Chapter 01 Aboard the Devil's Delight
Galactic Year 12820, Planet Zavijava, Geostationary Orbit
4. Anomalous Life Form Detected!
Darkness closed in on Athos. It was not just the neuro-electronic radiation of the black tech weapon jamming his optic nerve, interfering with the processes in his visual cortex. It was the black knowledge that he was a failure.
Five years ago, his eldest brother, and the heir to the family title, had perished in the line of duty. Now it was his turn.
The deadly energy from the illegal black-tech shocklance weapon was seeping into his nervous system. Numbness rapidly spread. First, it reached his chest. He was unable to breathe, his lungs paralyzed. Soon the paralysis would reach his heart and Athos would perish in slow silence, entombed in his own flesh.
But he was not entirely numb. His face was tingling with that strange, unearthly sensation that heralded his mask binding itself to him.
The sensation spread. A hot, painful pulse of some unknown energy sank into the nerves and muscles of his face. This tingling, crawling fire traveled down his spine and spread to his extremities. Pain flared in his solar plexus, forcing his lungs to move. With a sudden, ragged gasp, his breathing returned. Painful flashes and dancing sparks exploded in his vision as sight returned. Countless red-hot pins of sensation stabbed into his arms and legs as his limbs came under his control again.
He was awake. The shocklance was lying atop him. The haft was across his chest, and the crackling tines where burning the carpet inches to his left. By sheer good luck he had collapsed without the naked blades touching him.
With a convulsive movement, Athos flung the black-tech nerve-weapon off from him as a man might fling a poisonous snake, rolling away from it. He came to his knees, and in the same smooth motion Athos drew and fired his lance pistol, cutting the bifork into two before it even fell to the deck.
The beam of electronically-neutral high-energy protium particles cleaving the bifork passed beyond it, struck the bulkhead with the force of a stick of dynamite, igniting the tapestry hanging there. The ray dented the bulkhead and bounced. The reflection of the ray sizzled over his head and struck a high shelf above an elaborate vanity table, shattering the three skulls grinning on a shelf above a mirror. Fragments of jawbones and craniums bounded across the cabin, tracing trails of burning debris behind them.
Athos holstered his lance pistol, his eyes narrowed in anger at himself. This weapon was allegedly rated as a space-gun, since the ray designed to pass minimal energy into any of the common alloys used in ship construction. It should have been as safe to use shipside as a low-erg blaster, but Athos knew from experience it was too powerful for use in close quarters.
The annunciator clattered to life. A cold, robotic voice rang from the overhead, and echoed from a dozen points throughout the ship, muffled by the intervening bulkheads. "This is the pilot speaking! Weapon discharge detected in the captain's cabin, deck one, pressure one! Scanning! Anomalous life form detected in captain's cabin! Intruder alert!"
There was a second drawback of using energy pistols aboard ship, of course.
Athos felt the mask on his face tremble and move slightly. In the mirror, Athos saw the grimace of the metal lion-muzzle deepen, and the frowning eyebrows shift into a more ferocious expression. It was disconcerting. He had not realized that the mask could do that.
"Spy-rays blocked! Anomalous life form no longer registers on scanner! Converge on last known position!"
He had not realized the mask could do that, either.
Athos fled the cabin, leaping over the broken wooden boards hanging from a single bottom hinge. But as he entered the bridge, his eye fell upon the pilot's station. The pilot was a flybot, a ball-shaped robot with multiple manipulators like an oversized spider. The robot was plugged into the control board. The lenses flickered as Athos came in view. Lanterns in every section of the darkened bridge suddenly flickered yellow. The emergency high-gee alarm howled.
The artificial gravity turned off, so it felt as if the whole bridge and Athos inside it were a freight elevator whose lifting beam was suddenly cut, and plunged downward. This falling sensation was zero gee. Athos instinctively grabbed for a stanchion, but too late; the sudden motion sent him summersaulting into midair.
The huge transparent hull plates shined with the lights of countless stars, rotated grandly about him, and the nearby planet Zavijava glared at him like a titanic demon eye, red as a hot coal.
