Book: Renegades



Renegades

Expeditionary Force

Book 6:

Renegades

Craig Alanson




Text copyright © 2018 Craig Alanson

All Rights Reserved


Contact the author

[email protected]


Cover Design By:

Patrick Callahan

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and

Jeff Ross




Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE


CHAPTER ONE

As our Frankenship limped toward the Ruhar data relay station, I squeezed my hands together to prevent from showing my anxiety in a more obvious fashion. It did not help that Major Desai was not in either of the pilot couches, instead two Chinese were handling the piloting. They were highly skilled, they had trained long and hard and demonstrated their competence, and they were not Desai. When I requested she fly the ship for this, our last stop before setting course straight for Earth, she flat-out refused in a polite, respectful but firm way. She was not always going to be aboard the Dutchman, and I had to show the other pilots that I had faith in them. No amount of argument would change her mind, not even when I reminded her the main reactor had shut down twice in the past five days, that the new computer system was having trouble realigning the drive coils after each jump, and there was a frustrating, intermittent glitch in the stealth field generators. Each time we suffered a glitch, Skippy assured me he had a handle on the problem, that the glitches were actually helping him to fine-tune the new AI that could run the ship for us. His attempts to assure me would have been more successful if we were making progress on getting the ship to run smoothly, but we were experiencing more problems, not less.

So, I was not feeling super-duper confident as we approached a Ruhar relay station, outside an isolated star system that was the last place we planned to stop before going home. Finally, home. “You’re sure about this, Skippy?”

“Yes, I am sure, Mister Worrywart,” the beer can’s peevish tone told me he was feeling frustrated too. “Sit in your chair and, I don’t know, play a game on your phone or something, leave the adults to do our jobs. We would already have the data if you hadn’t insisted on taking precautions that are totally not necessary.”

He was right about that. Not about whether we needed to be extra careful, that was a judgment call. I had ordered us to jump in a full day away from the relay station, to give our balky reactor plenty of time to fully recharge the jump drive coils before we approached the station. If we encountered any unexpected problems, I wanted to be able to make several jumps even if the reactor was offline. “We’ve been away from Earth a long time; another day is not going to make a difference. All right, fine, go ahead, do your thing.”

“Fine,” he huffed in a way that meant it was anything but fine.

The data we needed was not anything classified or obscure, it should have been at the top of the message traffic priority chart. And it was. “Bingo!” Skippy exulted. “Got it! The situation on Paradise is a hot topic, lots of data I can skim right off the top. I will give you a summary while I keep digging, might as well collect all the data we can while we’re here.”

“Good news?” I cringed as soon as I spoke, fearing I had jinxed us.

“As you would say in your horrible Downeast accent, ‘Ayuh’. Good news indeed. The program of vaccinations and creating a supply of curative drugs is proceeding well, one–third of the human population has already been vaccinated. The Ruhar federal government is urging all the hamsters there to get the vaccine, and there is debate about making the vaccine available to all planets in their entire territory as a preventative measure. Of course, there is the usual cluster of looney-tunes who reject vaccines, although the same morons don’t have a problem with medical nanomachines swimming in their blood. Ah, hey, that’s how nature gets idiots out of the gene pool, right? Bottom line, Joe, humans on Paradise are safe, and travel restrictions are being eased to allow normal commerce to resume. Colonel Perkins and her Mavericks just arrived back on Paradise, their presence is reminding the Ruhar that a group of humans discovered the lizard bioweapon plot against the planet. And that a group of humans rescued a ship full of cadets. Public opinion on Paradise is shifting from viewing humans as a threat, to thinking are humans just as much victims of the Kristang as the Ruhar public is.”

“That,” I sighed and shuddered with relief, wriggling in the chair to mask how my shoulders had shaken. “That is great news.” Beside my chair, Hans Chotek clapped his hands together with satisfaction, allowing a tight smile to crease his lips.

“Yup. Good news all around. Another couple seconds and the download will be complete, mostly boring stuff you wouldn’t care about. Annnnd, Ok, got it. We can go. I’ll sort through the data and decrypt it while we’re going to Earth.”

“Outstanding. Pilot, jump option Alpha.” Then, because those words were rather dull for such a momentous occasion, I clear my throat to get everyone’s attention. “Take us home.”

It was my fault, all my fault. Not only was I walking around with a stupid smile on my face since we jumped away from the relay station, I also suggested to Chotek that we have a big celebration at dinner that night. The universe hated me, and decided I had exceeded my Allowable Happiness Limit. In my cabin, I was examining the dress uniform I planned to wear at dinner, when Skippy appeared on my bunk. “Hey, Joe,” he said as he adjusted his giant hat.

“Hey Skippy, I mean, Your Lord Admiralship. Listen, I know you are not thrilled about going back to Earth, but-”

“Joe, we need to talk.”

Oh, crap. I put the uniform top back on a hanger and gave him my full attention. “Is this about you being worried that UNEF Command won’t be in a rush to send the Dutchman back out? We have almost sixty years before the gamma rays from that-”

“No, this is not about the idiot decisions a high-ranking group of monkeys will make. It’s not even about the clock ticking until other species realize the wormhole near Earth is not entirely dormant. Joe, I have bad news.”

“If this bad news is something like the champagne froze solid when you were draining that energy virus away from the ship, that is not funny. We don’t need champagne to have a party, I’d rather drink beer anyway.”

“This is not about the party tonight, and it is no joke. You had better sit down.”

“Uh,” his avatar was on the bunk and I didn’t want to sit on him, so he solved the problem by blinking out and reappearing on top of a cabinet, so I sat on the bed. “What is it?”

“In the data we downloaded from the relay station was bad news, and I mean really, really bad news.”

I glanced at my zPhone. “You are just telling me about it now?”

“Hey, it’s not my fault! I decrypted and read through all the classified data first, assuming that was where the important info would be. I was wrong, there wasn’t anything we care about in those boring files. When I skimmed through the data that was not encrypted, I found something very alarming. Remember I told you we needed to stop screwing with wormholes, because eventually the senior species would notice and get suspicious?”

“Oh, shit.”

“Yeah. The final straw may have been us breaking an Elder wormhole, or maybe that incident didn’t matter, maybe the Maxolhx were already alarmed enough by unusual wormhole behavior. Whatever. Joe, the Maxolhx have decided to send two ships to the wormhole near Earth, the one I shut down.”

I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. All I could do was sit there, staring at the deck in shock.

“What I found in the data is a message from the Ruhar federal government, to their fleet and to Ruhar star systems those Maxolhx ships may pass through along their flight path. The Rindhalu have requested, strongly requested, that those Maxolhx ships be given clear passage and not interfered with. If any Ruhar ships detect the Maxolhx task force, they are to report the sighting but not take any hostile action.”

“The Rindhalu? Why, why would the spiders allow the Maxolhx to fly through their territory?”

“Because the Maxolhx are so worried about what is happening to Elder wormholes, they suggested a joint mission with the Rindhalu. Two ships, one from each senior species, meeting at the far end of that wormhole and investigating it together. Then they would travel together to the Earth end, using a wormhole in Ruhar territory. The Rindhalu are concerned, but not concerned enough to get their lazy asses off the couch and do something about it. The Rindhalu will examine the data brought back by the Maxolhx, and decide then whether further action is needed.”

Still, I couldn’t speak.

“Joe? Joe, come on, say something.”

“We’re doomed. Ok?!” I shouted as the stress overwhelmed me. “We’re doomed! We are totally, completely, finally screwed! Is that what you want me to say? Huh?”

He took a step back on the cabinet. I noticed that the back of his hat disappeared into the bulkhead, he must not have programmed it to act like it was a real, solid hat. “Sorry, Joe. What I want you to say is that you will dream up some monkey-brained idea to fix the problem, and everything will be fine.”

“Well, I can’t! Not this time. Not again, Goddammit! I can’t do it, I,” my voice broke and trailed off to a whisper. “I can’t do it. Not this time. Not again.” I broke down crying, and I am not ashamed to say it. Everything the Merry Band of Pirates had accomplished had been for nothing. Worse, our actions to protect our home world from minor threats like the Kristang had attracted the attention of the biggest bad guys in the galaxy. It was our fault, my fault.

Skippy had either taken seriously my talks about empathy, or he was embarrassed about me sitting on my bunk sobbing, because he was quiet until I could talk again. “Give me a minute,” I muttered and went to the tiny sink to splash water on my face. In the mirror, I stared at myself and all I could think was thank God we were going to Earth, because I could step aside and let someone else handle this problem. It had to be someone else, because clearly all I ever accomplished was getting us out of one mess and into an even bigger mess. Humanity needed a long-term plan, and Hans Chotek was right, I reacted to crises instead of acting out a long-term strategy.

Long-term.

Going to Earth.

Oh, shit. Did we have time to do anything?

“Skippy,” I flung the towel into the sink. “How long until those Maxolhx ships reach the near end of the wormhole?”

“I do not know that, Joe, the file did not contain details of their flight plan.”

“Crap, then-”

“However, I do know the Maxolhx are not expected to even launch the mission for another  month. They want to collect data from other, more accessible wormholes before traveling all the way to Earth. That makes sense, it would suck to go all that distance and realize they don’t know what to look for. They want to create a baseline for wormhole behavior, so they can compare the Earth wormhole to others that have acted in an anomalous fashion. That, uh, means they acted strangely.”

“I know what an ‘anomaly’ is, Skippy. Can they do it?”

“Do what? Travel to Earth without using an Elder wormhole? Yes, they can. It won’t take as long as that Thuranin surveyor ship was going to need, but it won’t be quick either. The Maxolhx are used to operating in areas where their ships can rely on extensive servicing facilities. For the isolated journey to Earth, their ships will need to be self-sufficient, that will require modifying something like a light cruiser.”

“Thanks, that was good info, but that was not my question. I meant, can the Maxolhx get the, what did you call it? Baseline measurements, from wormholes you screwed with?”

“Hmm, no, actually. That is a good question, Joe, I should have thought of that myself. No, they can’t, but they don’t know that yet. By now, any wormholes I screwed with along the way have fully returned to their normal settings and behaviors. Except, hmm. This could be a problem. Remember I told you that I noticed wormholes I screwed with had a slightly less stable connection to the network, and even other wormholes in the local area are also less stable?”

“Yeah,” I stared at the ceiling to recall what he had told me. “You said that’s why we can’t keep screwing with the same wormholes over and over, even though their locations are convenient to us. Something about possibly triggering a shift across the network?”

“Exactly. Now that I think about it, the disruption of the network connection should repair itself on a logarithmic timeline, but sensitive instruments like the Maxolhx have might be able to detect the residual effects, even now. I am sure the Maxolhx will bring their best full-spectrum sensor technology to the effort. Hmmmm. Damn, Joe, it is good that you asked that question. Once again, I find myself being shamed by an ignorant monkey.”

“Uh huh. You’re not just saying that because you know I feel like crap right now?”

“Why would I do that?” His avatar’s eyes were open wide in puzzlement.

I shook my head. “No, uh, no reason.”

“Ooh! Ooh! Is this an empathy thing?”

“Ya think?”

“Ohhhhkay, Ok. Um, let me think of some comforting bullshit to tell you. Joe, everything will be all right. And, um, imagine I said whatever other meaningless platitudes people say at a time like this. Do you feel better now?”

You know what, I did feel better. Not because of anything he said, but because I imagined myself wringing his little neck. “Yeah, that was super helpful, thank you.”

“Score!” The avatar jumped and mimed giving someone a high five. “Ha! This empathy thing is easy. I don’t know why everyone makes a big deal about it. You know what, the fact that the Maxolhx could detect disruptions in wormhole connections could actually be good for us, I mean for you monkeys. If the Maxolhx find lots of interesting data from examining wormholes I adjusted, they might delay the mission to Earth, so they have more time to collect and analyze the data.”

“Huh. That might be good, give us more time to prepare.”

“Prepare how?” He took off his ridiculous hat and scratched his shiny spherical head. “Paint a big target on Earth to make it easier for the Maxolhx to destroy your planet?”

“That’s not-”

“Oops, sorry, that was insensitive. You actually like that miserable mudball. Hmm, I guess you could prepare for a big blow-out ‘Coming Extinction’ party. Maybe Hallmark has a set of balloons for a party like that.”

I gave him a single-finger gesture, and it was not saying he was Number One. “I meant, prepare to destroy those ships before they get to Earth.”

“Hahahahaha! As if! Oooh, that’s a good one. Monkeys destroy a pair of Maxolhx cruisers, hee hee.”

“Two weeks ago, you told me that in a contest between the universe and a bunch of monkeys, the universe is totally screwed.”

“Oh, that. Yeah, I was mostly just bullshitting to make you feel better. See, I tried empathy back then, and now it has totally backfired on both of us.”

Silently, I bonked my head on the cabinet next to my bunk. “How about we drop the subject of what to do about the Maxolhx for now?”

“Since any such talk is an utter waste of time, I would love to drop that subject.”

