingy part of Relshaw called Virno's.
"When we go inside, guard my back," said Croft.
"Guard your back? What do you mean?" said Compor.
"If anyone pulls a blaster, shoot them," said Croft.
"Shoot them?" said Compor, as Croft casually walked inside.
They found Virno's as dingy and broken down on the inside as it
was on the outside. Shady looking characters sipped drinks and stared
at the newcomers, muttering to each other.
Croft ignored them and went up to the bartender, a heavily
bearded man wearing an undershirt.
"I'm looking for Virno," said Croft, speaking in fluent Slurian
without an accent. They probably didn't call the language Slurian
anymore, but Croft didn't know what it had been called before the
Slurians changed the names. Compor stood behind him, nervously watching
the crowd. His hand was clenched on the blaster in his pocket. Would he
really have to shoot someone?
The bearded man looked Croft up and down, and didn't like what he
saw. "Who wants to know?"
"He does," said Croft, passing a 100 credit note with a picture
of a Pushkin war hero on it.
The man looked at the credit note, and then back to Croft, and
appeared to consider, like a rat studying a piece of cheese in a trap.
Greed won out over caution and the man grabbed the credit note.
"Back room," he grunted.
Croft nodded. He gestured for Compor to follow him.
Croft followed the large man into the back room. The room was
dark; as the man entered, he spun around, grabbed Croft's elbow, and-
Somehow ended up on the ground, with Croft's boot on his throat.
He gasped for breath as Croft spoke conversationally. "Looking
for this?" said Croft, palming the light switch.
The man gasped and wheezed.
"If I lift my foot, do you promise to behave?" Croft asked.
The man nodded vigorously. He slowly got up.
"I have just one question for you, Virno," said Croft.
The man didn't seem surprised that Croft knew who he was.
"I want to know where I can lay my hands on some Xylomite-D,"
"I don't know anything about that," said Virno, suddenly reaching
for something in a cupboard.
Croft's hand lashed out and Virno screamed as Croft chopped down
on his wrist. Compor gasped. There was a clatter as something fell to
"What's this?" said Croft, picking the object up. A blaster. He
pointed it at Virno.
"Now, the Xylomite," said Croft.
"How much do you need?" said Virno.
"Ten pounds! Do you know how many doses that is?" said Virno,
nursing his hurt wrist.
"Yes," said Croft.
"I don't have that kind of supply."
"Who does?" Croft asked conversationally.
Virno eyed a door in the corner. Croft, sighing, stuck out his
foot, tripping Virno just as he began to run.
"You seem to fall down a lot," said Croft. "I suggest you help me
before you really get hurt."
Virno, glaring, got to his feet. "Contact Telya in the iron
Croft lashed out with a kick and Virno fell to the ground again.
"The truth this time," said Croft.
Virno glared at Croft. "All right. You have to go to a bakery in
a town 400 miles-"
Croft gave Virno a harder kick, one that sent him sprawling
across the room.
Compor looked at Croft with a shocked expression on his face.
As Virno struggled to his feet yet again, Croft said, "My foots
getting tired. I think next time I'll use what's in my hand," he said,
indicating the blaster.
Virno sweated, licking his lips.
"Well?" said Croft. He waited a moment. "All right," he said,
raising the blaster.
"Wait!" said Virno. "All right. You have to see Garnya at-" he
gave Croft a location.
"Thanks," said Croft. "But, are you sure that's the truth?"
"Because if it's not, I'd hate to have to come back here," said
Croft. "Also, I'd hate for Garnya to set up an ambush for me. He could
only do that if he were warned in advance. So if there is an ambush,
I'll draw the obvious conclusion. Do we understand each other?"
Virno nodded again.
"Good," said Croft. He turned to go, but Virno called behind him.
"Hey, what about my blaster?"
"Ah yes," said Croft. He lifted the blaster, inspecting it. Then
he put it in his pocket. "Don't make me come back to return it," he
When they got outside Compor said, "Did you have to be so
"Not if I would have settled for a lie," said Croft. "If I would
have settled for a lie, I could have been as gentle as possible."
"How did you know when he was telling the truth?" said Compor.
Croft shrugged. "It was obvious. When the answers stop coming
quickly, and when you sense you've really gotten their attention."
"You really got his attention," said Compor.
"You show remarkable sympathy for someone who was about to ambush
me in a dark storeroom," said Croft. "Or had you also forgotten that
he's a Xylomite dealer?"
"Oh, yeah," said Compor. "But still, there's due process-"
"I processed him," said Croft simply.
They met with Garnya and Croft used his powers of persuasion yet
again, and again with the dealer who was one level higher than Garnya.
After another friendly conversation Croft was able to get the name for
a relatively high-level dealer who was responsible for distribution
throughout much of the western coastline.
"This has been too easy," Croft frowned.
"But you're a top level Column agent," said Compor. "Everything
is easy for you!"
"I appreciate the fan mail, but this is too easy, even for me,"
said Croft. "You may want to opt out of the meeting with the next guy.
It could be dangerous."
Compor thought about it, and gulped. Then he nodded. "No, if
you're going, I will too."
"All right," said Croft.
They arranged a meeting the next day with their latest contact.
But before they did, Croft went out alone to run an errand. Compor
asked if it were work related and when Croft said yes, Compor asked if
he could come along.
Croft shook his head. "You'll only slow me down."
Croft left and returned a few hours later without comment.
The next day they met with a man named Randashal in a nearly
deserted warehouse on the outskirts of Relshev. He had several mean
looking men with him who formed a circle behind Croft and Compor.
Compor looked nervously at them. Croft looked entirely unconcerned.
"I hear you've been roughing up some of my boys," said Randashal.
"Just having a friendly conversation," said Croft, still speaking
in fluent Slurian.
"You're not from around here," Randashal, speaking in English
now, which was the language of the former Alliance planets. "Who are
you and what do you want?"
"Who I am is not important," said Croft, also in English. "What I
want is. I'm looking for a reliable supplier of Xylomite D."
"I handle supplies of Xylomite D in this area," said Randashal.
"As you noted, I'm not from around here," said Croft. "I'm
setting up operations on Greenfields."
"If you're from Greenfields, why did you come here?"
"I knew that there was Xylomite here, and I thought I could
backtrack and find a supplier."
"A cop would also try to do that," said Randashal.
"Do I look like a cop?" said Croft.
"A cop can look like anything," said Randashal. "I should teach
you a lesson just for pushing around my boys." He made a slight gesture
and the men around them drew blasters. "Don't leave their bodies in an
Croft looked very unconcerned. "I wouldn't do that," said Croft.
"Why?" said Randashal.
"If you'll let me open my coat, slowly, you'll see why," said
Randashal, suspiciously, nodded.
Croft slowly opened his coat. They could see explosives strapped
to his body.
"There's enough explosives here to take out half this warehouse.
As you can see, there's no obvious detonator," said Croft
conversationally. "There's no need for one. It's keyed to my heartbeat.
If it stops, it detonates."
Compor tried to keep himself from fainting.
Randashal, grimacing, motioned for his men to lower their
"That's better," said Croft.
"What do you want?"
"A name," said Croft. "A supplier."
"What do I get out of it?"
"A finder's fee," said Croft. "100,000 credits."
Randashal considered. "200,000 credits."
They settled at 145,000 credits. Croft, on principal, refused to
meet Randashal exactly halfway, as that would be a sign of weakness. At
one point Randashal stuck to 160,000, and Croft stuck to 145,000, and
both refused to budge.
"Shall I blow myself up, then?" said Croft, reaching for the
mechanism which controlled the explosives."
"No!" said Randashal. "145,000, then."
"Good," said Croft. He handed Randashal a card. "Here's a number
where I can be reached. Let me know when you're ready."
When they returned to the ground car Compor, his body awash with
perspiration, practically collapsed in the passenger seat while Croft
"You seemed so cool and collected," said Compor.
"You have to understand, I've done this thing many times before,"
said Croft. "I was in no real danger, as long as they acted
"What if they acted irrationally?" said Compor. "Would you really
have blown yourself up?"
Croft didn't answer directly; instead he removed one of the
explosive charges and handed it to Compor.
"Can you open this, please?"
"Is it safe?" said Compor, trying not to touch it.
"Um hm," said Croft.
Compor gingerly turned the top of the explosive, and slowly
twisted it off. There was no explosion.
"Thanks," said Croft, taking the container back. He removed the
lid, reached in, took something out, and put it in his mouth. It made
"What is it?"
"Pretzels; you want some?"
When they got back to their hotel Croft sat down in front of some
equipment. Compor said, "When do you think he'll call?"
"I don't," said Croft.
"But he bargained-"
"That was just for show. I appeared out of nowhere and threatened
his people. There's no way he's going to deal with me."
"Quiet," said Croft, as a flashing indicator appeared on his
screen. He pressed a button and a two way holoconversation appeared in
midair. It was Randashal, and he was talking to someone else.
"-this guy came busting in and said he wanted a new supplier,"
said Randashal. He described what had happened.
"Who is he?" said the other person.
"I don't know," said Randashal. "Do you want to talk to him?"
"No," said the other. "It sounds like a trap. Get rid of him."
"Understood," said Randashal. The connection faded.
"What did that get us?" said Compor.
Croft pressed a series of buttons. The screen was empty for a
moment, except for the word "processing".
Then a series of numbers appeared on the screen, followed by
several words. One of them was "Topsy". The other was "Trace complete."
"Ooooh," said Compor. "That's what you left earlier to do. To put
a tap on his comm. You never expected them to get you the information.
But you knew that they would contact their supplier, and that's what
you were waiting for."
Croft allowed himself a small smile. "That's not the only thing
"What else?" said Compor.
Croft pointed to the word "Topsy." "Does that mean anything to
"That's that... crazy moon.... Right?" Compor asked.
Croft nodded. "But you're missing the larger significance. Where
"Well, it's some distance from here," said Compor. "I believe
"In Admiral Roger Dulin's military district," said Croft, giving
the answer that Compor wasn't about to. He knew the young fellow had to
learn, but Croft had no interest in teaching him. "Now do you
understand why Karn called us in on this job?"
Compor thought a moment. Then he said, "No."
Croft sighed. "The drugs are coming in from outside Karn's area
"So we've learned."