Then the thrust kicked in. He felt no acceleration on her person, since he was not touching deck or bulkhead, but the rear bulkhead rushed toward him at the speed of a starship whose main drive just exploded into furious thrust. Normally, safety fields would have caught any crewman freefalling in the midst of emergency acceleration. The pilot had no facial features, but it tilted its ball shaped body in what seemed a sneering posture as its spidery manipulator flicked open the switch to cut power to the safety fields. Nothing but a dozen yards of empty air was there to impede his fall into the mouth of the straight passage leading to the bridge. The mouth was now below him, and the passageway was a well whose bottom he could not see.
But he did not fall down along the axis of the huge bridge. The pilot had not known that one of his four drive tubes, thanks to Athos, was jammed shut and would not fire. Two port tubes roared into action, but only one starboard tube. The portside of the ship accelerated faster, and, as the ship began turning in a great, wide arc, the transparent panels and control boards lining the starboard of the bridge compartment slid into view beneath Athos' toppling body. He was fetched up against the back of a scanner operator's chair, bounced, but drove his claws into the deck. Three long trails of torn metal fallowed him as his fall along the now-vertical deck slowed and slowed. He raised his other hand and threw a punch, lengthening and thickening the claws as he did. The fall stopped.
But the acceleration alarm did not, nor did the gravity pressure on his body. The ship was accelerating at three or four gravities. To Athos, it was as if four men of his weight were riding his back, pulling on his limbs and weighing down his lungs and guts. His breathing came in grasps.
He looked over his shoulder, and saw why the pilot was continuing to pour on the acceleration. This was not a man-sized fighting machine, armored and equipped for battle. It was a metal sphere the size of a bowling ball with spindly limbs designed to flip switches and plug into sockets. The fall of Athos had carried him in a semicircle across the cabin, and he was to one side of the captain's chair, namely, the same side as the pilot's station. The pilot was only a few yards away from him. Lunging distance. The pilot had to keep Athos pinned down until help arrived.
Athos grimaced beneath his mask. He doubted help would arrive. All the crew and officer aboard were pinned down just as he was. With a groan, he pulled one hand free of the deck, and plunged it in again. He kicked his boot toes into the deck, creating energy claws jutting from them as he did.
It felt as if his arms and legs were about to be pulled from their sockets. His vision grew dim. His heart had not enough strength, under these gee forces, to pump blood to his brain.
Like a lumberjack climbing down a tree, Athos made his way, movement by painful movement, bathed in sweat, lungs laboring, across the vertical metal deck to the pilot station.
But he did not give up. The pilot, seeing him inching ever closer, now threw the whole ship into a series of lateral accelerations and loops and wild turns. The thousand-foot long pirate warship corkscrewed and spun through empty space like a mad thing. Athos was jerked from side to side, and the deck to which he clung now seemed like a roof above, or a slanted wall tilting this way and that, as the immense gravitational pressure built and built. But he was not dislodged. His progress slowed, but he continued inexorably toward the pilot’s station. But Athos grinned beneath his mask.
Athos could hear the crashing in the distance of men and equipment not properly lashed down, or not cushioned in correctly-functioning compensation fields. Men and equipment were rattling around in the compartments and passageways like dice in a dice cup. If the pilot was hoping for crewmen to come rescue him, there was small chance of that while the ship was rolling and bucking.
The pilot’s robotic brain must have realized this, for as Athos came within arm’s reach of him, the drives fell suddenly silent, and zero gravity returned. The powerful muscles in Athos’ frame, braced against that immense pressure, were taken by surprise, and jerked him forward. His shoulder struck the deck painfully, and he rebounded, sailing in zero gee across the whole of the wheelhouse to strike the canopy. The pilot, meanwhile, wailing and whistling for help, running lights flashing with alarm, had unplugged its ball-shaped body from the board and was bounding lightly across the deck. Its eight many-jointed bug-thin limbs jerked and telescoped like pogo-sticks as it scuttled rapidly toward the mouth of the aft passageway. The little machine was designed to maneuver in zero gee. Athos did not think he could outrun the pilot, and he was unwilling to use his lance pistol when surrounded by the delicate control boards, master nodes, and circuit boxes of the bridge. Instead, with a powerful kick, Athos soared from the canopy toward the First Mate’s station. He did a half-summersault in midair, and absorbed the shock of a sudden halt with his legs striking the acceleration padding of the chair here. He drove his claws into the chair frame to prevent the rebound from sending him back into midair.