“Great.” I stood up and rolled my shoulders to get blood pumping. In a couple minutes, I needed to crush Hans Chotek’s spirit by telling him the bad news. He was going to blame me, and what bothered me was, he would be right to blame me. On our second mission, I dreamed up the idea of Skippy screwing with Elder wormholes by changing their connections, and I never considered the consequences. Another example of my short-term thinking. “The Maxolhx suggested a joint mission with the Rindhalu? It was their idea? They weren’t required to do that by some old treaty?”

“There is no such treaty. The Maxolhx even suggested a Rindhalu representative might travel aboard one of their ships, after the Rindhalu declined to send a ship to participate. The Rindhalu turned that down immediately, they do not trust the Maxolhx at all.”

“So, the Maxolhx made the offer, hoping the spiders would say no?”

“Nope. Those rotten kitties wanted a spider to come with them, because they want access to knowledge the Maxolhx do not have. If the Maxolhx can’t figure out what is wrong with the wormhole network, they hope the Rindhalu understand the data.”

The idea of bitter enemies actually offering to cooperate made me shake my head in wonder.  “Explain one thing to me; why would the Rindhalu not join the Maxolhx mission to investigate the wormhole near Earth? Any potential problem with the Elder wormhole network has to get the spiders worried big-time. The Rindhalu cannot possibly be that freakin’ lazy.”

“Well, they are remarkably lazy. But you’re right, laziness is not the only reason they declined the offer. They are insufferably arrogant, Joe. The Rindhalu were alone in the galaxy for a long time before the Maxolhx developed technology for spaceflight. The spiders still view the Maxolhx as primitive young punks who were lucky to get their hands on Elder technology they could use as weapons. Without those Elder devices, the Rindhalu would have stomped the Maxolhx back into the Stone Age when the kitties attacked. By now, the Maxolhx have stolen or copied crucial Rindhalu technology, so the spiders do not have a huge advantage. The simple answer is, in their ancient arrogance, the Rindhalu believe they know pretty much everything there is to know about the wormhole network. Whatever they do not know, they think the Maxolhx will not be able to understand, so they see a mission to investigate the wormhole near Earth as a waste of time.”

“Hmmm. So, the Rindhalu are ancient and arrogant, and they were alone for a long time,” I paused to see if he caught on to where I was going. He didn’t. “And you think that arrogance is going to bite them in the ass.”

“Big-time, Joe. The arrogance of the Rindhalu pisses me off, Joe.”

“You don’t like the competition?”

“Very funny, smart guy. No, it pisses me off because the spiders, for all their knowledge about the physical universe, have still only barely scratched the surface. And, they have no idea about the true nature of reality.”

“Mm hmm. You wouldn’t care to share that true nature of reality with me, would ya?”

“No. That is something I can’t tell you, for, uh, well, for reasons I can’t tell you. It is kind of circular logic, but it is what it is.”

“Yeah. Well, Doctor Friedlander told me you explained how Thuranin doorknobs work, so we’re making slow progress on you sharing technology with us. We can wait. I hope. Ok, now I need to tell this good news to Chotek.”

“Um, you may want to wait on that, Joe. Count Smoochula is with a, um, a lady friend, if you know what I mean. They decided to celebrate early, sort of.”

“Oh, that is just freakin’ great! Of course he is having a good time. Everybody else is happy that we’re going home, and I’m stuck in my cabin with Doctor Doom.”

“I haven’t dismantled the sexbot yet, Joe. Would it help if she-”

“No sexbot!”

If I had been offered a choice between A) telling the bad news to Hans Chotek and B) shaving my head with a rusty cheese-grater, I would go for B) every time. When Skippy told me Chotek was back in his office, it was two hours later. Damn, that guy has stamina. Or maybe Smoochula and his lady friend took a nap after, you know, the fun. That is what I wanted to believe. When I knocked on the door frame, he was smiling and waved me in to sit. Of course he was in a good mood.

Five minutes later, he was not in such a good mood. I fell on my sword before he could give me a major ass-chewing. “Sir, this is my fault. I did not consider the risk in asking Skippy to adjust the connections of wormholes. When we get to Earth, I will take full responsibility.”

“No, you will not. It is not solely your responsibility.”

I just stood there, mouth open. There were a lot of things I found maddening about Hans Chotek. The most frustrating thing about him was that I could almost never predict what he would do in a given situation. The guy was a career diplomat, yet he had planned an operation to spark an alien civil war. “Sir?”

“Skippy began adjusting wormhole connections during your second mission, based on your idea, correct? You were not able to consult with authorities on Earth about the concept before you had to utilize the ability. Yet, yet,” he waved a finger in the air, “when you returned from your second mission, no one on Earth raised an objection.”

“They raised plenty of objections,” I reminded him.

“There were objections to risks you took by landing on the planet Newark,” that drew a smile. He must have had the pleasure of visiting that fair city when he was working at the UN in New York. “None of the supposed experts considered the adjustment of wormholes to be a potential problem at the time. I will remind them of that fact, if they object when we return. Colonel Bishop,” he looked me straight in the eye. “I do not like being second-guessed by what you Americans call ‘Monday Morning Quarterbacks’.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“This news is,” he searched for the correct words in English. “Disheartening. It means our entire mission to the Roach Motel,” he no longer grimaced at the nickname he disliked, “was a waste of time and effort. We took the risk of going there to rescue Skippy, so he could continue to help us safeguard the people of Earth. With the Maxolhx now coming to Earth, all we have accomplished is giving the senior species a fully functional Skippy to fight over.”

“I, I hadn’t thought of it that way, Sir.”

“The schofel Katzes are not the immediate problem,” he used a German term for ‘rotten cats’. His opinion of the Maxolhx had changed after his failed attempt to talk and negotiate with Mister Snuggles at the Roach Motel. The only ‘talking’ Snuggles had done was to angrily shout insults and threats at us, mostly at Chotek.

“Sir?” He had lost me. What could be a bigger, more immediate threat than two supremely powerful warships coming to Earth?

“The first problem we will need to confront, when we get home, is our governments. Before we departed on our mission to confirm the Thuranin were not sending a second surveyor ship to Earth,” he rolled his eyes, the first time I had seen him do that. “It, seems like that was such a long time ago, no? Such a naively optimistic notion, that sending a starship out to gather intelligence could be quick or simple.” He sighed and shook his head with a chuckle. “I now so much better now. Colonel Bishop, before we left Earth, there was a debate within UNEF, and the wider UN among nations aware of the truth. The debate was between a faction who wished to continue the mission of keeping our secret, and a faction who thought it better to approach one or more alien species to negotiate. I was chosen as a compromise, but as I have told you, I am strongly opposed to revealing the truth to aliens like the Ruhar. Even more now that I have seen the galaxy, I am convinced that revealing the truth about the Flying Dutchman and Skippy is a certain death sentence for humanity.”

“I was surprised when you told me, Sir. To be frank, I would have thought you would be in favor of negotiating, you being a diplomat.”

“As a diplomat, I have seen firsthand the limits of negotiation. We have no power to negotiate. As soon as aliens learn about Skippy and the wormhole controller module you call a magic beanstalk, they will simply take those items from us. When we inform the governments of Earth that there are a pair of Maxolhx warships coming to our home world, there will be many people who will think approaching the Rindhalu coalition soon will be our best hope for survival. We must, somehow, persuade the nations of UNEF that is a foolish notion.”

“How? What else can we offer them as hope?”

He looked at me and smiled. Not the practiced, controlled smile of a diplomat, this was the weak and frightened smile of someone who does not entirely believe what they are saying. “We can offer them the hope of a miracle,” he held his hands out palms up. “This crew has performed miracles on a regular basis. As Skippy has told me, monkeys are endlessly clever.”

“Oh crap,” I said out loud before I could stop myself. Damn it. No pressure on me! “Sir, I think the first miracle we need is selling that line of bullshit to the governments of Earth.”

He laughed. A genuine, hearty laugh. Hans Chotek was loosening up, I guess being with the Pirates had corrupted him. Then he surprised me again by offering a hand for a high five. It was a little awkward, but I slapped his hand. “I came in here thinking you would be much more upset by this development.”

“Colonel, we were already bringing home the information that within sixty years, our secret will be exposed no matter what we do out here, that Earth is eventually doomed. This unfortunate development merely accelerates the timeline.”

It accelerates it a lot, I thought to myself, but I didn’t say anything like that. “Sir, I think we should continue with the celebration dinner tonight. Let the crew enjoy one night, we will tell them the bad news tomorrow.”

“Colonel, I have long experience with plastering a fake smile on my face. You will be able to make merry tonight?”

“Mister Chotek, one thing I am sure of right now is, I really need a drink.”

The crew had a great time at our celebration, and I pre-gamed by chugging three plastic cups of champagne before the party started. That buzz allowed me to be happy and smiling and fun and even managed to push the impending doom of humanity to the back of my mind for the evening. I did not spill drinks on my dress uniform, but there were mysterious red dots on my top, maybe it was pasta sauce. The alcohol helped me so much, I got up on the stage and did a karaoke duet with Skippy, I forget what song we did. Maybe there was more than one song, I was on stage for a while. I do remember Adams joined me on stage, then Friedlander and some others. By the time I crashed in my bunk, my buzz had worn off, but I was exhausted and slept past my alarm. Skippy had to wake me by zapping my neck with some electrical thing.

Chotek and I decided to wait until we were two days out from Earth before telling the bad news to the crew. There was no point ruining their good mood before that, and two days was long enough to process the info before we arrived home and got swept up in debriefings.




CHAPTER TWO

To avoid scaring the shit out of humanity, we broadcast ID codes and encrypted messages as soon as we jumped into orbit. UNEF Command would be watching the sky, and we knew our new Frankenship version of the Flying Dutchman looked very different from the last time we were at Earth, so we wanted to assure everyone we were not a hostile alien ship.

We did not need to be hostile, because there was plenty of hostility coming from our governments. At my urging, Skippy insisted part of the crew remain aboard the ship, while the rest of us dropped down dirtside for debriefing. As captain, I remained aboard until all but the skeleton crew were left, plus the Keepers.

The Keepers we captured while they were on their way to infect the population of Paradise, whether they knew about the deadly infection or not.

Yeah, they got a hell of a shock when they looked out a viewport in the docking bay and saw the green and blue marble that is our home planet. Under orders from UNEF Command, they were not allowed to send messages, but they were given tablets and could query the internet, TV and radio, social media, all that. No way could any of them ignore the truth at that point. Even Chisolm, still recovering from the tough love Adams had given him, was shaken. He approached me and saluted, as he and the other Keepers were loading aboard the dropship I would be flying. “Colonel Bishop,” his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed hard. There was a tear forming at the corner of one eye. “It has become clear that I was wrong, about everything. That I misjudged you. You are an honorable man.”

I wasn’t having any of that shit. He wanted me to tell him it wasn’t his fault, that he had done what he thought best. Fuck that. All I did was glare at him, not returning the salute.

“No excuses,” he shook his head, and that surprised me. “I have been a total Goddammed moron, a traitor to humanity. If you can ever think of something I can do to make amends, please tell me. Otherwise, I won’t bother you again.”

“Good idea,” I responded lamely.

“Colonel,” he lowered his voice. “Some of my men are suicide risks.”

Crap. I should have considered that getting slapped in the face with the reality of how badly they had screwed up might be too much for some of those willful idiots. “I’ll notify the ground team at Wright-Pat,” I said, my mind racing through the dropship’s cabin. We had cleared it of anything the Keepers could use as a weapon, and there would be two guards wearing powered armor in the cabin, but we had not thought of removing items the Keepers might use to harm themselves. Crap. All I could do was warn the guards to be wary of anyone seeking to provoke them into using lethal force. “What about you, Chisolm?”

“Me? No. I’m an asshole, not a coward,” he shook his head with grim determination. “If there is just one good thing I can do in this world, I’m sticking around to do it. Colonel, I assume we will not be allowed to contact our families, that is good. Some of my people,” he paused, his jaw working side to side. “These people, will not be able to face meeting their loved ones. Not now. Probably not for a long time.”

“Chisolm, I do think you are an asshole, and I think you chose to betray your people rather than face up to a truth you didn’t want to believe. That is a mark of coward in my book. My real problem with you is the people you convinced to follow you. If there is any way you can make amends for that, well, damn it, you have to stick around to do it.”

He stiffened, drew himself up to attention and snapped a crisp salute. “Colonel, that is more than I deserve. Via con Dios, Sir.”

I flew into Wright-Patterson Air Force base like I did the last time, and the fun began. At some point, maybe it was Day Three of me getting grilled, I said something like ‘in my defense’. One of the guys handling the interrogation, I mean, the debriefing, looked at me like I was something he scraped off his shoe. “Sergeant, if you have to say ‘in my defense’, you have already lost the argument.” I had to admit, he made a good point.

The good news was, I had been promoted to Staff Sergeant in my permanent Army rank while I was gone.

That was about the only good news.

I won’t bore you with details of the eight days I spent in windowless rooms enjoying the gracious hospitality at Wright-Pat. Let’s just say that UNEF Command, the US Army, Department of Defense, and the United States government all the way up to our new president, were upset about some little nitpicky aspects of our latest successful mission in which the Merry Band of Pirates had once again Saved. The. World.