"No," Croft shook his head. "Karn knew it all along."
"If Karn knew it all along-"
"This has all been a pretense," said Croft. "Just think; if Karn
went to Admiral Dulin and said, 'One of your planets is smuggling drugs
into my military district', what do you think would happen?"
Compor thought about it. "Dulin would cooperate and try to help?"
Croft slapped his hand against his forehead. "Just what are they
teaching you guys nowadays?" Compor started to answer; Croft silenced
"Listen, there's an intense competition among the military
governors. If Karn tells Dulin that there's a major drug smuggling
operation going on in his sector, Dulin will treat it like an
accusation. If Karn doesn't have proof, it will look like he's just
trying to drag Dulin down."
"So that's what Karn's got us doing, finding proof?"
Croft shook his head. "It's more than that. If Karn provides
proof that drug dealers were operating out of Dulin's territory, it may
still look like Karn's going after Dulin. So how can Karn go after the
drug dealers without looking political?"
"By bringing in a respected outsider," said Compor slowly. "You."
"Exactly," said Croft. "By having me deal with it, he defuses the
politics from the situation and hopefully gets rid of the drugs."
"I see," said Compor. "You're very astute."
"Well," said Croft, smiling and looking pleased with himself.
Back at the warehouse, Randashal looked at a small mechanical
device which had been removed from the comm system. He was still
When a new man entered the room. The newcomer was unusual in that
he had no eyebrows.
"I did like you said," said Randashal. "But I don't understand
why we purposely revealed our Topsy contact to him."
"You don't have to understand," said the newcomer with no
eyebrows. He looked around. No one else was in the area.
"Did you tell anyone else about this device?" the newcomer asked.
"No, I kept it secret like you told me," said Randashal. But come
on, really, what can we possibly gain by letting an outsider know about
our operations?" said Randashal.
"Let me show you," said the newcomer. He drew his blaster.
Randashal stared openmouthed; before he could say a word, the
blaster discharged, and his head was blown clean off.
The newcomer took the device from the headless body, and made his
way out of the building.
Chapter 17 Topsy Turvey
Topsy was a world that probably shouldn't have been settled.
Still, the number of planets that were habitable, based on chemistry,
biology, and gravity, were startlingly few, even after the advent of
terraforming. Even terraforming had to have something compatible to
work with; a gas giant with no solid surface, for example, that was too
far from the sun to provide warmth, could not be terraformed.
Topsy was a world that didn't require terraforming, although it
might be more accurate to say that terraforming wouldn't have helped.
It had a breathable atmosphere, near normal gravity (by August's
standards), and no toxic chemical conditions.
In fact, Topsy would be an ideal place to live if it weren't for
the emotion clouds.
The emotion clouds!
Clouds of mildly electrically charged particles floated around
Topsy. Some of the clouds were visible, but others were not. The clouds
were not toxic or hazardous, at least not in the usual sense. When
inhaled, the particles in the clouds acted subtly on the human brain,
activating or deactivating different areas that control emotion.
Some clouds spurred people to laughter for no reason; others made
people happy, or sad, or angry, or silly, or any of a long range of
emotions. For obvious reasons, the constantly changing weather patterns
made Topsy a very difficult place to live and do business.
But humans are hardy beings and a number of them established a
single settlement which grew into a city over time. If it had been a
normal planet other cities would have sprouted up; but on Topsy, it was
a major achievement just to have one city in place.
The inhabitants became accustomed to experiencing constantly
shifting emotions not of their own choosing; over time they treated
it... like the weather, something that just comes and goes; and if a
person acted inappropriately, people just chalked it up to the weather.
It was only anger clouds that caused real trouble; the settlers had to
batten down the hatches and hunker down when a major anger system
"Topsy? How surprising," said General Karn. His holoimage looked
genuinely puzzled. "Are you sure?"
"That's the planet the dealer contacted," said Croft. "I have
traced a name and a location."
"Hm," said Karn. "Topsy, let me see, that's outside my
jurisdiction. Let me look up and see-"
"It's Admiral's Dulin's military district," said Croft, willing
to go only so far along with the General's play acting.
"Yes, well, that does make it a bit awkward, doesn't it?" said
"Perhaps I should contact him and ask for-"
"No, I wouldn't do that," said Karn. "We have to be, ah, very
careful with these sorts of things. It's conceivable that Roger might
think that I'm trying to make him look bad."
Croft said, "Perhaps if I talk to him-"
"Hold off on that for now," said Karn. "Get firm proof first that
the dealers are operating from Topsy. Then we'll talk about going to
Roger with the evidence. Does that sound fair?"
Phrased that way, there was little else Croft could do but agree.
"Good. Keep me posted," said Karn, signing off.
The long range transport entered Topsy's atmosphere.
"Am I effected by the gas yet?" said Compor nervously.
"No," said Croft. "You have to breath it in. Just because we're
in the atmosphere doesn't mean it's inside the transport."
"Why don't they just put up a dome?" Compor grumbled.
"Do you have any idea how expensive that would be?" said Croft.
"That could ruin the whole economics of settlement, and make the planet
"There are some planets with domes."
"Very few, and those that do usually have some vital mineral that
makes it worth it," said Croft.
They landed in the spaceport. Compor experimentally took his
first breath of planetside air. Croft breathed normally.
As they walked through the spaceport Compor said, "I feel
confident. Do you think it's the gas?"
"No, you're getting that from me," said Croft.
They had trouble renting a ground car and so took a taxi into
"Where do you want to go?" asked the driver.
"A good hotel," said Croft.
"Oh, a good hotel," said the driver. "And am I supposed to know
what that means?"
"We're new here," said Croft.
"That much is obvious," said the driver.
Croft looked out the window, and saw a sign for a Vacation Delux.
"Take us to the Vacation Delux."
"Oh, very good, you're getting advice from billboards now," said
the driver. He started driving.
"It must be the gas," said Compor. "We must be passing through a
zone that makes people feel angry."
"I know it's beginning to work on me," said Croft.
"You think it's the air?" said the driver. He laughed.
"What?" said Compor.
"We're in a clear zone right now. This is just the way I am!"
"Very nice," said Croft dryly.
The driver took them to their destination. As Croft allotted a
very small tip, he made another cutting comment.
"Now you're in an anger zone. Good luck, you idiots," said the
driver, speeding off.
Croft and Compor entered the hotel. They went straight for the
worker behind the front desk. Before Croft could open his mouth, the
worker said, "Don't tell me, let me guess. You want a room," he said
"As a matter of fact, we do," said Croft.
"Are you two on a honeymoon?" said the worker.
Croft's blaster was out and pointed at the worker. The worker
gulped. "I don't really care what's in the air, but if you don't want
to be vaporized, you'll keep a more civil tongue in your head," said
"I'm sorry," said the worker, coming to his senses. "But there's
an extremely condensed front of snideness and pettiness in the air
today. Please excuse me."
"The room," said Croft, tapping the countertop with his blaster.
"Here you go," said the man.
As Croft and Compor went upstairs, the worker muttered, "Jerks."
Once they had checked in, they went downstairs to the address
that Croft had traced the holoconversation to. It was actually a small
giftshop on the outskirts of town.
As they went in a large fat woman greeted them with laughter.
Croft and Compor smiled in return.
"Hello, gentlemen, what can I... ah, hahahaha!"
"What's so funny?" said Croft, smiling broadly.
"It's just... hahahaha... you look so funny!"
Croft and Compor started to chuckle too.
"We're here looking for Andrew Kavo," said Croft.
"Oh, old Andrew," said the woman. She laughed again. By this
time, Croft and Compor were laughing too.
"I'm sorry, I can't tell you," said the woman. She laughed.
Croft laughed too. "All right," said Croft. He made a funny face.
The woman laughed even harder.
Croft told a joke. "...and when the man said, all right, I'm
game, the Graftonite said 'Ok!' and shot him!"
The woman laughed hysterically. "Stop, stop, you're killing me!"
Croft told another joke. "...and the Capybara said, all right,
I'll work for you, but don't think I come cheap. I only work for
The woman slapped her beefy thighs hysterically. "No, no," she
said, grabbing herself. "It hurts too much to laugh ! No more!"
"I'll stop telling jokes if you tell me where I can find Kavo,"
said Croft, chuckling.
"All right, all right," the woman laughed. "He doesn't come here
often, but hahaha, you might try his girlfriend Slauti," she said,
giving an address.
"Ok," said Croft. "But you better be telling the truth."
"I am, I am," she laughed.
"If not, I'm going to come back here and be funny again!"
The fat woman laughed hysterically. Compor was laughing too.
They got outside and hailed a ground car. As they drove away,
Compor's laughter gradually abated. "You know... I laughed, but I don't
know what was so funny anymore."
"I guess you just had to be there," said Croft.
The address they had been given was on the other side of town,
in an apartment building. As they entered the elevator, Compor said, "I
"I think there's a lot of that going around," said Croft. He
found he was sweating slightly; and his heart was beating rapidly.
They reached the apartment and knocked on the door. An attractive
young blonde woman answered.
"Well well well, what do we have here?" she smiled, looking at
Croft gave her a very friendly smile. "I'm looking for Andrew
Kavo," he said.
"He's not here right now," said the blonde, licking her licks as
she sized him up. "But why don't you come in?" She practically pulled
"Sit down, I'll make you a drink," she said.
"No thanks," said Croft automatically, sitting on the sofa.
Compor hovered uncertainly as he stood in the doorway, sweating
She returned and handed Croft a drink, which he put down on a
small table. "I'd like to find out more about Andrew," said Croft.
"And I'd like to find out more about you," she said, rubbing her
hands over Croft's chest.
"Can you... tell me something about him?" said Croft, suddenly
feeling a very powerful attraction for her.
"His chest isn't as broad as yours," she smirked, reaching over
and giving him a kiss. Croft found himself returning the kiss.
"Maybe I should wait outside," Compor gulped.
Croft nodded. He was about to say something but the blonde's lips
were on his. He heard the swish of the door opening and closing again.
She was very attractive. He pressed his lips against hers. Well,
he sighed, this could be considered one form of interrogation.
Some time later Croft found himself in bed with the blonde.
He started to feel normal again. "Has it passed?"