There were alarm switches for atmosphere loss, radiation leaks, fire, and so on. Ironically, there was a silent alarm for an intruder alert. He pulled it. No sirens blared, but, sure enough, the blast doors between the bridge and the passageway swung shut with a hiss of emergency motors. The pilot sprinted on its clattering spider-legs, but was not fast enough. The thick doors fell to with a bang like a drum. The pilot was trapped.
Athos saw that the intruder alert controls now lit up with a diagram of the ship. The circuit was designed to allow the First Mate to send an auto-alert by scrambled tight beam to into the helmets of any crew who suited up, so that they could coordinate a hunt for the intruder without him hearing any chatter over the intercom. Athos pointed the alert at the engineering section in the rear of the ship, as far from his current position as any spot aboard, and thumbed the XMIT button.
The First Mate also had an override at his station to turn the artificial gravity back on, which Athos did. His feet once more on the deck, Athos now charged toward the pilot, drawing his crowbar.
The pilot had flipped the switch to cut the doors off from motor control, and with four of its thin, telescoping limbs, was frantically turning the wheel to crank the doors back open manually. The crack opened by a finger’s breadth, and growing wider. Five inches wide, seven, nine …
With its rearview lens, the robot saw Athos coming. With two more manipulator limbs, it reach up and yanked out the high-tension power cables leading to the door motors, one in each limb. The tips were live: sparks crackled from the prongs of the plugs when the pilot clashed the two cables together menacingly.
The emergency lights on the robot’s skullbox suddenly went from bright to brighter as it realized why Athos was rushing. Not to attack: the foot-diameter robot was hardly a threat to a fully grown man, and every robot shaped like a sphere was programmed with its earliest download to know how hominids loved punting ball-bots.
No, the intruder in the lion-man mask, pirate hunter hat, and holographic red coat had only one reason to mug the ship’s pilot.
The navigation charts and logs were traditionally kept on a quick-pull memory pin jacked in just behind the main cognitive reasoning pin on a pilot’s skull box so that, in emergency, the pilot should malfunction during maneuvers, the nav-pin could be quickly jacked into a back-up fly-bot or the manual helm controls so a human could take the wheel.
The pilot, realizing what Athos was after, released the door crank, and bent its spidery manipulator limbs toward the skullbox occupying its upper hemisphere. Out it yanked the navigation pin with all its precious charts and logs.
The little robot thrust the pin between the two power cables it held.
Athos recklessly swung the crowbar, thrusting its tip between the pin and the sizzling prongs of the cables, trying to swat the pin out of the robot’s grip.
The crowbar slipped from his fingers and fell across the live prongs, the pin, the robot’s manipulator claws. The metal crowbar was conductive, and so were the metal limbs of the robot, the metals joint affixing the limb to the round body, and the metal frame holding the robot’s positronic brain. Positrons and electrons do not mix. In fact, they are oppositely charged and destroy each other in a burst of mutual annihilation, releasing gamma rays.
Sparks flared. A shockwave of gamma rays tore through the robot’s positronic brain. Hard radiation pouring into delicate circuit pins and heated them. Alloys melted. Synthetics bubbled and ran. Molten metal trickles ran though the robot’s ball-shaped body, burning insulators and circuit breakers and rupturing the power core housing.
The machine’s internal coolants hissed, clattered, and stopped. Smoke poured from skull box vents. Gyros failed. The emergency lights dotting its faceless surface flashed red. Then they went dark forever.
The pilot swayed for a moment on its spider legs, stumbled, and clattered to the deck.
Next Installment: A Vision in Silver