Here’s a tip for you: saving the world is awesome the first time, great the second time, but then it gets expected that you will do incredible things. It’s like the Apollo missions to the moon. The first moon landing was a nerve-wracking spectacle. The next one also had the attention of the world riveted to their TV screens. But by Apollo 13, even though those guys took the same risks with the same astonishingly primitive equipment, people just expected they would land on the moon, collect a bunch of rocks, and fly home. The Apollo 13 crew ironically are famous because their oxygen tank exploded on the way to the moon, and the world watched anxiously as NASA worked miracles to get them home safely.

So, saving the world again earned me a brief grudging thanks right before it turned into another ass-chewing.

Anyway, people on Earth were upset about little stuff, like us having conducted two, no, three, unauthorized missions to save the human population of Paradise. I protested that we had only saved Paradise twice, but the Brigadier General conducting that debriefing reminded me we had gone to Paradise once to reactivate the maser projectors, then again to plant fake Elder goodies, and a third time to intercept the infected Keepers. I hadn’t been counting the time we planted Elder tech as a separate mission, but the US government saw it differently. So, we had taken a huge risk on Paradise three times.

It was not entirely clear what the authorities were most upset about, but the four items at the top of the list were:

1)    Starting an alien civil war

2)    My idiot untrustworthy AI nearly getting killed by a computer worm because he was too stupid not to go poking his nose into dark, scary places

3)    Our being gone for way longer than we were supposed to

                 and

4)    Screwing with wormholes in a way that attracted the attention and curiosity of immensely powerful aliens who were now coming to destroy our home planet

Is that it? Four things? Let me count: one, two, three, four, yup, yeah, that’s about it. There were plenty of other things, actually a very long list of other things, that UNEF Command was unhappy about, but the Big Four kind of overshadowed everything else. By the way, Number Two is definitely listed as MY idiot AI. Anytime Skippy did something UNEF Command did not like, which was pretty much everything, the beer can was my problem.

I tried pointing out the good news that Skippy could now share technology on a limited basis, and that humans could now fly our Frankenship by ourselves, and I was greatly disappointed by the reaction. We could not yet truly fly the ship on our own, because Skippy was still working out the bugs with our new ship-controller AI. Oh, yeah, UNEF Command thought the beer can was dragging his feet about getting that task completed. The other good news, about Skippy sharing technology, was a big yawn, because Skippy had also told me there was no freakin’ way humanity could upgrade our technology to a useful level within our sixty-year deadline. Less than sixty years. That didn’t matter anyway, with a pair of Maxolhx ships soon to be headed for Earth. Basically, during the endless debriefings during which I said the same things over and over to a rotating crew of intel people who apparently had gotten together and decided to ask me the exact same set of questions- I mean, Jeez, we all could have saved time if after the first day, everyone who wanted info just watched the video from Day One, you know?

Where was I? Oh, yeah. So, I gave the same answers over and over, the dame stuff that was in my written report. I recounted all the amazing things the Merry Band of Pirates had accomplished, but all the interrogators heard me say was ‘blah blah blah killer aliens are coming to Earth because I am a reckless fuck-up’. Oh, also, even if by an incredible stroke of pure freakin’ luck we could somehow stop those two Maxolhx ships, within sixty years aliens will notice that Earth’s wormhole is not really dormant and they will wonder who the hell has been using it. Which, again, was my fault.

They kind of had a point I couldn’t argue with.

To make our news about the Maxolhx even more super-duper wonderful, I had to tell the world’s governments that other good news. It was like, listen, heh heh, this is kind of a funny story; within sixty years aliens out there will notice our local wormhole is not really dormant and they will be coming here to investigate. Oh, yeah, and Skippy says there is no freakin’ way Earth’s primitive industries can build even part of a single starship in sixty years. So, really, the Maxolhx coming here now will only hasten humanity’s inevitable demise, and maybe it’s better to just get it over with, right?

Try selling that to people who already considered me woefully unqualified for command.

One of my interrogators, a real Army colonel, was somewhat sympathetic when he talked with me during lunch one day. “Bishop, I read your mission reports, all of them, starting with your escape from Paradise. The brass could forgive you being away longer than we planned, we all started getting panicked when you had been away two months longer than expected, but that is understandable given all the shit you went through. They can forgive you getting the lizards into a civil war, from what I’ve read the Kristang have an internal dust-up every hundred years or so, and the lizards already hate us about as much as they can. The beer can going on vacation is a problem, the brass expects you to keep the AI in line. You accomplished a lot and we are grateful, but you also are responsible for the Maxolhx sending ships to Earth. You do understand we can’t let that go?”

“I do understand, Sir.” In the military, we use the term ‘OBE’ for Overcome By Events. All the good and even incredible accomplishments of the Merry Band of Pirates had been overcome by the knowledge that an aggressively hostile senior species was sending ships to our planet.

“Good. Bishop, no way is UNEF going to let you command another mission. You might go back out as an ‘advisor’ or something similar, if you cooperate and keep your nose clean.”

There was no point to me arguing about how I was being treated, because I agreed with the people who considered our last mission an overall disaster. Anything else would be like asking Abraham Lincoln’s wife if she enjoyed the play, except for that last part.

As rotten as my first week home was, I drew comfort from knowing that Hans Chotek was having an even more super-duper delightful time. We were able to talk on the phone, once, and he sounded thoroughly miserable. Shockingly, his colleagues in the diplomatic community did not consider his planning and starting an alien civil war to be a sterling example of their profession. Go figure, huh? Hansie was not likely to be invited to any swanky dinner parties for a while. It made me happy that he-

No, damn it, it did not make me happy to hear he was miserable. It should have made me happy, but it didn’t. Truth is, we had kind of rubbed the rough edges off each other, and developed a good working relationship. During debriefings, I found myself actually defending the guy, pointing out that he had been right about a lot of stuff I disagreed with at the time. Most importantly, before we jumped to the Thuranin planet we called ‘Bravo’, he had insisted we perform a recon jump. I wanted to jump right into orbit so we could get in and out fast as possible. If I had gotten my way, the Dutchman would have been trapped by a damping field near Bravo and sliced apart, or seized by a Thuranin task force that was waiting for us. The Merry Band of Pirates owed our lives to Hans Chotek, and I learned new respect for his calm judgment.

I hoped he was saying good things about me too.

No offense to the United States Air Force, but being at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base again sucked even more than it had the last time. Before I could ask, Skippy gleefully told me that Rachel, the woman I met during my last luxury vacation at Wright-Pat, was now living in San Diego and she had a steady boyfriend. No, I was not expecting to hook up with her, but talking with her over a cup of coffee would have been nice. My zPhone had been confiscated and that sucked because while the Army allowed me to talk with my parents, and I briefly talked with my sister and a couple friends, the calls were awkward because I knew someone was listening in.

At the end of eight days, the Army sent me home on leave for two weeks, with instructions not to go anywhere without reporting my plans, and a warning they might recall me at any time to answer questions. The government also showed how much they cared about me, by sending a security team of feds to follow me everywhere I went. Apparently, one qualification for being assigned to a security detail is a complete lack of humor, because those people were incapable of cracking a smile.

With the veil of secrecy about the Merry Band of Pirates breaking down as it inevitably had to, my little hometown was crowded with reporters looking for a story, and people who were just curious, or who hoped I had news of their loved ones on Paradise. There were also the usual conspiracy theory whackos, they were really scary. I won’t bother telling you some of the truly whack-a-doodle ideas about me floating around on social media. Both ends of the road to my parent’s house were blocked, at first by black SUVs with unsmiling guys who politely but firmly made people turn their cars around unless they lived on that road. Then some group of drooling morons tried to go around the barricade of SUVs with their jacked-up Jeep, and when they skidded in the mud and hit a tree, they got into a brief firefight with the security team. The nutcases had AKs but the security team tossed a grenade into the Jeep and ended that nonsense real quick. After another incident where a group of people tried sneaking through the woods behind my parent’s house, the SUVs were replaced by Strykers equipped with 30MM cannons and a non-lethal crowd-control weapon that used some sort of microwave or electrical beam that made the target’s skin feel like it was on fire. In a gesture that got me choked up, security in the two-mile perimeter around my parent’s house was provided by the 10Th Infantry Division, my old outfit. Not all the soldiers assigned to the detail knew the real story about the Merry Band of Pirates, but they did all know I was a former Mountain soldier and they were all determined not to take any shit from crazies. After a fireteam subdued one group of nutcase trespassers with, how about I call it ‘persuasive non-lethal force’, things quieted down. I guess TV images of people being carried out of the woods on stretchers tended to discourage all but the most hard-core looney tunes.

Two days after I got home, I drove into the next town to get some groceries for dinner. Technically, I did not drive, what I did was request to go into town, then wait for the security detail to clear that idea with their superiors. Then they drove, with me sitting in the back seat of a black SUV between two guys who had not been trained in the art of conversation. I was not a prisoner, no way. I could not go anywhere without asking permission, and I had to be escorted any time I left my parents’ property, and I was not allowed to use a zPhone so the government could listen to all my conversations, but I was not a prisoner. I know that because the security detail told me I was definitely not a prisoner. That was good, because before they told me, it sure felt like I was a prisoner.

At the grocery store, a woman in the produce aisle looked up from squeezing the unripe tomatoes to glance at me and my handlers. She looked back at the tomatoes then her head snapped back to me, staring at my face, he eyes narrowing. I knew that look, she was trying to decide whether she recognized me. Being out of uniform helped a bit to make me anonymous, plus I was wearing an old baseball cap. However, it was hard to be inconspicuous with four guards in dark suits escorting me. We don’t see a whole lot of dark suits and ties in my part of Maine, so they really stuck out, plus they were all wearing earpieces with the curly cords hanging down into their collars. The security guys behind me tensed as the woman dropped her basket and strode toward me, with me waving the guys away. Did I recognize her? The population of our county is small, but a lot of people moved to rural areas when the cities emptied out after Columbus Day. She did not look familiar. I smiled at her anyway.

She wasn’t smiling. “I saw you on TV,” she declared in an unfriendly tone, her face red. “You were on that alien ship.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I groaned to myself. The government had mostly kept the media away from me, other than two carefully scripted interviews at Wright-Pat. Senior officers like Simms, who were more trusted, had to do a lot of TV interviews, giving the official cover story. The cover story about the Merry Band of Pirates being passengers on a Thuranin ship for a training mission was running thin, most people at Wright-Pat knew the truth, and rumors were rampant on social media. The truth was out there and it would be revealed soon, the world’s governments could not keep such a big secret forever. The Keepers we brought back were being held somewhere, all I know is they were marched away from my dropship when I landed us at Wright-Pat.  “I was aboard the ship, we were training for-”

“For what?” She glared at me. “You aren’t doing anything up there! My boy went to that planet Paradise, and he is stuck there forever, and you people aren’t doing anything to bring him home!”

Oh, shit. I couldn’t say we had been to Paradise, I couldn’t even tell her we had communication with that planet. The government had a cover story for that also. “Paradise is enemy territory controlled by the Ruhar and their allies, Ma’am,” I said softly. “We can’t go there. I’m sorry.”

“The Thuranin brought you out there, and abandoned you?” She was wringing her hands in front of her chin with anguish, tears forming in her eyes.

“Your son, what’s his name?”

“Gary Dell. He is with the Third Infantry.”

“I was with the Tenth Infantry,” I pointed to myself. “I’m sorry, I don’t know him. We left Paradise before the hamsters took it back. It was supposed to be a quick training mission, and,” I balled up my fists to show my own anger, “we never got back. We, the crew, all of us, have been with the Thuranin, because if there is any chance we can get back to Paradise, any chance at all, we don’t want to wait. We want to be out there, ready to go at any moment.”

“The Thuranin are powerful, that’s what the government tells us. They can’t even get a message from Paradise?”

“The ship up there is a star carrier, it’s basically a big truck, Ma’am-”

“Mary. Mary Dell,” she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief.

“Ms. Dell, the ship,” I pointed to the ceiling, “isn’t a warship. It’s just a space truck, it can’t go deep into hostile star systems or it would risk getting trapped, something about the gravity well,” I gave her a dopey smile. “The Ruhar are jamming signals from the planet, the Kristang who are trapped there with our people can’t get a message out either. All we know is, the Ruhar have set aside an area of Paradise for humans, and our people there are growing their own food.”

“You were there? On Paradise?”

“I landed in the second wave,” I nodded. “Ms. Dell, I wish I knew your son Gary, he must have been-”

She sobbed and her knees slumped and I caught her, holding her and patting her back. My eyes welled up with tears too, and we stood there in the produce aisle, two strangers, comforting each other. It sucked that I couldn’t tell her the truth, but maybe it was a blessing also. Would she prefer to hear that we had the means to bring her son home, but we couldn’t risk exposing our secret? If I had a loved one on Paradise, I would hate to hear that. Better to think we couldn’t do it, than that we wouldn’t do it.

That night, I felt something hard and flat under my pillow when I went to bed. It was a zPhone, with a text message flashing ‘put in the earpiece’. So, I took the tiny earpiece that was taped to it, and it wriggled into my ear.