The blonde checked the weather forecast. "About thirty minutes
"I found I was enjoying myself," she grinned.
"Where can I find Andrew Kavo?" said Croft.
"Andy? Try the Warehouse on Mason and 14th street," she said.
"Thanks," said Croft, as he got up and started to put his clothes
"You know, I don't do this with just everyone who walks in the
door," the blonde said.
"I know," said Croft. "It was the weather."
"Yeah," said the blonde. She eyed Croft as he got dressed. "You
know, I hear there's another love front coming in. You wouldn't want to
stay and... weather it out?"
"Sorry, I have to go," said Croft, closing his shirt. He turned
to thank her, but realized he didn't even know her name. Well, that
wasn't important now.
Compor was waiting outside like a trained puppy dog. "Did
"Get the information?" said Croft. "Yes."
"Being an agent can be very trying at times," said Compor.
"But not at other times," said Croft.
They reached the warehouse in a light rain. There were some burly
looking men standing just inside. Croft casually walked over to them.
"Hi," he said, feeling friendly.
"Hi," said one of the mean looking ones.
"I'm looking for Andrew Kavo," said Croft.
"Who are you?" said the mean one.
"A friend," said Croft.
He walked right up to Croft, and stood inches away from Croft. "I
could be your friend," he said softly.
"That's nice, but I'm looking for Kavo," said Croft.
"We're supposed to shoot strangers who come looking for Kavo,"
said another of the tough guys. "But we don't want to shoot you!"
"Why can't we just be friends?" pleaded another.
"I'd like to be friends," said Croft, feeling unusually friendly.
"But I still need to talk to Kavo."
"Andrew," corrected another. "We're all on a first name basis
here, aren't we?"
"Why this obsession with Andrew?" said another. "Why don't we all
go out to a Zoopball game instead, or catch a holomovie?"
Another said, "Hey, I know a great club where the women are like
this," and he gestured with his hands.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen!" said Croft. "You all seem like nice guys,
but I have to see him. Or if I can't see him, I want to check out his
"Oh, we definitely can't let you do that," said one of them.
"We'd have to shoot you. And I really, really don't want to shoot you;
won't you be our friend instead?"
"Yes, be our friend!" said another of the burly men.
Croft moved forward, but they blocked his way. He sighed, "All
"You'll go to the Zoopball game with us?"
"No, I can't," said Croft. He was greeted with a chorus of
"I have to go," said Croft. He turned to leave.
"Come back soon!" "Don't be a stranger!" "Isn't he a nice guy?"
As they left Compor turned to Croft. "Why didn't you shoot them,
or beat them up?"
Croft turned to Compor and looked surprised. "That wouldn't have
been very nice, would it?"
They stayed in the hotel for the next two days. Whenever Compor
asked Croft what he was doing, all he would say was, "Waiting." He
seemed to be glued to the weather forecast. It was as if he were
waiting for a precise kind of meteorological condition.
Finally, Croft decided the time was right, and they returned to
the warehouse. Only this time, with one difference.
The guys weren't glad to see him again this time.
"It's the stranger!" "He's back again!" they said.
"What's that scary thing you've got on your face?" one of them
said, looking frightened.
"A gas mask," said Croft. Compor looked at it and shrank back; it
did make Croft look frightening.
"Oh, that's so scary!" said one of them.
"Have you come to hurt us?" said another. "Is that it, you've
come to hurt us?"
"Maybe," said Croft. "If you don't let me in this time."
"We told Andrew about you, and he said to definitely, definitely
shoot you if you came around again," said one of the thugs.
"You're going to shoot me?" said Croft, his voice harsh as he
"No no no," the thug cried, raising his hands to prevent an
imagined beating. "Don't hurt me!"
"Don't hurt me either!" another thug cried.
"I won't hurt anyone, if you point me in the direction of Kavo's
Four sets of hands pointed in one direction.
"Thank you, gentlemen," said Croft, walking forward.
"Promise you won't hurt us when you come back!"
Croft chuckled softly. There was no time for this. Or was there?
He stopped, and raised his hand. "I promise."
Compor followed him, feeling scared by everything around him.
They entered a suite of rooms which was sealed off by an airlock.
They entered, and cycled through.
Croft took off the mask and sniffed cautiously. He didn't feel
timid. There must be a secure source of air here.
The corridor seemed to be empty. They could hear a discussion
coming from a room down the corridor. Motioning for Compor to be quiet,
Croft crept forward, blaster in hand.
He peered into the doorway and saw a man, presumably Kavo, having
a conservation with a hologram. The hologram was not remarkable except
for the fact that he had no eyebrows.
"I'm getting pressure from the authorities," said Kavo.
"Are you sniffing the local air?" said no eyebrows man.
"Because you're imagining things," said the hologram. "We're
protecting you at the highest levels, and you know it."
"Yes, you've helped with official clearances, but if we use too
many of those in a civilian shipping area the local police get
suspicious," said Kavo.
"Then you should vary the routes you use."
"I am, but volume has increased to such a level that there's only
so much I can do," said Kavo.
Croft took this opportunity to take out a minicam and silently
snap a still holo of the holographic figure for later study.
"What are you suggesting?"
"If you could get the military to carry our cargo."
"You're certainly in a position to help with that," said Kavo.
"Let me consider it," said the hologram. "I will get back to
you." The holographic figure faded.
"Very interesting," Croft commented, entering the room with his
"Who are you?" said Kavo.
"A very scary guy," said Croft. "And now you're going to tell me
who that guy is, and where the drugs are coming from."
"I don't know anything," said Kavo.
"I'm disappointed," said Croft, taking a step forward. "I had
hoped we could be friends."
As they walked out of the warehouse, Compor shook his head. "I'm
"At what?" said Croft.
"How quickly you get information from a guy," said Compor. "And
all you did was hit him with your blaster a few times."
"It doesn't always work, and the proper method to use varies from
person to person," said Croft. "Actually, what's most important is to
have a proper interrogator's attitude."
"A proper interrogator's attitude," said Compor. "I'll work on
"By all means," said Croft.
Croft was actually only partially satisfied with the results of
his interrogation. The warehouse was only another way station; there
actually was only a small amount of Xylomite in the warehouse at any
given point and time. The main supply came from a space station in
orbit around Whenfor, some lightyears away. Kavo didn't even know the
name of his superior he had spoken to on the holocomm, he just called
him "Joe." Croft was troubled; he only saw this kind of
compartmentalization in sophisticated spy cells. Certainly not in
common drug gangs.
"How do you know that this Kavo guy won't warn the guys on the
space station that we're coming?" said Compor.
They heard the whir of sirens and saw a number of police ground
cars converge on the warehouse. "I took the liberty of making some
arrangements," said Croft. "They'll be kept from making contact with
anyone for a few days."
Kavo sat inside his office. He didn't look the least bit
surprised when the man with no eyebrows entered the room, the same man
who he had talked to on the holocomm, who was supposedly lightyears
"Are you satisfied?" said Kavo dryly. "I really hated letting
myself get beaten up."
"You did well," said the man.
"But what's this all about? Why are we feeding this guy real
information about our operation?"
"Don't worry about that," said the man with no eyebrows. He
changed the subject. "Are you sure no one knows I'm here?"
"Yes, yes, just like you said," said Kavo wearily. His eyes only
widened when he saw the blaster, pointed at him.
By the time the local police arrived, all they found was a dead
General Karn frowned as he listened to Croft's report. "This is
more serious than I thought. It sounds like they have an official in
the military who is helping them."
"My thoughts exactly, sir," said Croft.
"Have you figured out who this officer is who is protecting the
"No," said Croft. "But I have a holo shot of him. I can submit it
"Transmit it here," said Karn. "I'll have my people look into
Croft grimaced, but there wasn't any way to easily back down. He
pressed a few buttons, and transmitted the picture of the man with no
"Do you have it?" said Croft.
"Yes," said Karn.
"Good. Feel free to get back to me when-"
"There will be no need," said General Karn.
"I recognize this person," said Karn.
"Are you that familiar with the members of Admiral Dulin's
bureaucracy?" Croft asked incredulously.
"No," said Karn. "But on the other hand, I do know his chief
aide. That's Colonel Miller, his Chief of Staff."
Croft allowed his jaw to drop. He knew the corruption had spread
into Dulin's government, but up to the level of his chief of staff.
"Sir, I think now might be the time to bring in Governor Dulin on
"And have word leak to his Chief of Staff? I think not," said
"But he needs to know-"
"Do you have proof that his Chief of Staff is involved?"
Croft thought about it. The holorecording was hardly conclusive.
"Not yet," said Croft.
"Then wait until you do," said Karn. "Charging his chief of staff
is a very serious thing to do."
"But we're not charging him yet we'd just-"
"If you tell Roger about it, it will be the same as charging
him," said Karn. "I can see now that the relatively simple matter of
drug smuggling has turned into a hot potato. I wish I had never become
"If there's corruption in the Imperium we're all the better for
rooting it out."
Karn gave a weak smile. "I wish we all had your attitude, Croft.
But there are always politics involved. Which is why I need you get
firm proof against Miller, and find out who his fellow conspirators
are. Then we'll go to Governor Dulin." Karn paused. "I'm sending a
fleet to Whenfor to back you up."
"A fleet, sir?" said Croft. "Why-'
"You never know when that can be useful," said Karn. "If this
corruption has spread to senior members of Roger's fleet or armed
forces, you may need some protecting."
"But politically, how can you justify sending your fleet to
"War games," said Karn. "It just so happens that we have wargames
scheduled near Whenfor later this week. Our ships will simply arrive a
Croft nodded. "All right. But we don't want to turn this into a
"Of course not," said Karn. "It's just a precaution."
"Just a precaution," repeated Croft.
"You're doing great work," said Karn, and he meant it. "Keep me
As his image faded Croft started to get a really bad feeling.
Compor said, "His chief of staff? How could his chief of staff be
engaged in drug smuggling without Admiral Dulin knowing it. Do you
think he's involved?"
"Roger Dulin?" said Croft. "I simply can't imagine it."
"Then how can you explain it?"
"I can't," said Croft simply. "Not yet, anyway."
Military Governor Roger Dulin sighed. The War Admiral was coming
for an official visit, which was both a good thing and a bad one. Good,
in that he always enjoyed the War Admiral's company, but bad, in that
he always hated official visits. Too much time was spent in
preparation, making sure everything looked right for the ruler of the
On top of that the War Admiral had piled a lot of work on him.
Dulin eyed the pile of datapads on his desk. How did the War Admiral
expect him to plow through those and spend time to meet with him as
Dulin sighed, as he scrolled through status reports on his
central control unit. Everyone was busy getting ready for the visit.
What a tremendous waste of time and effort. Why had he even invited the
And then Dulin remembered; he hadn't invited the War Admiral, not
It had been a few months ago, and Dulin had been approached by
General Karn on the holocom. Karn always had a reason for calling, but
also tried to be chatty, as if he were trying to insinuate himself into
Dulin's confidences. Dulin didn't have anything against the man, but
was much too busy for idle chit-chats except with his closest inner
circle of friends.
But one time Karn was going on and on about the difficulties of
spurring economic development.
"We've had some recovery, but it's still difficult for new
businesses to come on line," Karn's holoimage was saying.
"Well, we just have to create an environment that's friendly to
new and small businesses," said Dulin.
"That's precisely what I was thinking," said Karn. "An
enterprise zone, where no taxes are charged."
"Sounds good," said Dulin, just eager to get him off the comm.
"But to do it on a wide scale will require permission from the
War Admiral," said Karn. "That could take some time."
"Why not start with a small pilot project?" said Dulin.
"Do you really think it would convince the others, if it worked?"
"Sure," said Dulin.
Karn considered. "I think it would have more impact if all of us
did it," he said, referring to the other military governors.
"A small pilot project, in select areas?" said Dulin. "I don't
see why not."
"In fact," said Karn. "It could have an even bigger impact if the
War Admiral was to tour it personally."
"Maybe," said Dulin.
"So you'll do it?" said Karn.
"Do what?" said Dulin.
"Invite the War Admiral to see your pilot project on Whenfor?"
"Wait, this is your idea," said Dulin. "I don't want to take
"This is not about credit, this is about getting things done,"
said Karn. "And we know how much he relies on you. If he sees you doing
it, he'll surely give all the military governors permission to do it on
a wide scale."
"All right," sighed Dulin. "I'll have my people set up the
program and extend the invitations. But you owe me one."
"Yes I do," said Karn.
And Karn hadn't let it drop. He had kept after Dulin until he
established the pilot program and then invited the War Admiral, who of
course accepted. Dulin had sometimes wondered why this program was so
important to Karn, but he was so busy, that he didn't give it much
thought; he was content to shift the program to underlings, and didn't
really give it much further thought until the days before the War
Several days later, Croft and Compor boarded space station Pica,
in orbit around Whenfor. There was unusually heavy ship traffic in the
area, due to the imminent visit of the War Admiral to Whenfor on some
kind of inspection tour. Croft wondered if his path would cross with
the War Admiral's. Probably not; he was up on the station, and the War
Admiral would be down on the planet.
They snooped around a large cargo bay and started scanning
"This could take forever," said Compor, after they had scanned
their tenth container.
Croft noticed several stationhands watching them. "Then let's
speed up the process, shall we?" He moved to another section of the
cargo bay, and paused, as if examining something. Actually, of course,
he was looking at nothing.
He then moved to another section of the cargo bay, and paused
again. And another, and another.
"What are we doing?" Compor said.
Just wait, said Croft, not looking directly at the stationhands
who were watching them.
After a few more stops the stationhands exchanged words with each
other and started walking towards Croft and Compor.
"I think we've found the drugs," said Croft conversationally. He
pretended to focus on a container as the two closed in.
"What are you doing here?" said one of them.
Croft flashed a (phony) holographic badge. "Internal security.
We're looking for contraband."
"What kind of contraband?" the man asked.
"We're not at liberty to say," said Croft.
"You can't be here without permission of the commander," said the
"That's funny," said Croft.
"You didn't seem to have trouble with our being here when we were
looking at containers over there," said Croft, pointing.
The men turned to look where Croft was pointing and when they
turned back they saw a blaster in his hands.
The men looked surprised. "What is this all about?"
"It's about a man with a blaster, pointed at you," said Croft.
"Where's the Xylomite?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," said one of the men.
Croft shot him. He fell to the ground. He was only stunned, but
the other man didn't know that.
"Is that your answer too?" said Croft.
"I don't know anything about anything," said the second man. "But
I do know we were told to stay away from those containers," he said,
pointing behind Croft.
"Check them," Croft told Compor, still keeping his gun trained on
the second man.
Compor went over and checked with his scanners.
"Xylomite," said Compor.
Croft turned to the man. "And although you're not involved,
exactly who was it who told you to stay away from these containers?"
"Keep going," said Croft, prodding the man with his blaster. They
entered a residential section, and the man stopped at the door.
"This it?" said Croft.
The man nodded.
"You first," said Croft.
The man buzzed and was let in. Croft and Compor followed.
They entered a room that was apparently empty. Only apparently,
however, because on either side of the door was a man, with a blaster
aimed straight at Croft's and Compor's head.
"A trap," said Croft, handing over his blaster. "Were we
The man nodded, taking the blaster. He pointed back the way they
"What do we do now?" said Compor nervously.
Croft gestured in the same direction. "We go that way."
Chapter 18 The Unsettling Discovery
Croft and Compor were disarmed and taken to a small office a few
rooms away. Inside a man sat behind a desk. A man with no eyebrows.
Colonel Miller. Dulin's right hand man.
"Sit, sit," said the Colonel, rapidly reading a datapad. "I'll be
with you in a minute." He appeared unconcerned that Croft might attack
him, or escape; nor should he have been concerned, as Miller's guards
surrounded Croft and Compor.
Finally Miller put the pad down. "Ah, that it has come to this."
"You're upset that we've uncovered your little drug smuggling
arrangement?" said Croft.
"Not so little, Mr. Croft, and very profitable," Miller smiled.
"But no, that's not what I'm referring to. You see, I actually admire
you. You're a hero to many, having saved the Imperium and the Alliance
before it many many times. I didn't want this point to be reached
because I didn't want to be forced into the position of killing you."
"I really feel for you," said Croft, his voice dripping with
sarcasm. "But perhaps you should be more concerned for what Admiral
Dulin will do to you when he discovers what you've done."
"Allow me to worry about that," said Miller, giving a small
smile. "But let's not change the subject, we're talking about you." His
smile faded. "I wish there were an alternative." He stared at Croft,
signed, and looked up at the guards behind him. "Do it quickly. And
make sure it's painless-"
A new voice spoke. As they watched, a holoimage materialized in
the room. Obviously, someone had been monitoring their conversation.
Croft's eyebrows went up.
It was Admiral Dulin.
The Admiral was on to Miller! He probably had troops ringing the
But Miller didn't look surprised at all. "Sir?" said Miller. "Is
it really safe for you to show yourself?"
"This is a heavily encrypted channel," said Dulin. "And when it
comes to Clifford Croft, my conscience couldn't let this happen without
at least trying to find an alternative."
"What?" said Croft. "Are you saying you're behind this drug
smuggling operation?" He looked genuinely surprised.
"I prefer to think of it as dealing in restricted commodities,"
said Dulin. "Like a businessman, I provide a supply where there's a
demand. Unlike theft, or murder, this is truly victimless."
"Try telling all the addicts who have burned out their brains on
Xylomite that," said Croft harshly. "Admiral, I truly can't believe you
are involved in this. You are one of the War Admiral's closest
confidants. He gave you unparalleled responsibility-"
"Without unparalleled rewards," said Dulin. "Yes, he gave me more
and more work to do. But what reward did I get? Am I his designated
"Well, I thought informally-"
"There still is no designated successor," said Dulin. "Basically
I've done all the work. I've run this Imperium. And where is the War
Admiral? Either fiddling on vacation, or playing with his latest war
toys. Why shouldn't I get some of the credit? Or some of the reward?"
"Is that what this is all about?' said Croft. "Resentment? Have
you ever tried talking to the War Admiral-"
Dulin cut him off with a wave of the hand. "Please. He's
oblivious to anything but his own pleasure. He doesn't want to hear
anything about governing, or responsibility."
Croft thought uneasily that what Dulin said was beginning to have
the ring of truth to it. The War Admiral had been unusually detached
from operational matters lately.
"So you decide to punish the War Admiral by running drugs?" said
"I decide to get some compensation for a century and a half of
hard work!" said Dulin. He paused. "I really don't want anything bad to
happen to you, Clifford. You've been a hard and loyal worker."
"What is it you want of me?" said Croft.
"Not much," said Dulin. "Simply to look the other way-"
"Sir, can we trust him to do that?" said Miller, interrupting.
"Once he leaves here-"
"If Clifford gives his word I will trust him," said Dulin. He
looked at Croft. "We've been together too long for me not to."
Croft considered. "And if I don't?"
Dulin said simply, "If you don't, you don't leave me with many
"I see," said Croft, considering. He thought for a long moment.
"Well?" said Dulin.
Croft shook his head. "No," he said.
"Please reconsider," said Dulin.
"I won't," said Croft. "Drug dealing is wrong; if you have a
problem with the War Admiral, this is not the way to express it. Have
you considered what will happen when he finds out?"
Colonel Miller and the hologram of Dulin exchanged glances. Then
Dulin said, "I'm not exactly concerned about that."
"What does that mean?" said Croft.
Dulin checked his chrono. "I'm sorry, Clifford, but my time is
limited. I ask you one last time; will you reconsider?"
"What did you mean about not being concerned about the War
Admiral?" said Croft.
"I have to go," said Dulin. He turned to Miller. "You know what
has to be done." Turning back to Croft he said, "I'm sorry, Clifford."
His image faded.
Croft looked at Miller. "What did he mean?"
Miller said, "Well, I suppose it can't hurt to tell you, since
you've already figured it out. Let's just say that the War Admiral
won't be very much of a problem for very much longer." He turned to the
guards. "Take them to waste disposal. Do it there, and make sure the
bodies won't be discovered quickly."
Croft was speechless as he and Compor were led from the room. He
couldn't believe it.
Admiral Roger Dulin was actually planning to assassinate the War
As soon as Croft left the room, Miller pressed a button and said,
"Prepare my shuttle for immediate departure." Then he pressed another
button, getting computer access to the station's plasma reactors.