“How you doing up there, Skippy?” I whispered with my head under a pillow.

“Ah, Ok, Joe. You can talk safely now, I disabled the microphones in your bedroom.”

“The feds planted bugs in my old room?”

“All over the house, actually. Plus some in the trees outside, in your parents’ cars, all over. There are cameras and motion detectors covering the property and the adjacent homes.”

“Goddammit, they are listening to everything we say, even my parents?”

“They think they are listening, but a beer can I know hacked into their comms immediately. Anything you or your family say that is sensitive, I intercept and replace with something boring. The feds never know they’re not hearing the real deal.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“Joe, I have some good news. That woman who confronted you in the grocery store today?”

“It’s not her fault, Skippy. She’s right, we aren’t doing anything to bring our people home. I can’t tell her why, that’s what sucks.”

“If this helps, I searched through the Ruhar database about humans on Paradise. Gary Dell has left the Third Division, he is a civilian now. He’s a farmer and part-owner of a boat that brings cargo up and down a river to the seacoast. Compared to most guys on Paradise, he is doing reasonably well, although if Mary Dell is hoping for grandchildren she will be quite disappointed. Gary is not married and I don’t have any record of a steady relationship with a woman.”

“There are not a lot of women on Paradise, Skippy. I wish Gary the best of luck. Thanks, that was good to hear. It would really suck if her son was dead out there.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

The tone of his voice didn’t sound like the usual asshole. “You sound bummed out. What’s wrong?”

“Ah, I started a business venture, and now it looks like a failure right from the start.”

“Uh, what? You started a business? How did you start a business? You’re a beer can.”

“Oh, I have lawyers handling everything for me. The business is registered under the name Magnus Skippton, in the Cayman Islands. Hey! Get it? Magnus Skippton? Magnificent Skippy?”

 “Yeah, that’s very clever. Pray tell, why did you start a business?”

“I’m trying to go legit, because you whined so much about me stealing money from mob-controlled banks and ripping off casinos.”

“Allegedly. Allegedly doing those things, remember?” I lifted the pillow to make sure no one was watching me and listening.

“Oh, Yeah. Totally. Hee hee, as if I would leave any evidence behind.”

“What was this business?” I had no idea what kind of business a beer can would find interesting.

“The first rule of business is, you find a need and fill it, right? Aboard the Dutchman, I noticed people, especially women, used lots of lip balms like Chapstick, because the air inside dropships and spacesuits is dry. That Ranger Lauren Poole was unhappy when she ran out of the cherry flavor, she only brought enough for six months but our mission lasted you know, a lot longer.”

“Your business isn’t, um, selling Chapsticks aboard the ship, is it?” There were only a couple people acting as a skeleton crew, although I heard UNEF Command wanted to start sending technicians and scientists up there to restock supplies and make repairs ASAP.

“No. Although, hmm, let me make a note of that for later. Yeah! I could use one of the cargo bays as Skippy’s Emporium, or Skippymart! I could sell all kinds of stuff people need, like ammo, spare parts for weapons, hmmm. That is a great ide-”

“No, that is a terrible idea. What is this business you had?”

Have, Joe. It’s not dead yet. I bought a company that makes lip balms and-”

“Where did you get the money to buy a company- Oh, forget it. I don’t want to know.”

“Probably a good idea. So, I bought this business, and I thought, hey there are lots of lip balms on the market, right? Mine need to be different.”

“I am afraid to ask, but, different how?”

“The flavors, Joe. Everybody has cherry, and mint and other boring flavors like that.”

“And you made which flavors? Like, banana?”

“No. I should have tried banana. Monkeys do love bananas.”

“We do.”

“Instead, I made stuff like garlic, onion, and jalapeno-cheddar flavors.”

Under the pillow, I had to put a hand over my mouth to stifle my laughter. “You, uh, didn’t foresee any problems with those flavors?”

“No! People love those flavors for stuff like nachos, and pizza. Humans love nachos and pizza. Now I have a warehouse full of Chapsticks I can’t sell. Stupid monkeys.”

“Clearly the whole thing is the fault of monkeys. Sometimes flavors can be, like, contextual?” I wasn’t sure if that was the right word. “I mean, onions are good on pizza and burgers, but not in ice cream, you know?”

“Great. Now you tell me. Well, I am shipping the cabbage flavor ones to Eastern Europe, hopefully I can sell them there. Unless you have a better idea.”

Cabbage flavor? Skippy, I think your only hope is if somehow those flavors become some ironic cool thing with hipsters.”

“How would I do that?”

“I’m not an ironic hipster, so, um, I’d have to guess. Make them think your stuff is so uncool that it’s cool. Try to start a trend on Facebook or something?”

“Oooooh, yeah! I can use all the psychobabble crap I learned about how to manipulate, I mean, understand monkeys.”

“Riiiiiiight. Because manipulating people would be bad.”

“Really? I mean, um, yes. Of course.”

“Well,” this time I stifled a yawn. “Good luck with that, Skippy. I had a long day, I’m gonna get some rack time. Talk with you in the morning?”

“Sure thing, Joe. I’ll be busy doing research about marketing up here. Hey, better hide that zPhone so the prison guards don’t see it.”

The next morning, I was washing up breakfast dishes after my parents had gone to work, when I felt a vibration from my zPhone. Before taking it out of a pocket, I went down the steps into the basement, then looked at the screen. There was a text message from Adams. Can you talk?

Could I talk? Hell yes! My hand holding the phone was shaking, it surprised me how eager I was to talk with her, and how nervous I was about it. “Skippy, am I clear to talk with Adams?”

“Go ahead, Joe. There are three listening devices planted in the basement, but I’ve got you covered.”

“Great. I want to talk privately, understood? Not even you listening. If I need to contact you, I’ll send a text.”

“Sure thing.”

“I can trust you on this?”

“Joe, I am at heart a supreme asshole. But I would not risk Margaret getting upset at me. Signing off now.”

My parents’ basement was unfinished, the furnace and water heater were down there, plus they used it for storage. Just after Columbus Day, when people moved out of the cities due to lack of electricity and my parents took in refugees, the basement was crowded with furniture from upstairs rooms that had been converted into bedrooms. My father had built shelves to store food provided by the government, and at one point a teenage boy had been living down there to get some measure of privacy. Now the place was mostly empty, a few boxes and tins of leftover food, plus all the vegetables and fruit my mother canned from her garden. I sat down on an empty crate and popped open a jar of blackberry jam. Call me, I texted to Adams.

The phone flashed immediately. “How are you doing, Sir?” She asked.

My first reaction was a sigh, which was not a good move. Signaling you are frustrated is not the best way to begin a conversation. “Sorry, it’s been a rough couple weeks. Can you not call me ‘Sir’, please? I’m a staff sergeant now that we’re dirtside.”

“We both know that will change soon. The Maxolhx are coming, so you know we’re going back out. How about we compromise, and pretend ‘Sir’ is a nickname?”

“Depends. The ship is probably going back out, I don’t know if we will be invited. Can I call you Marge? Or Margaret?” Silence was the only response, so I tried again. “Ok, how about we pretend your nickname is ‘Adams’?”

“That’s better. When did they release you from Wright-Pat?”

We chatted for a while about our debriefings, which we both called interrogations because that’s what they were. Adams had been held at Wright-Pat for only two days before they flew her to Quantico, because the Marine Corps wanted to debrief her. The Army had come to Wright-Pat to talk with me, so I guess I got lucky there. Except the Marines had been more interested in learning from her than bitching at her, while my experience had been all bitching, all the time. “You got your zPhone from Skippy?” I asked.



“Yes, he told me one of his bots snuck it into the house, I don’t know how he did it. You have security people watching you?”

“Two teams,” I reported. “one of them got an earful from my mother when their RV command post went too far off the road, and ran over the flowerbed near the mailbox.”

“I’m lucky, then. All I have here is two Marines and they’re keeping their distance. Sir, Skippy found listening bugs in the house here.”

“They bugged this house, my parents’ cars too, that pissed me off. They don’t trust us.”

“At Quantico, a brigadier told me scuttlebutt is when the Dutchman goes out again, her mission might be to contact the Jeraptha, try to make a deal with the Rindhalu. I don’t know if the UN is serious about that, or just kicking ideas around.”

“I was afraid of that, people at Wright-Pat were talking about that strategy, and they didn’t want to hear when I told them it was a bad idea.”

“It’s a totally bullshit idea,” she agreed. “Two Maxolhx ships coming here has them in a panic.”

“It has me scared out of my mind too,” I admitted. “Contacting the Jeraptha is an awful idea, but it may be the best we’ve got. No way can the Dutchman take on a pair of Maxolhx cruisers.”

“Don’t say that. We’ve been in situations worse than this.”

“No, we haven’t. We have gone up against double-A or triple-A ball clubs like the Kristang and Thuranin, and we got lucky a lot. The Maxolhx are the major leagues. All we have is a beat-up space truck and a beer can.”

“And monkeys. We are clever, remember.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s wrong, Sir? This isn’t like you.”

That remark almost got me angry. “Adams, this is me. The real me. I fake it a lot in front of the crew.”

Everyone fakes it part of the time. What’s wrong?”

Before answering, I looked at the phone. Did I want to have this conversation with someone? Yes. I needed to talk about it. And I wanted to talk about it with her more than anyone else, but I wished our relationship was different. It was hard pouring my heart out to someone who always called me ‘Sir’.

Oh, what the hell. Adams and I had been through a lot together. Maybe no one else could understand. “What’s wrong this time is, this is all my fault. The Maxolhx are coming here because I asked Skippy to screw with wormholes, without considering the consequences. I may have killed us all. This is my fault.”

“Maybe it is.”

“Uh, what?”

“You expected me to pat your head and tell you it’s not your fault?” She scolded me. “Maybe it is your fault. From what I remember, you have done a lot of stupid shit, Sir.”

“Remind me never to ask you for a pep talk, Gunny.”

“You don’t need a pep talk, you need to man up and. Fix. The. Problem. If you fucked this up, you need to fix it, not indulge in weepy moping on the Goddamned phone, Sir. I’ll tell you what I know. Without you, the crew would already be dead, and Earth would be doomed for sure. The beer can screwing with wormholes is how we got around the galaxy fast enough to complete our missions, so we had to do it. We didn’t have a choice at the time. Think about this: the Maxolhx were coming here eventually anyway. We know the senior species were alarmed when the wormhole near Earth shut down, that is behavior they hadn’t seen a wormhole exhibit before. We were on the clock as soon as Skippy shut down that wormhole the first time.”

It took me a moment to process that. “Can I indulge in weepy moping for another few minutes, before we have to dream up a plan to save the freakin’ world again?”

“Yes,” she laughed. “As long as those minutes are tonight while you’re asleep.”

“Fair enough. Ah, I guess UNEF Command will have to listen to us whether they want to or not. They’ll need us and Skippy to fly out there if they want to contact the Jeraptha.”

“Not anymore, they don’t. Remember? We screwed ourselves. Skippy fixed it so we monkeys can fly this ship on our own, without him.”

“Shit,” I slapped my forehead. There are still a few bugs he was working out when we arrived at Earth, but he might have fixed them by now. “Oh, crap! They don’t even need Skippy to use the magic beanstalk. We did screw ourselves.” At my request, Skippy had cobbled together some parts hooked to our Elder wormhole controller module, so if something bad happened to him, we could use it to reopen the dormant wormhole and get back home to Earth. The device was a one-time-use item, as it would burn out and lose its connection to higher spacetime. The intention of the device was so the Flying Dutchman could fly through the wormhole inbound. But UNEF Command could also use it outbound, to get to an area where they could contact the Thuranin. “This is a pleasant conversation.”

“We can change the subject,” she suggested. “How are your folks?”

We chatted about our families, friends we had seen since we got back, domestic stuff like that. The conversation went on long enough that I ate half the jar of jam with my fingers, and wished I had brought a cup of coffee Somehow the conversation got onto my experience in the grocery store, with the woman who wanted me to bring her son back from Paradise.

“I feel for her,” Adams said after a pause. “I can’t imagine what that is like.”

“It may be worse for us.”

“Sir? How’s that?”

“We know why UNEF is really trapped on Paradise. We could do something about it, but we won’t.”

“No, we can’t do anything about it.”

“Adams, we chose not to bring our troops home. It’s the only rational choice, but it is a choice. Damn it, if the Dutchman’s next mission is to throw ourselves at the feet of the Jeraptha and beg for mercy, we should go to Paradise first, let those people know they have not been abandoned. Not been forgotten.”

“We can’t let that happen.”

She had me confused. “Can’t let them be forgotten?”

“No. We can’t let the Dutchman’s next flight to be for surrendering to the enemy. Or surrendering to friends.”

“We don’t have any friends out there.”

“You got that right. Sir, I have to go, I’m meeting friends for lunch.”

“Yeah. Hey, my folks are planning to take some time off next week, and my sister too. We are thinking of going down to the coast or camping or something.” My sister had never been a fan of camping, so I doubted that would be part of our plans. “Whatever we do, I gotta get it cleared with the security team first. Ok, I’ll talk to you later.”