Croft and Compor were marched down to the waste disposal area.
There were two guards behind them, both with blasters pointed at them.
Their blasters never wavered. The timing would be tricky, but not
impossible. The key would be to choose the right moment...
They reached the waste disposal area. Croft immediately turned
"Not yet," said one of the guards. "Keep going," he said.
"Where?" said Croft.
"There," said the guard, motioning to another room with his
Croft dived for him. He knew the other guard still had his
blaster pointed at him; but this might be the best chance he'd have.
As Croft dove for the distracted guard, he heard the sound of
blaster fire and saw a flash from the second guard. So it had all been
for nothing. In a split second he waited for the flash of pain.
But he felt nothing.
Instead, he heard another blaster discharge, this time closer to
him. And then he crashed into the second guard, pushing him to the
The guard didn't resist as he pulled the blaster from his hands.
Croft immediately aimed it at the second guard.
But he was on the ground as well.
Looking more closely, Croft saw they had both been shot. In the
Two men with blasters ran forward. "Are you all right?" one of
"Who are you?" said Croft suspiciously, pointing his blaster at
"Pushkin special security," said one of them. "Governor Karn sent
us as backup; he thought you might need some help."
Croft nodded fractionally, and lowered his weapon. "We've got to
get a warning out to the War Admiral. They're about to assassinate him.
"Admiral Dulin," said Croft, the words only forming reluctantly.
"We can use the transmitter on the station-"
Suddenly, the lighting changed color. "Warning!" came a
computerized voice over the announcement system. "Station reactor is at
critical levels. Overload is imminent. Repeat, imminent."
"We have a corvette in bay one," said one of them.
"We'd better hurry," said Croft, starting off at a run. Compor
and the others quickly followed.
They got to the ship and blasted off. They could see others
fleeing the station, doing the same thing. "Well, there goes all the
evidence," said Compor ruefully."
"That's small potatoes now," said Croft. When they had pulled
clear of the station he said, "Try to raise the War Admiral's security
Suddenly, the ship was jolted by a tremendous explosion as the
station blew up. There was a giant flash of light and a shock wave
which coursed through the ship. The corvette was shaken up for a
"Any damage?" Croft asked.
"No, I don't think so" said one of the operatives.
"Then get the War Admiral on the line!"
The operative attempted to access the comm. All he got was
"What's happening?" said Croft.
"It must be something in that explosion," said the operative.
"It's blanketed the comm."
"Where is the War Admiral now?" said Croft.
The operative checked a datapad. "His public schedule indicates
he's touring the city of Karis."
"Take us down!" said Croft. "We should be able to establish comm
contact when we get lower into the atmosphere."
War Admiral Norman North was bored. He walked through Karis, a
smile fixed to his face as he toured the special economic zone, but he
was bored. He really just wanted to get through this, have a nice get
together with Roger, and then get back to the ship. He eyed the Elite
Imperial Guard around him, in their silver and gold finery. He wondered
if they were bored too. Probably.
Stacy Wren looked at the War Admiral as they walked through the
city, where townspeople cheered them on either side of the wide avenue.
"Try to look interested," she whispered.
"I am," said the War Admiral, through gritted teeth.
Suddenly, he heard a crackle of a comm.
His Captain of the Guard, Prog Fortran, the son of a loyal
officer who had headed the marine detachment on the Glory long ago,
ran up to him. "Sir, there's something you should hear."
"-repeat, this is Clifford Croft calling for the War Admiral.
There is a plot to assassinate you. You have to get under cover."
The War Admiral grabbed the comm. "Croft? What is this?"
"War Admiral? You have to get out of there," said Croft. "There's
a plot to kill you."
"What kind of plot? What? How?"
"I don't know," said Croft. "Just get out of there."
"Sir, we should really return to the ship," said Captain Fortran.
The War Admiral scanned the crowd for a second, and then nodded.
He started walking at a brisk pace back the way they came. He turned to
Fortran as they walked quickly. "Was this crowd checked for blasters?"
"Energy sniffers, standard procedure, yes," said Fortran.
The War Admiral scanned the crowd. Was there an assassin
somewhere among them?
The Imperial Guard closed ranks around the War Admiral.
The crowd looked puzzled as the War Admiral marched quickly back
the way he had come.
Suddenly, they heard a roar in the air. A ship was coming down.
"Croft?" said the War Admiral.
He looked up. It looked like some kind of freighter.
"It looks like it's coming down right on us!" said Fortran. He
pushed the War Admiral. "Run!"
Croft saw it too. "I see it," he said calmly, watching the
freighter descend. He slid down into the copilot's seat. "If you don't
mind," he said briskly, overriding the controls.
He sent the corvette into a deep dive. The freighter was ahead of
them, but the corvette was faster and more maneuverable.
The operatives were pushed back into their chairs by the g-
forces. "We don't have weapons," one of the operatives gasped.
"Then we'll have to improvise," said Croft calmly. The ship
ripped through the lower atmosphere as it frantically tried to catch up
to the freighter.
The crowds started to scream as they too noticed the freighter
zooming down without slowing. In a panicked frenzy, everyone started
The corvette buckled with the heat of acceleration.
"You're pushing us too hard!" said one of the operatives. "The
hull is starting to glow!"
Croft said nothing, but pushed the controls harder. The freighter
was just ahead, but so was the ground.
"We won't be able to pull up in time!" one of the operatives
What happened next was truly spectacular, as reported by hundreds
of surviving eyewitnesses. The corvette came down by the freighter,
giving it a glancing blow that knocked it off course; and instead of
impacting in the street, the freighter wobbled and hit a row of
buildings just behind the street. Everyone was thrown to the ground by
the impact as a huge fireball erupted. The freighter must have been
packed with explosives; it brought down all the buildings around it.
But those on the street, including the War Admiral, were
relatively safe, as the line of buildings protected them from much of
the force of the blast. The blast was so big, that people at first
didn't notice the second blast, as the corvette, unable to pull up in
time, slammed into the street several blocks beyond the parade route,
in the other direction from the freighter.
But within a few seconds people did notice the parachutes in the
air, tied to the nose cone of the piloting section of the corvette,
which had ejected just seconds before impact.
"Are you all right, sir?" said Fortran, helping the War Admiral
to his feet. His guards were momentarily scattered, many in shock
and/or knocked off their feet.
"I think so," said the War Admiral, rubbing some dirt off of him
from the explosion as he got to his feet. He stood a moment and
surveyed the scene. There was wreckage and debris everywhere. "That
freighter must have been packed with-"
At that moment there was a distinct crack, and then another. The
War Admiral felt something sting in the back of his head; he put his
hand there, and it came away with blood. Suddenly, he felt an
incredible pain in his head and he collapsed to the ground.
There were two gunmen in a nearby building. They had defeated the
power sniffers by using old-style bullet sniper rifles. Their mission
completed, they pulled their rifles back from the window.
Fortran's keen eyes spotted them quickly and barked orders.
But it was all lost to Stacy Wren, who knelt on the ground,
sobbing, over the unmoving body of War Admiral Norman North.
Admiral Dulin was in his office, all dressed up and waiting for
the War Admiral's arrival, when he heard the unsettling news. The War
He pressed a button. "Summon the fleet! I want troopers on the
A voice came back after a moment. "We can't, sir."
"Something is jamming our communications."
"What?" said Dulin.
A new voice came in. "Sir, this is perimeter security. We have a-
" the voice went dead.
"Security?" said Dulin. "Security, report!"
In moments the sound of blaster fire could be heard outside his
office. Dulin grabbed a blaster and went to the outer office, in time
to see one of his aides, shot, fall into the room. Dulin looked at the
face. It was his trusted aide, Colonel Miller. Shocked, he took a step
back, and raised his blaster.
Several soldiers entered the office, blasters raised.
"Surrender," one of them said. They wore all-black uniforms, which were
unfamiliar to him.
"Who are you?" said Dulin. "By what authority-"
"Pushkin special security. We have been sent by General Karn to
arrest you, Admiral Dulin."
"On what charge?" said Dulin.
"Treason," said the officer. "Lower your weapon. We don't want to
hurt you. Our orders are to capture you alive."
Dulin, considering his choices, lowered his weapon.
"Thank you," said the officer. He then shot Dulin in the chest.
"Shot while resisting arrest," said the officer calmly. The other
two soldiers, who were from Karn's special guard, nodded.
Chapter 19 The Aftermath
The War Admiral's body lay on the street of Karis.
The Elite Imperial Guard, in their silver and gold finery,
immediately closed ranks to fire at the window the attackers had been
observed from. Several of them blasted out the window where the attack
had come from; more ran for the building housing the attackers, and
several formed a protective cordon around the body of the war admiral.
One of the guards spoke feverishly into his comlink.
"Medic!" Wren screamed again. She held the War Admiral's head in
her hands. There was blood streaming from the back of his head. The War
Admiral suddenly looked up at her, tried to say something, and them
slumped, his eyes closed. Wren frantically felt for his pulse; she felt
A group of soldiers came running up. One of them was a medic.
"Hurry!" Wren screamed.
The medic said, "Let me in," and Wren reluctantly got out of the
He felt for the pulse, and then a heartbeat, and also got
nothing. He quickly ripped opened the War Admiral's, and took a small
device from his kit. Pressing remote, the War Admiral's body surged;
the medic felt for a heartbeat. Nothing.
The medic did it again. He felt for a heartbeat, as Wren stood
with baited breath.
"Got it," said the medic, making brief eye contact with Wren. He
turned to Captain Fortran. "I need to get this man to a medical
As he spoke a squadron of the new advanced Fire Fighter 4's
streaked overhead. Right behind them was a shuttle, rapidly descending.
In moments it landed on the street.
One of the guardsmen who had pursued the attackers returned at a
"Well?" Fortran snapped.
The guardsman shook his head.
Fortran turned to one of the regular army soldiers. "I want this
entire area cordoned off, immediately!"
Wren choked back tears as the War Admiral, still unconscious, was
loaded onto a shuttle.
The two gunmen ran to an open field where a shuttle waited for
them. As they moved to board the shuttle, there was a single occupant
waiting on the ramp.
"Did you get him?" said the man with no eyebrows.
The gunmen nodded.
"Good," said the man.
"How will we get away?" said one of the gunmen. "They'll have
cordoned off the airspace by now."
"Don't worry, you have clearance," said the man. He stepped down
the ramp as the others climbed up it.
"You're not coming with us?" said the other gunman.
The man with no eyebrows shook his head. "Your money has been
deposited in your account. It would be best if we were not seen
The gunman nodded and boarded the ship. The man walked briskly
away from the shuttle.
The shuttle, of course, didn't have any special clearance. Not
that it mattered.
The shuttle lifted up into the air on propulsar jets.
The man with no eyebrows waited.
The shuttle moved horizontally now, moving away at a great speed.
And then it blew up into pieces.
The man with no eyebrows nodded, and walked away. As he did so he
casually tugged at his face. In moments his face mask came off,
revealing a completely different individual underneath.
The shuttle landed on the Battleship Kirov, which was in orbit
around Whenfor. The man who got off the shuttle had all the proper
security clearances; he was neither intercepted or escorted, even when
he went to the deepest and most secure part of the ship.
The man passed through one layer of security, and then another
Finally, he found himself in a stateroom with General Karn.
General Karn looked expectantly at him.
The man took a facemask out of his pocket and dropped it
unceremoniously on General Karn's desk.
"It's done," he said.
General Karn, anger flaring in his eyes, walked up to the man and
slapped him in the face. "You fool," he said.
The man looked surprised and hurt.
"The War Admiral is not dead," said Karn. "Your backup plan
"But... but... all the reports say..."
"He was shot in the head, and he is in a coma," said Karn. "But
he is not dead. He could wake up, Borsht."
"He was shot in the head," said the man named Borsht. Major
Borsht, actually. "That's not simply a scratch on the hand that one
"There is still the chance he may recover," said Karn.
"Extremely unlikely," said Borsht. "You must act now, before one
of the other regional governors do."
"There will be an element of risk," said Karn.
"There is risk in everything."
"But more than I had expected," said Karn. "If he survives-"
"If it looks that way, we'll just have to make sure he doesn't
survive," said Borsht simply.
Karn nodded. He gave Borsht a calculating look. "Have all
participants been eliminated?"
"Everyone who knew about the ship?"
As he spoke, Karn casually moved back to his desk. He seemed
about to reach out for something.
"Just one more thing," said Borsht.
"What?" said Karn.
"It's occurred to me that you may be thinking of killing me,"
"Really?" said Karn.
"I am the only living link between you and the assassins."
Karn only stared at him.
"If you were about to push a button or reach for a weapon, I
wouldn't," said Borsht.
"What have you done?" sad Karn.
"Not very much," said Borsht. "I've just made a few recordings
indicating my part in all this. And yours too, of course."
"Without evidence?" said Karn.
"Evidence is not required to cast suspicion," said Borsht. "But
I've provided enough details for people to start looking."
"And this... confession..."
"Only becomes active if I am killed, or shall we say, die
"What if you die of natural causes?"
"You should hope not," said Borsht. "It's now in your interest to
keep me alive as long as possible."
"What do you want?" said Karn coldly.
"Not very much," said Borsht. "I know already your mind is at
work on ways to find these recordings. You may find one or two of them
but you will never know if you find them all. You will only take the
risk of killing me if my demands become unreasonable; therefore, I will
reduce your incentive by being very reasonable. I want only two things;
the first, of course, is to stay alive. And the second is to be
afforded some power. Not too much to threaten your power, but enough to
allow me some latitude and privilege. And that's it; if you give me
what I want, we'll never have this conversation again; I will not hold
it over your head for other concessions; it will be past and behind
Karn glared at Borsht for a moment. He said nothing, weighing the
Borsht tried not to look concerned.
Then Karn broke out into a smile. "You were always a smart one,
General Karn's broadcast went out less than an hour later. The
script had already been written, anticipating the War Admiral's death;
only minor changes needed to be made.
"-in the name of the Standard Imperium, I am assuming command of
the Imperium until War Admiral Norman North recovers," Karn read. "This
is a temporary measure only, and I take it reluctantly, only to prevent
chaos and to preserve law and order. The plot of the traitor Dulin has
been uncovered, but we have no way of knowing how many accomplices he
had. I will make it my number one priority to root out these
accomplices while preserving the Imperium. All naval officers will
report to their duty stations to await further orders; all ground
forces will report to their bases; and all regional governors will
report to me."
Karn tried to look sympathetic. "It is a very trying time we are
in now. But by remaining calm and respecting law and order, we can come
through this difficult time. I know that all our hopes and wishes are
with the War Admiral."
The image faded.
The holomeeting with the regional governors one hour later was
stormy, to say the least.
"How can you simply seize power!" "You have no constitutional
authority to do that!" "Who do you think you are?" they said.
"I do this because I have to," said Karn. "Just as circumstances
forced the War Admiral to assume power. Our leader has been critically
wounded. We have traitors in our midst. Some may attempt to exploit
this situation to bring down the Imperium. I acted to preserve the
Imperium. Several of you who feel similarly have already voiced their
support." He read off a list of names of regional governors and other
officials who were on his side. Karn turned to the others, "I am here
to ask for your support as well. Will you aid me or oppose me? Decide
The other military governors looked at each other. With Dulin's
forces grounded, and the War Admiral's personal fleet out of play, Karn
had control of about half the remaining fleet, and the others knew it.
One by one they nodded, and verbally gave their support to Karn.
Karn nodded with satisfaction as each one pledged their loyalty.
But when they got to the end of the table, and Karn waited for
the last governor to speak, there was nothing but silence. Karn looked
at the end of the table. The last governor there was Myster Harkness.
Harkness, who had the second biggest block of planets under his
But now that everyone else had pledged their loyalty, surely
Harkness must know that he was outnumbered; he controlled about 20% of
the inhabited planets, and a corresponding share of the fleet. Surely
he understood that he couldn't stand up against the combined forces of
the rest of the fleet?
Karn looked at Harkness coldly. "Well, Admiral?"
Harkness paused before speaking, as if he were weighing a great
decision. "I don't like it," he said finally.
"None of us like the situation," said Karn.
"No," said Harkness. "I mean, I don't like the way you've taken
power, without consulting us. You've made a mad grab for power and
bullied the others into cooperating. But I don't work that way."
"We have all arrived at this decision," said Karn. "You must
respect our decision."
"Why?" said Harkness. "For the good of the Imperium?" he said
"Yes, and for your own good," said Karn. "I'm going to give you
48 hours to reconsider your decision."
"You're wasting your time," said Harkness.
"By that time, our fleet will be in position. You will either
join us, or your fleet will be disarmed and you will be brought into
There was a murmur among the military governors.
"Well?" said Karn. "What do you have to say?"
"Nuts to that," said Harkness dryly, cutting the connection. His
"How very sad," said Karn. He started to issue orders to the
admirals around the table. "Deploy the fleet."
"Sir... what if he won't give in?" asked Admiral Landry.
"We'll just have to hope it doesn't come to that," said Karn. "I
hope he'll come to his senses. If not... we'll have to do what has to
The War Admiral sat in a hospital bed, his eyes closed. Wren
looked at the doctors.
"There was a lot of damage," said one doctor. "It's unlikely
he'll even wake up. He's in a deep coma."
Wren nodded, curling her lips inward as she fought back the
impulse to cry.
One of the doctors in the crowd who wasn't a doctor released the
grip on his sniper pistol in his pocket. He left the room to report to
The fleet closed on the region of space governed by Admiral
The Admiral himself was there to greet them, in his lead ship,
The Blue Luna, an old pocket battleship that had long since been
eclipsed in speed and power by other, newer battleships.
He sat there calmly as the sensors showed the size of the
approaching fleet. It was more than several times the size of his.
"Well, it looks like they brought everything," he said
Everyone on the bridge was grimfaced. They fully expected to die
in the next few minutes.
The approaching fleet closed until it was just outside combat
range, and then slowed to a stop. The fleet made a rough half circle
around Harkness's smaller fleet.
Still Harkness sat calmly, saying and doing nothing.
"Transmission coming in, sir," said the comm officer nervously.
"On screen," said Harkness.
The image of Admiral Landry appeared. "Admiral," he said. "As you
can see, you are outnumbered."
"A little bit," said Harkness flippantly.
"More than a little bit," said Landry. "I'm asking you one, last
time. Please give this up. Even now we can put this behind us-"
"I don't trust him, Ray," said Harkness. "I never did, and after
his grab for power, I trust him even less."
Landry's voice dropped to a whisper, which was ridiculous, given
that this was an open fleet channel and that people on both bridges
were listening. "That's not the issue, Myster. You have to give up.
It's your only chance."
"No," said Harkness. He seemed to derive great pleasure in saying
"Then what about your crew?" said Landry. "Are they prepared to
There was a pause on the bridge.
Harkness shook his head. "I gave them a choice before we shoved
off. About 10% of the crew disembarked. The rest are crazy diehards,"
he said. "Surprises you? Me too."
After working for Harkness for a hundred years or more, it was
actually not surprising how loyal his crew was.
Landry looked like he was struggling with himself. "Myster,
"No," said Harkness. "Sorry."
"Then you give me no choice," said Landry, closing the
The crew on the Blue Luna braced themselves for the attack.
On the bridge of Landry's ship, he opened a comm to the Kirov,
which was enroute to August. "He won't give in, sir."
"So I heard," said Karn dryly. "Very well. Attack."
"Destroy them," said Karn, crisply.
Landry said nothing.
"I gave you a direct order, Landry!" said Karn.
"I'm... sorry, sir," said Landry.
"I fought with Harkness for years against the Insects. He's a
hero. I can't fire on him."
"You will obey my order or be relieved of command!"
Landry said nothing.
"Sir!" an officer stepped forward.
"You will take command of the fleet and engage the enemy."
Hudson paused, making brief eye contact with Landry.
"I am sorry, sir, but I cannot obey that order."
Karn cut the contact and quickly opened another, with Admiral
Kearse, who lead another one of the several fleets that had converged
on the area. He gave Kearse the order.
But he got the same response.
"I'm sorry sir, I can't," said Kearse.
"Why can't you?"