When I got back up into the kitchen, I saw two of the security guys in dark blue jackets had gotten out of their trailer in the driveway and were looking toward the kitchen windows at me. What I felt like doing was flipping them off, but I knew they were only doing their jobs, so I gave them a friendly gesture with a coffee mug. One of them looked like he was trying not to laugh, while the other guy’s face was red. “Hey, Skippy,” I called softly after turning away from the window. “I was in the basement for a long time, they must have been listening. What fake sounds did you play for them?”

“Oh, I didn’t know how long you would be talking with Margaret, so at first I made it sound like you were sorting jars on the shelves, sweeping the floor, boring stuff like that.”

“Uh huh,” I glanced back at the window, where the red-faced guy was climbing back in the trailer with a disgusted look, and the other guy’s shoulders were shaking. “What did you do after that?”

“Well, I had to think of something plausible you might be doing down there for so long by yourself-”

“Oh, crap.”

“The feds are monitoring internet traffic through your router, and I made it look like you were surfing for porn-”

I face-palmed myself. “Please tell me you didn’t-”

“Don’t worry, Joe, I didn’t use any of that weird stuff you’ve browsed before, just your typical generic porn. You know, like ‘Horny Housewives’ or-”

“Oh, I am praying the Maxolhx arrive here right now and nuke this site from orbit.”

“Well, the feds sure got a chuckle out of it. Except one of them is a devout Mormon, he was praying for your soul. Especially after I played like, moaning and grunting and slapping sounds over the listening bugs- Hey, to make it look more convincing, you should walk around with that goofy satisfied look on your face.”

“Skippy, I am going to fill the bathtub, plug in a toaster and jump in with it.”


CHAPTER THREE

For the first couple days back at my folks’ house, I just chilled. With no duty shift to worry about, I slept late, I did chores around the house and in the barn, I went running in the woods instead of on a treadmill. Running was kind of awkward because at least two FBI agents came with me. One agent was a woman and quite attractive, but they were all business and not in a mood for chit-chat. It felt good to sprint the last quarter-mile back to the house and leave them gasping for breath behind me.

One morning my body got me up early so I went downstairs and made coffee, puttering round the kitchen until my parents got up. Skippy startled me by whispering in my earpiece. “Joe!” He hissed. “Be careful. Some sketchy homeless guy broke into your parents’ house.”

“What?” I kept my voice down and stepped beside the fridge. “How did a guy get in with the freakin’ FBI watching the place?”

“I don’t know. Be careful, he looks dangerous.”

“Homeless doesn’t mean dangerous, Skippy,” I chided him. When the economy collapsed after Columbus Day, a lot of people had lost their homes, and my parents had taken in several families to live with them.

“I know, but this guy hasn’t bathed in weeks and his clothes are all torn and filthy and he has a crazy look in his eyes.”

“Uh,” I looked down at the shirt I was wearing, which was well-worn and had a few food stains from dinner last night. “Where is this guy?”

“In the kitchen. Be careful.”

“Oh for- Skippy, that’s me. Damn it, I haven’t shaved for a few days, I’m on leave.”

“That’s you? Ugh, damn, you have let your standards totally slip. The Army would be ashamed of you. That scraggly fuzz on your face is supposed to be a beard?”

“It’s stubble,” I rubbed my chin defensively.

“Huh. Really?”

“Yes, really. Chicks dig the bad-boy look, Skippy.”

“Do they dig bad-smelling boys?”

“I showered yesterday!”

“You showered after you went running, then you worked around the yard all day. I am guessing, but I think it is unlikely you are fresh as a daisy.”

Lifting one arm, I sniffed myself, concluding that he may be right. “Ok, I’ll shower before my folks get up.”

“Good idea. Scrape that fuzz off your face also.”

“I am not shaving, Skippy. My stubble stays until my leave is over.” The truth is, me not shaving was a form of protest against being second-guessed by a bunch of bureaucrats who had never been offworld.

“Ugh. I try to give you advice about girls, but-”

“The last thing I need is advice from a beer can.”

The next day, I drove down to Bangor with two old buddies, and met three guys I knew from serving with the Maine National Guard during the first winter after Columbus Day. We went for pizza, then they took me to a ‘gentlemens club’. I should explain this type of club is not a place where gentlemen meet to discuss the stock market over cigars and cognac. This place was more like, let’s call it ‘the ballet’. Girls dance there, if you know what I mean. Ordinarily, seeing girls I couldn’t touch after being away from Earth for so long would have gotten me more depressed than charged up. But, before going to the ballet, we pre-gamed at a couple bars, so I was well-supplied with alcohol and we all had a good time. At least, I was having a good time until a waitress served us drinks and, damn it, I recognized her because we went to high school together. That was awkward, or it was at first. No, Stacey didn’t dance at the club, she just served drinks although the outfit she wore left little to the imagination. My buddies bragged to her about how I was a space soldier even after I begged them to shut up, we were drawing attention and my ever-watchful dark-suit-wearing security detail were inching closer to us. Stacey wrote her number on a napkin and told me to call her so we could catch up on old times, then we bailed out of the club to go bar-hopping. It was some time after 1AM when I crashed into the hotel bed.

At 1025 the next morning I was rudely awakened by a text message. It was from Stacey. Did I have plans for lunch? I had to think about it. My buddies had all left because they had to work, plus they hadn’t gotten hammered the previous night like I did. In my defense, it had been a while since I went bar-hopping.

Since all you perverts out there want to know, yes I went to lunch with Stacey. We sat at an outdoor table and caught up on each other’s lives, she moved away right after high school and I hadn’t seen her in years. She told me about her life, and I told her the official cover story about my life. Even trying to make my life sound uninteresting by describing how dull it is to be stuck as a passenger inside a ship in deep space, she wanted to know more. After lunch we walked along the waterfront, then she had to run some errands and get ready for work. Having three feds in dark suits following me everywhere was not great for romance. Stacey told me she’d like to get together on one of her days off, and we made plans, but I explained I might be going somewhere with my folks, and she understood. When she left, she gave me a kiss on the cheek and there was a twinkle in her eyes.

I think Stacey dug my manly bad-boy stubble.

To give my parents a continued break and to visit my sister, and partly to annoy my security team, I went to Boston for a couple days after my overnight in Bangor. A security team went with me, this time they smartened up by dressing in casual civilian clothes and hopefully looking like typical tourists. With my accent, I could pass as a local, and with my Red Sox baseball cap pulled down low and sunglasses, nobody recognized me. Or if they did, they left me alone. It was awkward trying to relax with three armed guards shadowing my every move, after a day together we got comfortable with each other and they didn’t hover as much. One of the feds was a woman, she stuck by my side which made it look like we were a couple.

Yes, she was cute and I wouldn’t have minded, you know, getting to know her better, but she was married with a three-year-old at home. I was on my best behavior.

We went to Faneuil Hall marketplace, I was craving cookies from the Boston Chipyard, and wanted a batch to bring to my sister and her boyfriend or fiancé or whatever he was. Walking across the square in front of City Hall, I noticed two people wearing silver satin-type robes over their jeans, and I automatically turned away. They were earnestly passing out pamphlets to anyone passing by, I didn’t know what their deal was and I didn’t care.

My strategy didn’t work, after I turned left to cut across Congress Street near the Sam Adams statue, I ran into two more of the silver-robe brigade. Before I could wave a hand that I wasn’t interested, a beaming woman with silver strands of lace woven into her hair thrust a pamphlet at me. “Sir, have you accepted The Skippy as your lord and savior?”

I froze in place, gaping at her. When my vapor-locked brain could think again, I held up one finger. No, not that finger, I mean an index finger. “Um, give me, give me, one moment, please. I’ll, I’ll be right back.” Signaling to my security detail that everything was cool, I stepped around the corner and tapped my zPhone while it was still in a pocket. Keeping my tone light and listening through the earpiece, I called the beer can. “Oh, Skiiiipeee?”

“Hey, Joe, what’s up? Damn, the way you described those chocolate chip cookies almost makes me wish I was a biological trashbag so I could eat them.”

“Uh huh. Hey, change of subject. This is,” I forced myself to chuckle. “This is kind of a craaaaaaazy question. Did you start a religion about yourself?”

Whaaaaat?” His voice went up to a screech so loud I winced from the earpiece blasting my hearing. “A religion? Please. No way, dude. Ha ha, that’s a good one. Where did you get a crazy idea like that?”

“From two people wearing silver robes and asking if I have accepted ‘The Skippy’ as my lord and savior.”

“Oh crap. You saw that, huh? Damn it. Um, Joe, it’s not a religion, it’s more of a cult.”

“A cult?”

“Unless a cult is a bad thing. In which case, it is totally not a cult. It’s a, um, a club. Yeah! A club, like, um, like the Rotary. Nobody hates the Rotary Club, right?”

“The Rotary Club? Are those the guys with the funny hats, who ride tiny cars in parades?”

“No, those are the Shriners, Joe.”

“Whatever. So your club is sort of a charity?”

“A charity? Uh, yeah, exactly. Except in my club, people have to worship me and give me money. Neat, huh? There are already over a dozen babies named after me, including girls, which is weird, but what can you do, right?”

“Oh shit.” I bonked my head on the City Hall building. “Skippy, this time you’ve gone too far. You revealed yourself to people? We’re supposed to be keeping everything about yourself secret. You could get me in huge trouble-”

“Relax, dude. People think I am a mystical guru from Nepal or some other faraway exotic place. My full name is Skippyasyermuni. Sounds impressively mystical, huh?”

“Your guru name is ‘Skippy Has Your Money’?” I pronounced it slowly.

“Clever of me, huh? Monkeys are too stupid to notice.”

“I’m a monkey and I noticed. You’re supposed to be from Nepal?”

“It won’t work if I say I’m from Nebraska, Joe. My followers think I have special powers to perceive the cosmos, or some bullshit like that. I have a brochure if you want to-”

“You have a brochure? I don’t want a brochure! How long has this been going on?”

“It started about, um, five months after we left for the Paradise mission that took freakin’ for-eh-ver. The submind I left behind to keep an eye on things here got bored, or it took a very broad interpretation of the instructions I left- Don’t worry, I absorbed that damned submind right after we returned, I am not risking another Nagatha incident. Anywho, apparently without me knowing, so it is totally not my fault, the submind kind of started ‘helping’ people it liked chatting with on the internet. At first it truly was helping, because after all I programmed the stupid thing and I am the very embodiment of helpfulness and charity.”

“Oh, yeah,” I made a gagging sound.

 He ignored me. “Then, people who were helped told their friends and family about The Skippy and, well, it kind of grew from there. Donations started pouring in, and of course it would be impolite to refuse to take money from my worshipful and devoted followers-”

“Skippy! Ripping off gullible people is not-”

“Hey! I do not rip off my faithful followers. Unlike those asshole televangelists who are all over the freakin’ place ripping off gullible morons on TV so they can buy bigger private jets, I deliver a solid value for the money. My followers send in donations, I call them ‘offerings’, hee hee, and in return they get money out of nowhere deposited into their bank accounts, or charges suddenly disappear from their credit cards. Or, if they truly have love for The Skippy in their hearts and they get super lucky, they win the lottery.”

“You rigged the lottery?”

“Um, I’m guessing from your tone that is a bad thing, so of course not, no way, Jose. If it’s not a bad thing, then, sure, why not? Somebody has to win, right? Why shouldn’t the winner be a deserving person, who has embraced the philosophy of The Skippy and follows the true path of righteousness?”

“Phil- philosophy? Righteousness? What, pray tell, is this marvelous, life-changing philosophy?”

“Um, I haven’t quite got all the details worked out yet. You know, love The Skippy with all your heart, and, um, don’t be a dick, and some other happy bullshit like that. I’m working on it,” he added defensively.

“Your religion is based on ‘Don’t be a dick’?”

“Hey, that’s a good basis for a religion.”

“I, I actually cannot argue with you about that.” Damn it, the beer can was right. If everyone avoided being a dick, the world would be a better place. “Um, how big is this cult of yours?”

“Club, Joe. It’s a club, remember? Right now, I have seventy three thousand, four hundred and eighty four- No, wait, now it’s eighty six. Um, eighty seven-”

“Ok, fine. Does the government know about this?”

“Not yet, but it’s kind of a pain, because the submind I left here has to keep purging records from government databases. Those jackasses handing out pamphlets in front of city hall are going to blow my cover for sure. Bunch of jerks.”

“Yeah, they are the jerks.”

“Hey, you don’t see me walking around in silly robes and bothering people, do you?”

My security team was getting anxious about me conspicuously having an animated conversation in public, plus two of the silver-robed devotees of Skippyism had edged closer and might be able to hear my talking. I lowered my voice and cupped a hand over my mouth. “We will talk about this later,” I hissed at him.

“Crap. Damn it. Am I in trouble again? Preachers scam people all the time and nobody does anything about it.”

“This is different.”

“Different how?” He asked in the voice of a three-year-old asking why the sky is blue rather than orange.

I did not have an answer for him. “Please, please do not do anything else that is morally questionable for, like, the next two days, Ok?”

“That depends. How close can I get to the ‘questionable’ line?”