"Admiral Harkness saved my life more times than I can remember,
sir," said Kearse. "I was on the escape route with him and the War
Kearse remembered vividly; he had been a Half-Commander on the
Glory; Harkness's common sense and quick action had saved the fleet
Karn broke the connection and established others. But he only
found one Admiral, a Slurian, willing to attack; even Admirals firmly
allied with him, who hadn't been on the War Admiral's 20 year escape
journey, admired Harkness.
"You can't make them attack," said Borsht, standing in the
"Admiral Tirov will obey my orders," said Karn.
"One fleet is insufficient," said Borsht.
"It's mutiny, mutiny!" Karn screamed. "I'll have them all shot!"
"You have to understand the limitations of your power," said
Karn looked at Borsht as if he would kill him on the spot.
"What I mean is that this isn't the old Slurian Union. You can't
simply order someone with the prestige of Harkness killed and be done
"Until earlier today we were all allies; some of us for 150
years, and some of us for even longer," said Borsht. "You can't erase
all that in an afternoon."
"I make an example of a few of them," said Karn grimly.
"If you shoot the Admirals you will have a real mutiny on your
hands," said Borsht.
Karn felt his rage start to drain. "Then what choice is there?"
"Let Harkness go."
"Let him go?"
"He controls less than 20% of the inhabited planets," said
"20% is a lot!"
"But you control more than 80%," said Borsht. "That's much larger
than the Slurian Union ever was. Let it go. It's not necessary to
control Harkness's planets. You will have a hard enough time
consolidating power over the 80% you hold. Wait, and give it time."
"Time, time for what?"
"Time for your officers to adjust to your new Imperium," said
Borsht. "Time for new officers to rise through the ranks. Time to build
more ships. Wait until your victory will be overwhelming, and assured."
"That could take years!"
"What is your hurry?" said Borsht. "You are the Imperium now. And
Harkness's small force can never threaten you."
Karn turned away and considered for a moment. Then he turned back
and nodded jerkily.
The crew of the Blue Luna gasped with relief as they saw the dots
representing the opposing fleet start to disperse.
Only Harkness was unmoved.
"Sir?" said Captain Hudson.
"I knew it all along," said Harkness. "It was simply common
The following day Borsht was called to Karn's office, his new,
grand office in the Palace on Sarney Sarittenden itself.
"It feels good, eh?" said Borsht, noticing Karn's smile.
"Once I get it decorated properly," said Karn, indicating the War
Admiral's modest furniture. He handed Borsht a datapad with a list of
"Officers to be purged," said Karn. "There are two lists, a few
hundred names of officers who worked under Dulin; and a few thousand
names from the rest of the fleet. Have the former group arrested and
executed; we can implicate them in the plot to kill the War Admiral; as
for the latter, simply relieve them of command for now. We can put
"With respect, sir, this is a mistake," said Borsht.
Karn glared at Borsht.
"What I mean, sir, is that this will trigger the mutiny we talked
about. Once word of these lists get out the fleet will be up in arms.
Against you, sir."
Karn said, "But I have to consolidate my power."
"And so you do, sir," said Borsht. "But you should move slowly,
cautiously. Take this list," he said, pointing to the list of officers
who had served under Dulin. "No one is going to believe that hundreds
of officers were involved in the plot to kill the War Admiral. They
will think, correctly, that it was a political vendetta."
"So what do you suggest?"
"Take a handful of Dulin's most senior officers and liquidate
them. That will be much more credible than the hundreds on your list.
Appoint your own people in place and gradually they will appoint more
of their people down the chain of command."
"And the rest of the fleet."
"Wait," said Borsht. "You plan to expand the fleet, do you not?
"All new fleet appointments will be made by you. People do
retire, do they not?"
"You will appoint all replacements. Over time people will become
more comfortable with your rule, will they not?"
"That will inspire loyalty among the existing officer base. Give
it time, and you will have a very loyal officer corps," said Borsht.
"But do emergency surgery now, and you may kill the patient."
Karn considered, and then nodded. "All right. Pare the Dulin list
down to a handful and simply hold onto the second list for now." As
Borsht turned to go Karn said, "You know, I think I may have made a
"Sir?" said Borsht.
"Deciding to have you killed," said Karn. "I'm glad I didn't go
through with that."
"So am I," said Borsht. "Sir." He turned and left.
The War Admiral's eyes fluttered open.
Captain Wren, sitting by his bed with a datapad, didn't notice
The War Admiral made a sound.
Wren dropped the datapad, and leaned over the bed.
"Ah... ah..." said the War Admiral.
She hugged him hysterically.
But words were slow in coming. It took two days before he spoke a
"He's dangerous," said Karn.
"Let's see what he's said so far," said Borsht. He read from a
datapad. "Water. Cold. Wet. Up."
"I'm not concerned about what he says now, I'm concerned what he
might say," said Karn. "I want North dealt with."
"I want him dealt with," said Karn. "He's in a precarious
physical state; it shouldn't be difficult to make it appear natural."
"Yes sir," said Borsht.
The War Admiral was making very slow progress. He could recognize
faces and move slowly on his own. But he couldn't speak more than a
word or two at a time, and he could only seem to grasp simple concepts.
"Wet!" said the War Admiral, pointing to a drink.
"Yes, it's wet," said Wren. "Do you know me? Do you know who I
The War Admiral looked at Wren and appeared to concentrate.
"Yes?" said Wren.
The War Admiral turned back to the drink. "Wet!"
That night, an intruder slipped past security. This was a
military hospital but the security was not at its tightest. The
intruder easily slipped past the lone guard in the War Admiral's wing.
The intruder slipped into the War Admiral's quarters. He was
sleeping fitfully, tossing back and forth.
The intruder took an injector out of a pocket. He moved closer to
the War Admiral.
The War Admiral continued to toss and turn. The intruder,
standing over the War Admiral now, slowly brought his hand down so the
injector was almost touching the War Admiral's arm.
Suddenly, he heard a hissing sound. Like the sound of gas
The intruder whirled around. Even in the semi-darkness of the War
Admiral's hospital room, he saw a gaseous shape in the air behind him.
Suddenly, the gaseous shape grew eyes, nose, mouth and small,
foxlike ears! It growled, and the assassin jumped back, dropping the
The cloud gave a loud bark, and proceeded to move over the
intruder. The intruder started to run but screamed when a part of the
cloud touched him. It burned him terribly. He tried to run but the
cloud was quicker. He screamed again as the cloud burned his body.
Security came at a room. They found the dead assassin, and the
injector. They analyzed the contents, and found it filled with a very
subtle poison that would be hard to trace.
"It was botched!" said Karn.
"That was always a possibility," said Borsht. "That's why you
shouldn't act unless it is essential."
Karn glared at him.
"At least there is nothing to trace the assassin back to us,"
"Oh, great news," said Karn. "Did you know they've moved the War
"Moved him? Where?"
"Tender." Tender was one of the planets still controlled by
"Well, we don't need to worry about him," said Borsht. "I told
you, he's not recovering. He has the mental capacity of a five year
old. You don't need to worry about him anymore."
"You had better be right," said Karn.
"I am right," said Borsht. "Parts of his brain have been actually
destroyed. I can guarantee your Imperium doesn't have any medical
technology that can restore him."
Karn nodded, but said nothing. Something about what Borsht said
nagged at him; but he wasn't sure what.
Croft endured the security checks as he entered the hospital
grounds. They made sense. Stacy Wren waited for him outside the War
"Any word on the assassin?" said Croft.
Wren shook her head. "Karn thinks it might have been someone
affiliated with Dulin."
Croft shook his head. "I never would've thought Dulin would've
been capable of this. If I hadn't heard it from his own mouth I still
wouldn't have believed it"
Wren looked into his eyes. "He was the Captain on the Glory for
years when I was his first officer. I knew him better than you ever
did. And I still can't believe he was the killer he was portrayed to
"People change, I suppose," said Croft, remembering his own last
conversation with Dulin.
"Maybe," said Wren.
"You think he'll be safe here?" said Croft.
"As safe as anywhere," said Wren. "Harkness has promised to keep
a guard platoon permanently stationed here. And you know Harkness."
"Very reliable. Very trustworthy," said Croft. "The same
adjectives I would have used for Dulin a few weeks ago."
She gave him an unreadable glare.
"How is he?" Croft asked.
"About the same," said Wren. "He can say a few words. I think he
recognizes me, though he can't say my name. But that's about it."
Wren shook her head.
Croft looked away and paused for a moment. Then he said, "Can I
They went in. The War Admiral was eating pudding. His motor
controls, at least, was operational, if a bit jerky. He didn't look up
when Croft and Wren entered.
"Norm?" said Wren, in a voice reserved for a small child. "You
have a visitor."
The War Admiral stopped spooning for a moment and looked at
Croft. Croft saw, or imagine he saw, some faint flicker of recognition.
"Croft," said Wren. "Clifford Croft."
The War Admiral stared at Croft, giving him a puzzled look.
"How are you, War Admiral?" said Croft.
The War Admiral looked puzzled for a few more seconds, like a
person hearing a faintly familiar tune that he can't place. Then he
turned back to spooning his pudding.
Wren looked at Croft, and her expression was very clear.
"Clifford. Thank you for coming."
"I could hardly have refused," said Croft, and that was the
Croft was in the regal Sarney Sarittenden office of General Karn,
ruler of the Imperium.
"My, how things have changed since we last met," said Karn.
That was an understatement. Before Karn was a mere military
governor, and Croft was a freewheeling agent. Now things were
different. Karn was the ruler of the Imperium. Croft would have to be
very careful around him, more so than the War Admiral, who Croft had a
prior relationship dating back centuries.
"It's such a shame," said Karn, looking out a window.
Croft said nothing.
"If only we had unraveled this plot sooner," said Karn.
Croft could hardly be silent. "Sir-"
"Don't get me wrong, Croft," said Karn. "I'm not blaming you. You
did the best job you could under the circumstances. Dulin's plan must
have been in the works for months when you stumbled onto it." He turned
to look at Croft. "I haven't called you here to chastise you. I've come
to ask for your help."
"In case you haven't noticed it, the Imperium is restive."
"I've noticed," said Croft grimly.
"Some people will use the situation to try and take advantage of
things," said Karn. "I need a special troubleshooter to help me deal
with the hardest problems." He watched Croft as it slowly sunk in.
"You want me... to work for you?"
"You'll report directly to me, just like you did the War
Admiral," said Karn. He appeared to be pleading. "I really need your
help, Clifford. Will you help the Imperium?"
Put that way, Croft could only nod.
"Good. I'll be in touch soon with your first assignment."
Croft, seeing he was dismissed, got up to leave. As he turned to
go, however, Karn spoke up again.
"By the way... I understand you've seen the War Admiral."
"A few weeks ago," said Croft, wondering if Karn minded the fact
that he had entered the region of space controlled by Admiral Harkness.
But if Karn minded he didn't say so. "How is the poor fellow?" he
said, sounding concerned.
"About the same," said Croft. "He can say a few words, but not
"The doctors think it's a concentration problem," said Croft. "He
can't focus, or read books and understand them. He can only understand
the simplest of concepts."
"I see. The prognosis?"
Croft shook his head.
"I'm very sorry to hear that," said Karn. "I meant to visit him
when he was still here, but..." he let the rest of the sentence fade.
Croft nodded, and turned and left.
After he had gone Borsht entered the room from a side door.
"He appears to suspect nothing," said Karn.
"Apparently so," said Borsht.
"I never thought he would still be useful to us, even after the
event," said Karn.
"He's an extremely capable agent, and shouldn't be disgarded
lightly," said Borsht.
"Unless his loyalties come into question," Karn added.
Several years passed. Karn's Imperium grew more entrenched. As it
did, it started to change, in ways both subtle and concrete. The
military governors, who had formerly taken a very hands off attitude
towards the population, started to more actively regulate commerce,
political expression, and even the arts. The room for dissent was much
smaller than it had been in the War Admiral's regime. And taxes were
raised to fund the vast expansion of the navy.
The Imperium changed in symbolic ways too. No longer was it
called the "Standard Imperium", but rather simply the "Imperium", as if
to mark a break from the former regime. Another change was in the
uniforms, which also changed subtly. The black, blue, and silver of the
navy and the black, blue, and gold of the army was replaced by black
and silver and black and gold respectively, the black taking up the
part where the blue had resided. The uniforms still resembled the
Standard Imperium uniforms... but they were also obviously different.
Several years passed. Wren tended to the War Admiral every day.
But it was disheartening watching him. While the War Admiral didn't get
any worse, neither did he get any better. He continued to function on
the level of a retarded five year old, and it was tearing Wren apart.
He had been the ruler of the civilized galaxy; he had been a military
genius who had saved the Alliance and the Imperium time and again; but
now, he had trouble just keeping his salt and pepper shakers apart. He
still didn't even know her name. Finally, she couldn't stand it any
Wren walked to the area behind the hospital where the War Admiral
often was taken to on sunny days. An orderly sat by him on a bench,
nodding when Wren approached.
"Bird!" said the War Admiral, pointing at a duck floating on a
small pond on the grounds of the hospital.
"Yes, Norman," said Wren.
"Bird!" said the War Admiral again. "Quack Quack!"
"Yes," said Wren. She looked at the War Admiral. "Norm... do you
remember what happened to you?"
The War Admiral looked away.
"Do you remember who you are? Do you understand what I'm saying?"
said Wren. She looked into his eyes. But there was nothing there,
nothing she recognized.
The War Admiral struggled to speak.
"Yes? Yes, come on, Norm."
Then he spoke. "Bird... gooooood..."
Wren sighed. "Norm, I have to go."
He looked uncomprehendingly at her.
"I can't come here any more," said Wren.
The War Admiral said nothing.
She kissed him on the cheek, and looked at him again; she started
to say goodbye, but, too choked up, simply fled.
The War Admiral watched her go with wide eyes. Then, very softly,
with great effort, he said, "Not... this... way...."
But by that time, she was gone.
Over the next 30 years the War Admiral didn't receive many
visitors. Occasionally some of his old friends, like Admiral Harkness,
would come and visit; but since the War Admiral had the mind of the
child, and didn't show recognition, visits were the exception, rather
than the rule. All that was left was the man himself; he looked like
War Admiral Norman North; but inside, there was very little left.
But there were two visits of great importance. Both were
unannounced, and both took place without the knowledge of the
hospital's impressive security.
The first came scarcely five years after the War Admiral was
A figure slunk in the night, again, as the assassin had five
years earlier; he seemed to evade the guards with great ease; and he
quickly found himself in the War Admiral's quarters. As with the
assassin, this intruder stood over the War Admiral's bed, with
something that looked like an injector in his hand; but unlike the
previous encounter, this time there was no one there to stop the
The intruder pressed the injector like device against the War
Admiral's arm. The War Admiral flinched, and whimpered, but didn't open
A moment later, the intruder was gone.
Several minutes later the War Admiral sat up, his heart racing.
He felt his arm. There was an unaccustomed soreness there. He breathed
deeply, and suddenly lay back in bed.
The next morning the orderly called him by name. "War Admiral."
But he didn't stir.
The orderly called out again, louder.
But the War Admiral still didn't stir.
The orderly, concerned, went to the War Admiral's bed and shook
The War Admiral slowly opened his eyes. He sat up, and rubbed his
Over the next few days the soreness in his arm faded. Soon it
The second visit of great importance came some years later. It
also came in the night. Another hooded figure entered the War Admiral's
The hooded figure just stood there, watching the War Admiral
sleep. Then the figure started to talk, ever so softly.
"My friend, I'm so sorry," said the figure. "I came as soon as I
heard. I'm just sorry it took 30 years."
The War Admiral continued to sleep.
"This is the second time now I've left you to the wolves," said
the figure. "But there are bigger things at stake. I have to handle my
immediate work, but once that's done, I will not let them keep me from
you again. I am coming back soon, to set things right."
The War Admiral tossed and turned.
The hooded figure pulled back his hood for a moment. He looked
deeply unhappy. He put his hand on the frame of the War Admiral's bed.
"I will bring those who did this to you to justice," he said softly.
A bit of moonlight filtering in the room reflected off of the
figure's silvery eyes.
Author's Notes, June 12, 2002
So ends "Rise of the Standard Imperium". I had originally put aside the
writing of this book and tackled "Attack of the Graftonites", because I
wasn't quite sure how to handle the details of what happened in the
Monumental ship. I worked them out so well that I stopped work on
"Attack" and went back and wrote this book (in record time, I might
add-I believe a little less than two weeks of constant writing). My
biggest issue in writing this book was what to call it. I was split
between "Rise of the Standard Imperium" and "Secrets of the Deadly
Monumental Ship". I was leaning towards the latter, because most of the
book focuses around that story. But this book is supposed to be part of
a timeline, and "Secrets of the Deadly Monumental Ship" doesn't
obviously tell you what time period the story takes place in, unlike
"Rise of the Standard Imperium", which says it like it is-it takes
place during the rise (and fall) of the Standard Imperium. So
ironically I chose a title that wasn't really the prime focus of the
story. It will make sense when you see the next book, which is
tentatively titled to be "Imperial Decay" and will discuss the
beginnings of trouble in General Karn's new Imperium. But before I do
that I think I will write at least one other book, "The Future
Watcher", the story of how Croft met Mongo.
A few other points to note about this story. It's very much a
hybrid-the first and second halves of the story have little to do with
each other and are written in very different subgenres. But they are
all connected; the events on the Monumental ship are essential to
establishing and maintaining the Standard Imperium-after all, one can't
have much of an Imperium if all the planets are suffering under the
energy mist, can one? You'll also notice the stray chapter of the
Silencer's story and wonder "What's that doing there? What's that all
about?". Answers will become clearer in Imperial Decay.
Another thing to note is that I am constantly cycling in and out
characters for variety's sake. The Silencer was active in "Death to the
Insects", not at all in "Nightfall on August", and brought back once
again here; Levi was very active in "Nightfall", but not very much
here; the Meddler wasn't seen in "Nightfall" but was very active here.
As you can guess from the ending, just as the War Admiral is being
rotated out others are being rotated in. I think variety of central
casting adds creativity to the storyline.
The last item of interest to note is the timing. The first half
of the book covers events over several weeks. The second half covers
events over 150 years. I purposely left space there to come back and
write more of what happens during the time of the Standard Imperium.
The following are scenes that were cut from the original manuscript
because they interfered with dramatic tension or suspense, but are
interesting to read after the fact in their own right:
The first scene:
The time and place: When Quick was recovering in the hospital.
Levi was sitting by Quick's bedside, reading him animal stories,
when he heard a knock and someone came in.
Looking up, Levi was surprised to see Smiley. But not just
In front of Smiley was Cutter.
Cutter looked like he had seen better days. Every inch of exposed
skin was black and blue, as if someone had thrashed him thoroughly. His
clothes were ripped and within the rips one could see the same bruises.
Cutter looked dazed and confused.
"Hi!" said Smiley, giving a wide grin.
"Hi Smiley," said Levi, looking confused. Quick had a similar
expression, twisting his head sideways as if that might give him a
better view of things.
"Hi!" said Smiley.
Levi pointed at Cutter. "What's with him?"
"I think he has something to say," said Smiley. He looked at
Cutter. Cutter shuddered.
"Sorry!" said Cutter. "I'm so very, very sorry!" he fairly
"Not Levi," said Smiley. "You should apologize to Quick."
Cutter ran to the bed, startling Quick, who pulled back under the
sheets a bit. But Cutter simply got down on his knees, and said,
"Please, please forgive me! I'm really, really sorry!" he babbled. He
appeared to be incredibly frightened.
Levi went over to Smiley. "What did you do to him?" he whispered,
eyeing the bright bruise marks all over Cutter's body.
Smiley grinned. "I just helped him get in touch with his friendly
The time and place: Aboard a small scoutship leaving the orbit of
The intruder relaxed as the ship left orbit. He raised the
injector like device he had pressed against the War Admiral. Staring at
it, he said, "You shall return again, War Admiral, when the time is
right. But this time you will return better than before." The intruder
thought about the future and how he imagined it would unfold. Smiling
to himself, he set a course.
Thank you for reading my book! If you'd like to send me feedback
you can do so at http://www.allreaders.com/feedback.asp or by clicking here
You can find more of my books by coming to www.cliffordcroft.com or