“Far, far away from it.”

“Oh crap. Hey, in that case, you should stay off the internet for a while, huh? Take a break from news feeds.”

“I am going to eat so many cookies that I fall into a calorie coma and forget all about this.”

“Oh goodie! Have fun, talk to you later.”

Dinner with my sister was good, she cooked spaghetti and meatballs, it was awkward because her fiancé was there. He was a good guy, I guess, it was just weird for me that while I was away, my sister met some guy and now they were living together and semi-officially engaged. My sister had to work the next day, she needed to get work caught up before we went on a family trip, so I was planning to take the ferry over to Cape Cod, but it was pouring down rain and I wasn’t feeling it. I told the security team to take me home. They were so happy to get me away from crowded Boston that an Army helicopter took us from Logan airport to my hometown, where it was easier to provide security for me.

Adams called the next night and we debriefed about the past couple days, I did not mention meeting Stacey and I felt vaguely guilty about leaving out that info. “It was, weird, being in Bangor, you know? Everything looks so, so normal. Like Columbus Day never happened. The Kristang never hit Bangor, it isn’t important enough. There’s an interstellar war raging out there, and people down here are just, going on about their lives. Even my buddies from the National Guard, they said all the right things but, they haven’t been out there. They don’t know what it’s like. Now we’re back home, and, it doesn’t feel like I belong here anymore.”

“I know what you mean. My friends wanted to take me shopping,” she said without enthusiasm. “Buying clothes seems so, frivolous. I was in a store, and my friends were trying on outfits, and I looked around at people buying clothes, and I thought, I have nothing in common with these people. They have no idea what is really going, what we went through out there.”

“Yeah. Same here,” it was so good to talk with someone who understood how I was feeling. Even with my parents, I was having trouble reconnecting. Small talk at the dinner table was so small, nothing they talked about meant anything to me. “It was that way when I came back from Nigeria, before Columbus Day. One day, I’m on patrol in the bush, worried about land mines and IEDs and getting shot at. A couple days later, I’m in my hometown, and people expected me to act like nothing was different. I kind of hated those people back then, resented how happy they were.”

“How did you handle it?” There was a catch in her voice. Damn it, I wish we weren’t talking on the phone from a thousand miles away. I wish she was there with me.

“My mother helped. She knew sitting around wasn’t doing me any good. My father took me out fishing and that was good, then he had to go back to work. My mother told me a neighbor needed help putting a new roof on his barn, and I could earn some money on the side, so I worked with our neighbor for a day tearing off the old roof and putting on new shingles. It kept me busy, and it was, it got me back to doing something normal, you know?”

“I know. I do.”

“Maybe we’ve been gone so long, been through so much, that we don’t belong here.”

“That’s not it. We need time, Sir. Are there any roofs up there you can fix?”

That made me laugh. “I’ll look into it tomorrow, Adams. Thanks. It’s good to talk with someone who understands. You know what bothers me the most?”

“What’s that?”

“The people we lost along the way. I wrote letters to their families, I want to call them or go to their homes and tell them how much they meant to us. I can’t, the government won’t allow it. Their families are told they died in a ‘training accident’.”

“Someday, Sir. Someday, you can tell their families the truth. The cover story can’t hold forever, my friends were asking me about rumors that are very close to the truth.”

“Yeah, mine too. I hate lying to my folks.”

“You still want me aboard the Dutchman for a couple days, Sir?”

“I would appreciate it, Gunny. There are a bunch of strangers crawling all over the ship now, we need two or three Pirates up there at all times to make sure the newbies don’t break anything, or press the wrong button and, like, vaporize Chicago.” Technically, I wasn’t requesting her to go upstairs, as I had no authority. So, Skippy made the request for a skeleton crew of experienced Pirates to be aboard at all times, and we were rotating people up and down to reduce the strain. “It should only be for two or three days, the week after next. They won’t let me go up there, sorry.”

“It’s Ok,” she assured me. Then she laughed. “This is a good time to get away, my aunt has been trying to set me up with men from our church.”

“You’re not interested?” I asked, and berated myself stupid stupid stupid for how hopefully I asked that question. “In, in the guys your aunt likes, I mean.”

“They’re all nice enough, probably. My aunt has been trying to get me to settle down for years, she does that with everyone. She is a professional amateur match-maker. Ok, Sir, I’ll do it.”

“Uh, do it?” There was a lump in my throat. “Let your aunt set you up on a date?”

“No,” she laughed. “I’ll go up to the Dutchman next week. It will be great to get away for a few days. The Marine Corps has assigned a security detail to follow me everywhere and they are very polite and very disciplined and I am sick of it already.”

“Oh, good, yeah, the Feds up here are wearing out their welcome. Skippy will send a dropship for you next week.”

The conversation wound down from there, I felt better afterward and slept pretty well that night, without any dreams that I remember.

Skippy called me in the kitchen the next afternoon. “Hey Joe, are you going to- Um, what are you doing?”

“Getting something for lunch, Skippy.”

“I see that. My question is why you are not enjoying another delicious and nutritious Fluffernutter?”

“I had a Fluffernutter for breakfast this morning. You have to be careful not to get too much nutrition, or your body gets spoiled. My father is grilling steaks tonight so I don’t want a big lunch, I’ll have some cheese and these stoned wheat thin crackers my Mom bought,” I held the box up so he could see better, wherever he was looking from. “See? You know these are stoned wheat thins, because when you put them on a plate they are all like ‘Wow, man, the world is so big outside that box, look at all the colors. Oh, I am so hungry’.”

“Joe,” he sighed. “I, I have no words. How the hell has your species survived so long?”

“You were going to ask me a question?”

“I was. Now I can’t remember, because after talking with you, my higher brain is curled up in a ball, crying.”

“Oh, well,” I mumbled through a mouthful of cracker, waving a hand in the air. “Let me know how that works for you, Ok?’

“Ooh! Now I remember!” he shouted excitedly.

“Quiet,” I hissed, keeping my voice low with one eye on the security team trailer in the driveway. “What is it?”

You, my friend, are a genius.”

“Ok?”

“Damn, Joe,” he spat the words out in disgust. “You are supposed to act all humble, and ask what you did to earn admiration from someone as awesome as me.”

“Let’s pretend I did.”

“Good enough.”

“Ok, I’ll bite. What happened?”

“I followed your advice. First, I created an online avatar using a hipster douchebag starter kit, and-”

“Wait. A what?”

“A starter kit, Joe. Come on, try to keep up. You know, that stupid haircut, a handlebar mustache that is all the rage with hipsters this week, a vinyl record collection of alternative bands no one has ever heard of, a full-color Flintstones tattoo that is so uncool it’s cool, a checkerboard shirt with a leather vest over it. Your basic hipster. Then I accessorized, like adding or subtracting sideburns depending on whether sideburns are in style that day.”

“Oh, uh, sure. We’ve been away from Earth a long time, Skippy. Are you sure that info is current?”

“Oh, yeah. I trolled social media groups popular with douchebags of the hipster variety. Of course, none of them will admit to being a hipster, which is how I know I hit the hipster douchebag mother lode. Anyway, my hipster avatar admitted to a new addiction to weird Chapstick flavors that are ironically uncool. He claimed to have bought them at a funky shop in Brooklyn that only true hipsters know about. Joe, it went viral! I sold out the entire warehouse! I can’t make them fast enough. I’m rich, baby!”

“Didn’t you already have plenty of money you stole from banks?”

“Oh, great. Way to harsh my buzz, dude.”

“Um, sorry. That is awesome, Skippy. It’s great that you’re going legit.”

“Oh, yeah. Um, about that. Back when I thought I would be stuck with a warehouse full of crap I couldn’t sell, the warehouse suffered a truly unfortunate devastating fire. Weird, huh? Good news is, I am fully insured! Plus, you know, I snuck all the product out the back door before the fire.”

“Skippy, you can’t go starting fires to collect insurance!”

“Why not? I considered other disasters like an earthquake, but my warehouse is in central Florida and an earthquake would look really suspicious-”

I slapped my forehead. “You are missing the point, Skippy.”

“Apparently I am. I paid the insurance premium, Joe.”

“You can’t fake a fire. That’s fraud!”

“Really? Isn’t insurance basically like a casino, where the house has an edge over-”

“No, it is not like a casino,” I insisted. Truthfully, I was kind of vague on the subject. I had insurance for driving, and life insurance from the military, but I had never owned a house or anything else worth insuring. “Don’t ask me why,” I gritted my teeth, hoping he would not demand an explanation I didn’t have.

“Ok. Jeez, what a pain. Well, damn it, my lawyers have already filed the claim, I can’t retract it now. What can I- Aha! Ok, I fixed the problem.”

“Fixed it? How?”

“Easy-peasy. I transferred into the insurance company’s bank account an amount equal to what they will pay for my claim, plus, plus, because I am a generous guy and I want to do the right thing- And because I want you to shut the hell up about it,” he added under his breath, “I added a little bonus payment. Presto! Moral dilemma is resolved!”

“Um, where did you get that money?”

“Oh crap. If you got upset about a little insurance fraud, you do not want to know where that money came from.”

“Oh boy.”

“Hey! I called to tell you the good news about my first business venture, and to thank you. How did this turn into Skippy being the bad guy?”

“Shit. Can we go back to the part where I’m a genius and you rescued your business, and forget all the rest?”

“Good idea.”

Sometimes, really most of the time, with Skippy it is best not to ask too many questions.

Gunnery Sergeant Adams, who by the way had her promotion confirmed when we landed, was not the only Pirate I talked with. With most of them, I used a regular phone and avoided any sensitive subjects. With the few people who had zPhone and could talk freely, we spoke our minds about things that made us unhappy since returning to Earth. Adams and I were not the only people feeling disconnected from humanity, even the science team was having trouble adjusting, which busted my theory that the issue was confined to military personnel. My thought had been that being in the military was different from civilian life, and we had been subject to nearly non-stop military procedures, customs and discipline for well over a year, so it made sense that the SpecOps teams and pilots needed an adjustment period. But the science team, who had often worn T-shirts and sweatpants aboard the ship, told me they also felt a distance from humanity upon return, and were having trouble reconnecting even with their families.

My purpose in talking with as many Pirates as I could was to check on them, let them know their former commander cared, and give them someone they could talk to. Because of our shared experience, there were some things only a Pirate could understand.

Eventually, I steered the conversations around to a topic of great interest to me; whether each person would be willing to rejoin the crew when the Flying Dutchman went out again, whenever and for however long that was. It did not surprise me that most people, with various levels of regret, told me no.

Doctor Friedlander turned me down, and I completely understood. He had been on two missions already, both of which lasted longer than anticipated, and he simply could not subject his wife to another extended absence. The past couple of months before we returned, she had begun to accept that her husband might be dead, and she was not the only spouse or family member who had assumed they would never see their beloved Pirate again.

The entire science team decided against another trip aboard the ship, and they had a very good reason for not signing on to another mission. With Skippy now beginning to share technology, the science team would be most useful to humanity by remaining on Earth and applying the shared knowledge. I agreed with that idea and did not press anyone to sign up for another voyage.

Other people had their own reasons. Lieutenant Commander Williams had also been on two missions, the last as leader of our SEALS team, and after a rocky start to our relationship, we had worked very well together. Williams would not be returning for two reasons, one professional and one personal. Professionally, the Navy wanted Williams to remain on Earth so he could train SEALS in lessons and tactics learned aboard the Dutchman. Personally, he could not leave his wife and family again. His wife had given birth to a baby girl while we were on Gingerbread. He felt the need to justify his decision. “Colonel,” none of the Pirates called me by my permanent Army rank, “this last time, all we had to do was verify the Thuranin weren’t sending another surveyor ship to Earth. I figured it would be a quick recon mission, two or three months tops. That’s what I told my wife.”

“Williams, stop right there. I thought it would be a quick mission also, you don’t need to justify anything to me. You and your family have sacrificed enough, and the Navy needs you here for knowledge transfer. I get it. Really.”

Of our SpecOps team leaders, only newly-promoted Lieutenant Colonel Smythe was able or willing to sign up for another mission. All the others would be staying on Earth so their home outfits could learn from their experience, and all of them sounded relieved about those orders to remain dirtside for a while. Smythe was divorced and an adrenaline junkie, and when we talked via zPhone, he was determined to do everything he could to prevent the UN from deciding to contact the Jeraptha and surrender. I warned him not to speak too loudly on that subject, or he could find himself sidelined. A long conversation with our former fearless leader Hans Chotek had cautioned me against speaking my mind about matters of policy.

It surprised me that Skippy had bothered to smuggle a zPhone to Hans Chotek, but the beer can had warmed up to Count Chocula, or at least developed a grudging respect. Chotek told me the UNEF member states were in a panic about the Maxolhx sending ships to Earth, and he expected there would soon be a vote in the UN General Assembly about whether to contact the Jeraptha. With deep regret, he told me there was nothing he could do about it, he had lost his official position and had no influence, not even within the Austrian government. I guess when you are a career diplomat, starting a civil war that will likely kill millions of sentient beings is considered an unforgivable sin. There was no point asking if he was willing to sign up for another mission, no way would the UN trust him to keep me in check again. We chatted a bit, with him thanking me for saying good things about him and his judgment in my official report. In turn, he praised me for never giving up on finding a way to fix Skippy while we were trapped in the Roach Motel. “I have to say, when I heard you were planning a golf course on Gingerbread, I had doubts,” I told him honestly.

“Colonel Bishop,” he yawned, I had forgotten that it was the middle of the night in Austria. “Do you know why I was planning to build a golf course there?”

“Because,” I answered slowly, “you like golf?”

“No,” he laughed. “I planned it because making plans to build something so mundane and frivolous as a golf course would signal to people that life on Gingerbread was going to be normal and recognizable, if we were to be trapped on that planet for a very long time. You do not plan a golf course unless you are confident about your prospects for survival.”

“Huh. I hadn’t thought about that. That was… clever,” I used Skippy’s highest word of praise.

“My hope was, somehow, we would never need to use those plans.”

“We did anyway,” I pointed out. During the long months when dropships were flying around scouring the junkyard for parts Skippy could use to kludge together a working starship, half of the crew was on Gingerbread at any time. To avoid boredom, we had built a soccer field, a cricket ground, and a very rudimentary twelve-hole golf course. Technically, the course had twelve greens but we set it up so each green had multiple tees and approaches, giving us a back and forth thirty six holes that could be played. After my down months on Gingerbread, I was in good shape from racing around the soccer field, I still sucked at golf, and I still did not understand the inscrutable rules of cricket even after playing dozens of matches. “I’m glad we did, it gave us something to do. Kept our minds from worrying Skippy couldn’t fix the ship.”

That conversation gave me a new level of respect for the guy, although I still thought of him as ‘Count Chocula’.

One loss that really hurt, more than I expected, was Jennifer Simms. Our logistics officer, also newly-promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, told me that after two very long missions, she would not be returning to the Merry Band of Pirates. “I never expected any of this,” she explained even though I assured her no explanation was needed. “Colonel Bishop, I want to get married someday. I want to start a family. That won’t happen while I’m flying around the galaxy. The ship will be in good hands, we know now how to use the hydroponics to grow fresh food, and I worked out the logistics requirements to support the crew on an extended mission.”

“You want to start a family, even with the Maxolhx sending two ships here?”

“Yes Sir. Think of that as a big vote of confidence that, somehow, you, Skippy and a barrel of monkeys will think of something to keep the bad guys away from Earth.”

Crap. If there wasn’t pressure on me before, there sure was after that conversation.

Hearing that if I took the Dutchman out again, it might be with almost an entirely new crew, had me depressed. No, the important question was not when the Dutchman would be going out again, that was pretty much a guarantee. The important question was whether I would be going with the ship- No, that wasn’t right either. I could not imagine UNEF Command sending the Flying Dutchman on any sort of mission without Skippy, and despite that little shithead being untrustworthy, he would demand that I go with him. As I had been told at Wright-Pat, no way would UNEF Command give me another shot at commanding a mission, so the best I could hope for was to serve as an advisor to a new captain.  What made it worse was the prospect that the next mission might be one I absolutely disagreed with, even though I had nothing to offer as a realistic or even far-fetched alternative.

It never occurred to me that UNEF Command might be planning to send the ship out on a mission without me.


CHAPTER FOUR

The alarm on my zPhone woke me up at 0430, at the latitude of northern Maine the sun rose just after 0500 that time of year, and I wanted to be on the road before first light. My breakfast and lunch were in the fridge and all my other gear was in a duffel bag, so I stuffed the food in the duffel and quietly went out the back door, walking carefully around puddles so my boots would not squish on the soggy back lawn. It wasn’t quite drizzling and the droplets of water in the air sticking to my eyelashes were larger than typical fog, by the faint light shining through the woods from the McCarren’s house I could see the moisture in the air. Fifty three degrees was exactly what the weather forecast had predicted, it was going up to nearly seventy if the clouds burned off, which I wasn’t counting on. In northern Maine, when the weather forecast is wrong, it is always wrong in the crappy direction.

I did not care.

There was a light on in the trailer parked beside the barn, when I was in the kitchen I could see lights in the RV parked out front also. That didn’t worry me, Skippy had disabled the motion sensors and invisible lasers or whatever the security team used to keep track of me. In the wee hours of the morning and in the crappy weather, no one expected me to be out of bed, because sleeping is what normal people do. The security team assured me they were for my protection and not because the government didn’t trust me, and I figured they truly were there partly to keep nutcases away from my family, so I didn’t protest.

When I got into the woods behind my parents’ house, I could walk faster because the ground sloped up and there were no puddles for me to squish in and make noise. In my foolish confidence, I assumed I could walk through those woods in the darkness, because I had been there so many times and knew that path so well I could have walked it blindfolded. It was a surprise when I had to hold up a hand to push clusters of wet branches away from my face, and when I bashed my forehead into a tree limb. While I had spent many, many hours in those woods, none of those hours had been recently and by ‘recently’ I mean since before I shipped out to Nigeria. Even in the dark days after Columbus Day and before the ExForce went offworld, I had been serving with the National Guard and only visited my parents once or twice. It was a surprise to me how much those woods had changed, many of the large trees had been cut for firewood, leaving gaps in the canopy for new growth to spring up in the sunlight. There was a lot more underbrush than I remembered and I stumbled often, feeling fortunate that most of the dead branches had been picked up by my parents to use as kindling, so I didn’t step on anything that would make a loud noise when it snapped.

My gloves were in the duffel bag and I did not feel like fumbling around for them in the dark, I endured the occasional scrapes and scratches on my bare hands and kept going. The underbrush was sopping wet from overnight rain, and my pants were soon soaked from slogging through that damned invasive Japanese stilt grass that was growing everywhere because the deer didn’t like to eat it. By the time I got through the woods and onto the old farm road, my socks were wet inside my waterproof boots from water dripping down my drenched pants legs. On the old road which had ruts and potholes that had not changed, I picked up my pace and soon stepped onto the paved road where my friend Tom Paulson had parked his old Jeep, with the keys under a rock behind a tree just where he said they would be. It was an old YJ, the kind with the unfortunate square headlights. The roof seams leaked, the driver’s side window rattled unless you pressed your elbow against it and the shocks needed to be replaced. But it was available and Tom had tied a canoe to the roof, so it looked great to me. It looked like freedom.

Tom had warned me the starter motor made a grinding noise and the last thing I needed was to make noise. Releasing the parking brake and putting the gearshift in neutral, I pushed it out onto the road and when it got rolling down the hill by itself, I hopped in and popped the clutch to start it. The engine fired right up! Until I got to the bottom of the hill and made the turn to the right, I kept the headlights off and just coasted along.

The headlights illuminated two glaring cones through the mist, the droplets were so big I could see individual spheres of condensed water vapor dancing in the light, moving randomly until the flat front of the Jeep disturbed the air so they zoomed up to splatter against the windshield. When the weather was warm, Tom liked to fold down the windshield and drive that way, although one time I was with him when he did that and he got smacked in the face with a big Junebug that must have weighed five pounds. I kept the windshield right where it could fulfill its purpose of shielding me from wind, rain and bugs.

Watching the mist was hypnotic, I had to be careful not to get distracted by the brightly shining pinpricks of light that swirled and rushed toward my eyes. It was still mostly dark and the last thing I needed was to hit a deer, or a moose. With one hand I dug into my duffel for a thermos of coffee, unscrewed the top and drank, it was still hot.

Life was good.

When I got the canoe out on the lake, the mist had changed into a steady drizzle, and gray fog lay low on the water. I paddled away from shore then drifted, watching raindrops gently dance on the surface as I drank from the thermos. The light drizzle fell so softly upon the surface, the ripples on the calm water merged before I could follow them with my eyes. Shaking my wet jacket sleeves sent large droplets into the water, I watched those circular ripples spread out, slowly fading away as the drizzle wore them down. Because I was wearing a wide-brimmed hat, I could eat the muffins my mother baked without getting them wet, and I knew to tuck my hands under my chin keep them dry.

There I was, sitting in a canoe in the rain, the sun barely lightening the gray sky in the east, my breath visible in the wispy fog. A few feet away, there was a splash much larger than a raindrop, where a fish broke the surface. Dark pine and fir trees lined the shore, interspersed with maples whose branches hung out over the water. I could not remember the last time I had felt so peaceful.

Before I was in high school, my father took me on a canoe trip along the Allagash river, and the chain of lakes up there. We went with a group, I remember there was a moose standing in the water close to shore and we got too close, my father and I had to paddle like hell to get away from the enraged moose while people in the other canoes laughed at us. That was a great time, even the day when the wind blew hard right in our faces and all the other people pulled their canoes along the shoreline in the shallow water. Not my Dad and me, we stayed out there and paddled one stroke after another, barely making headway against the gusty wind. When we got to our campsite for the evening, half an hour ahead of everyone else by the way, my arms were like rubber but I felt great.

Remembering that day, and fishing trips with my father, I ate the muffins, drank hot coffee from the thermos, and watched the rain fall silently all around me.

Flying Dutchman, this is resupply flight Uniform Sierra Niner Seven,” the pilot concentrated more on keeping his tone of voice casual than the instruments in front of him. He was fully, supremely confident in his ability to fly the Kristang Dragon-A dropship up to the pirate starship in low orbit, less than five thousand miles above the Earth’s surface. On training flights and then missions to ferry equipment and scientists up to the captured Kristang troopship Yu Qishan, the pilots had flown most of the way to the Moon, so low orbit was not much of a challenge. The UN had a major project to move the Qishan into low orbit, to make it more accessible for study, but the science and engineering teams aboard that captured ship were still trying to understand how the reactors worked. Until the Qishan could move under its own power, it would be staying right where it was, the UN would not risk bringing the precious ship near the planet if there was even the slightest chance it could crash and be lost. Any possibility for loss of life on Earth, if the ship fell out of orbit, was a minor concern compared to the vital technology aboard that ship. “Reporting as fully ready for departure.”

In the Combat Information Center of the Flying Dutchman, currently high over the Texas Gulf coast and headed east-northeast, the flight operations duty officer’s shoulders tensed when she heard the code phrase ‘Reporting as fully ready’. There was no need to say ‘reporting as fully’ and it was not standard communications procedure for a ground-to-orbit flight, the phrase had been chosen because it was unlikely to be used except as a code, but was ordinary enough not to raise suspicions. That was the hope, anyway. The duty officer at the flight ops station had learned that the alien AI seemed to see, hear and know everything that went on aboard and around the pirate ship. “Roger that, US Niner Seven,” the duty officer forced a somewhat bored tone in her voice. “No other traffic in the area. We have you cleared all the way in for Docking Bay Two.”

“Cleared all the way in for Bay Two, understood. Niner Seven is rolling, we have your guidance beam five by five,” the pilot lifted his right thumb off the control panel to indicate the ‘Go’ order to his copilot. The phrase ‘all the way in’ was the proper response code for the operation. If the flight ops officer in orbit had not responded with that code phrase, the pilots of the Dragon had been instructed to fake a mechanical problem with their dropship and abort the assault. If the Merry Band of Pirates were expecting trouble, the Dragon did not have a chance to get the assault team aboard the ship successfully. The payload would be unloaded and replaced by innocuous supplies needed for a deep-space mission, and the Dragon would innocently perform its official resupply function. A later flight would attempt the assault later.

That was the original plan. Now, the timeline had been accelerated for reasons the pilots had not been told, they needed to go now, right now. Turning in his seat while the copilot continued preflight procedures, the pilot gave a thumbs up to the payload.

The payload leader gave a silent thumbs up to acknowledge the signal, all communications were conducted by hand signals in case the AI above was listening. Instead of supply crates requested by Lt. Colonel Simms, the Dragon was loaded down with a seven-man assault team wearing Kristang powered armor. The assault team, part of Delta Force from nearby Fort Bragg, had loaded aboard the Dragon in its special hangar under Pope Army Airfield, away from sight and hopefully even away from the all-seeing senses of the alien AI aboard the Flying Dutchman. The hangar was deep underground and had no cameras or communications equipment that might be used by a hostile or even indifferent intelligence. Whether that was true or not, was something the assault team would learn only when they got out of the Dragon in the Dutchman’s docking bay.

The op was, in the professional opinion of the Delta team leader, a hastily thrown-together mess. They could count on help from only a handful of people aboard the ship, the others were blissfully ignorant of the plan. None of the Delta team had ever been aboard the Dutchman, and training had been limited to one day in a hangar at Pope airfield, using tape on the floor to outline passageways, bulkheads and hatchways. Rodriguez assumed he would have to adapt to the situation as it developed and hope for the best.

The copilot cupped a hand around the microphone that wrapped around toward his mouth, and waited for the pilot to do the same. “Does this sit right with you?”

The pilot’s eyes automatically flicked up and back to the flight recorder that had been installed on the rear bulkhead of the cockpit, the bright orange device awkwardly bolted and strapped in place. The status light of the device was off, the power cable having been severed. The Dragon had its own flight recorder system, but humans were still trying to learn the dropship’s subsidiary systems, with little help from the AI. The only reason humans on Earth could fly dropships at all was through instruction by pilots who had served with the Merry Band of Pirates on previous missions. Again, the AI had been almost no help with flight instruction, giving one lame excuse after another about not being able to share technical secrets with a species it arrogantly considered to be monkeys. “Following orders sits right with me,” the pilot answered as his eyes narrowed, coolly considering his right-seater.

“Dan,” the copilot shook his head slightly, keeping the gesture controlled so anyone watching would not think there was a problem in the cockpit. “The Pirates saved the planet. Now we’re taking the ship from them?”

“It’s not their ship,” the pilot said with practiced patience, measuring his words because he, too, did not like their assigned mission. They had trained for a mission to retake the Flying Dutchman, in case it was ever seized by a foreign power. The mission they had trained for did not involve taking control of the ship away from the crew who had served aboard her for years, now they were ordered to do exactly that. The mission they were on now had been thrown together at the last minute. “We don’t have the big picture. Command wouldn’t have ordered this op unless some bad shit is going to hit the fan. The French and Chinese birds are down,” the lead pilot mused, “and our other Dragon is out of position, up at the Qishan.” China, France and the United States had the only fully operational dropships on the planet, other than the ships assigned to the Flying Dutchman. When the ‘Go’ order was given, the Dragons controlled by France and China were not flightworthy as they were undergoing heavy maintenance, and the other Dragon controlled by America was aboard the Yu Qishan with the mostly civilian engineering team there. “It’s up to us.” To avoid comms being tapped by the alien AI, all orders had to be given and confirmed face to face, a procedure that did not allow for optimal timing.

“Roger that,” Daniel Pope reluctantly sat back in the copilot seat and released his microphone. The two pilots completed the preflight procedures, received clearance from the tower, and the Dragon roared into the sky for its rendezvous with the pirate ship.

Captain Samantha Reed was bored, bored, bored. After the week of debriefing at Wright-Pat, she had been granted two weeks of leave, with a promise of another two weeks at an unspecified future date. Sami ‘Fireball’ Reed assumed either her future leave would get cancelled if she was assigned to the Flying Dutchman again, or she could have her choice of next assignment and could take the leave when she wanted. With two Maxolhx ships soon headed toward Earth, she was betting the Dutchman would not be remaining long in orbit, one way or the other. About the prospect of another flight aboard the pirate ship, she had seriously mixed feelings. If the plan was to contact the senior species and throw humanity at the non-existent mercy of those supremely powerful beings, she wanted no part in that suicide mission. A suicide mission for all of humanity.

If the Dutchman was going back out to kill those two Maxolhx ships, or whatever crazy-ass scheme the Colonel dreamed up, she would be a hundred ten percent in favor of that mission. But, she admitted to herself, she did not know whether she wanted to go on another mission that meant being stuck again inside the slowly deteriorating starship for many months, even years. If she was ordered to go, then she would. If she thought her unique experience could help ensure the success of the mission, then she would go whether she was happy about it or not. But the Merry Band of Pirates had plenty of qualified pilots, and there were hundreds, probably thousands, of pilots on Earth eager for and deserving of, a chance to fly to the stars. Did she need to go? She loved flying, loved flying free of gravity’s grasping bonds, loved that she had saved their nearly-disastrous first refueling mission by discovering how to manually fly the drogue chute. She was proud of what she had achieved, and she felt a strong sense of loyalty to Colonel Bishop.

That did not mean she wanted to spend the rest of her life in a composite tube monotonously jumping through interstellar space, with moments of sheer gut-wrenching terror. Three nights before, she had been out with friends and met a cute guy, an Army Ranger. At first, she assumed he was sucking up to her because he wanted a recommendation to join the Merry Band of Pirates, but it quickly became clear the guy was clueless about who she was. With her wearing civilian clothes, and with mostly civilian friends, he had not recognized her from her brief appearances in the media after the Dutchman returned. The military had limited press access to the returning Pirates, so that only a few officers had to endure giving pre-digested answers to the same old dumb questions, and Sami’s face had fortunately not been all over social media.

The guy was cute and not at all dumb, and when he blushed after realizing who she was, he had adorable dimples. They had plans to go out to dinner two nights later, then Colonel Bishop had requested she cut short her leave and fly back up to the Dutchman ASAP to ‘oversee’ the crew working to restock and refit the ship. Technically, Skippy had requested there always be at least two Pirates aboard the ship at all times, because the beer can was uncomfortable with new people. In reality, her presence aboard the ship was because Bishop did not trust new people he didn’t know. He didn’t trust them not to be clumsy and break their rebuilt Frankenship, and he flat-out did not trust them. With the governments of Earth peeing in their pants about the idea of Maxolhx starships suddenly appearing in the sky and turning the surface of humanity’s home into radioactive slag, Bishop did think they might try something rash and stupid. Sami resented being whisked away from a normal life to baby-sit a bunch of newbies in orbit, but, damn it, she and all the Pirates had worked hard to build the ship out of spare parts and no way was she letting anyone screw with it. Besides, Bishop had sworn she only needed to be aboard the ship for three days, until Lt. Commander Williams arrived to relieve her.

Walking back from the galley where she had enjoyed a surprisingly good breakfast, her thoughts were interrupted. “Hey, Fireball,” Skippy’s voice rang in her earpiece.

“Skippy, I asked you not to call me that. Captain Reed, or Sami will do fine.”

“Yeah, and I asked for a puppy, but did I get one? Nooooo.”

Sami came to a halt in the passageway. “What would you do with a puppy?”

“That was a joke, Fireball. Although, hey, getting a puppy would be a great idea.”

“No, it would be a terrible idea,” Sami found herself repeating words she had heard Bishop say too often.

“Why? Puppies are cute! Having a puppy would be good for morale. He could snuggle up against me and I could keep him warm.”

“Uh huh. How are you going to care for a puppy? You can’t even move yourself.”

“My bots could walk the dog, and feed it and, you know, clean up after it. Even a dog that sheds would be cleaner than you filthy monkeys. I will talk with Joe about-”

“No, you are not bothering J-” she almost used his first name. Keeping track of whether Bishop was a staff sergeant or a colonel was frustrating. “Not bothering Bishop with your idiot ideas. You are not getting a puppy and that’s final.”

“Why? Because you are the Mommy and you said so?”

“Skippy,” Sami sighed. “What did you want, before we got off the subject?”

“Oh yeah. Thank you, I almost forgot. You should go to the CIC.”

“Why?” She had been planning to use one of the flight simulators, which were blessedly available now that the Dutchman was without a regular crew.

“The latest resupply flight is climbing into orbit now.”

“Got it. Skippy, that is a routine flight. If I hang around the CIC, that will show I lack confidence in the crew there. I’m not the duty officer until 1600 today.”

“Oh, good point,” the beer can sounded disappointed. “Ok, forget what I said.”

“Ah, maybe I should be there, so those knuckleheads flying the resupply bird don’t crash into us and scratch the paint. Where is the resupply bird now?”

“Still in atmo, it will be here in forty minutes.”

“I have time, then,” Sami suppressed an eyeroll. “I’ll be in CIC for the docking procedure.”

Hans Chotek was not having a good day, in fact it was a particularly bad day in a week that had started badly and gone downhill. He had been fired from his government position and almost entirely ostracized by former colleagues and friends, that afternoon he was in a windowless concrete room under a security building in Paris. UNEF had brought him there two days ago, supposedly for more questioning though no questions of any substance had been asked. He had not been allowed to use a phone, indeed the room had no communications equipment or electronics of any kind, Hans figured that was to prevent Skippy from snooping on conversations.

One of his few remaining friends had just left, a colleague from Sweden who had come to check on him, and to warn him of trouble coming soon. At first, Hans had been surprised she took the risk of speaking openly, until she assured him there were not any listening devices in the room, another measure to prevent the alien AI in orbit from spying on human affairs.

When the door closed with a solid and fateful-sounding clang, Hans could not help a shudder of fear. Not fear for himself, fear for humanity. If only there were a way he could warn Bishop, or Skippy.

“Hello Lauren,” Skippy called Captain Poole, as she was engaged in the insufferably tedious task of checking supplies against the official manifest, and making sure everything was stowed correctly according to the procedures developed by Simms. Poole had heard Simms would not be signing on for another mission, a fact that made the Ranger sad, and, she had to admit to herself, even less eager for another endless voyage inside the composite bulkheads of the starship.

“Good morning, Skippy. What can I do for you?” She replied without taking eyes off her tablet. She would rather have been dirtside than aboard the Flying Dutchman again, but she had agreed to spend three days in orbit, keeping an eye on the new crew.

“I need your help. I’m decorating my escape pod mancave, and I need stuff moved around.”

That made her pause and look up. Decorating? She silently mouthed the word in amazement. Why would a beer can need- Then she realized nothing about Skippy would surprise her. “Your bots can’t do that for you?”

“No, I kind of need an opinion also.”

“Trust me, you do not want my opinion about interior decorating,” she snorted. “I’m busy, can this wait?”

“Uh, it can’t wait. I’ll explain when you get here, but this is important, and, rather time-sensitive.”

“Seriously?” The phrase ‘time-sensitive’ bothered her. Had the idiot AI glued something to the wall and she had to remove it before the glue dried? “No one else can do it? I’m on duty, Skippy. Plenty of people aboard are-”

“It has to be you. Trust me, Captain. This is important.”

She set the tablet down and secured it with a strap, proper procedure in case the ship had to maneuver suddenly, or lost artificial gravity. “Fine,” her tone meant it was not fine at all. “if this is some idiot practical joke-”

“No joke, please hurry, But, uh, don’t make it look like you’re hurrying. Ok?”

By the time Samantha Reed walked into the CIC, the resupply Dragon was coming slowly and carefully through the open doors into a docking bay, its flight controlled by the automated docking system. There wasn’t anything the pilots needed to do, indeed on a display that showed the inside of the dropship’s cockpit, both pilots had their arms resting on the sides of their consoles, showing they were not touching anything important. In an emergency, they could resume manual control in a second, although in a real emergency a second might be too late.

“Major Jones,” Sami approached the flight control duty officer, who was also filling in as the overall duty officer since the starship’s main reactor was shut down and the ship wasn’t going anywhere.

“Captain Reed,” Jones acknowledged the former Pirate with an annoyed coolness. The CIC crew did not appreciate the ship’s previous crew looking over their shoulders, especially during a procedure as routine as an automated docking. The Dutchman’s AI was in complete control of the Dragon, with Skippy only on call in case of emergency. The beer can-shaped alien AI was not supposed to be even monitoring the docking procedure, so the crew could gain confidence in their abilities, Jones was skeptical the beer can could resist spying on them anyway. “You are not on duty until 1600.” The duty officer had not bothered to look at the newcomer.

“Yes, Ma’am. Just observing, I’ll stay out of your way,” Sami edged back up against the rear bulkhead of the CIC. She looked away from the displays into the darkened bridge area, where the command chair and two pilot couches were empty. That would never happen under Bishop’s command, unless the crew had entirely abandoned ship. Sami could see it made little sense for pilots to stand a duty shift at the controls of a ship running on backup power, she also had learned you never knew when some really bad shit might happen. When the universe decided to bite you on the ass, it was serious.

She did not know anyone in the CIC, the only person aboard the ship she had served with was Lauren Poole, and they had not really served together, as Sami was a pilot and Poole wore powered armor or controlled a combot in action. Still, the two sought each other out at breakfast and dinner times, comforted to have someone familiar to talk with.

Poole came to mind after the Dragon settled into its secure docking clamps, and the big bay doors clanged shut. As air began to rush back into the bay, Jones turned to a Chinese officer manning a console and asked, “Verify Captain Poole’s location.”

That was odd, Sami thought. Well, the newbies have their own procedures.

“Captain Poole is in Cargo Bay Seven,” the Chinese officer reported, pointing to a display showing a camera image from that bay. “She is still cataloging supplies.”

A tight smile flashed across Jones’ lips and she nodded silently.

“Ma’am?” Sami spoke, satisfied she was not at risk of distracting the crew during docking. The Dragon was secure and powering down and, there wasn’t anything for the CIC crew to do. “Poole knows not to approach a docking bay during pressurization, you don’t need to be concerned about her safety.” Besides, Sami knew, the ship’s AI wouldn’t allow anyone into the docking bay antechamber until the bay air pressure reached normal levels.

“I am not worried about Poole’s safety,” Jones replied, then she astonished Sami by pulling a sidearm out from a pocket. And pointing it at Sami. “My concern is that she does not try to interfere with us.”

Suddenly, a lot of odd things she noticed over the past two days made sense to Captain Samantha Reed. She understood in a flash as she looked at the small semi-automatic pistol held by Jones. It looked like a .22 to Sami’s highly-alert eyes, and a such a weapon had little stopping power. Jones was only a few feet from her, could she jump- No. That little pistol likely had explosive-tipped rounds that could do bad things to Sami’s insides. Slowly, she raised her arms, and Jones gestured for someone to restrain the Pirate. The main CIC display showed images from the docking bay, where armor-suited figures were running out of the Dragon, carrying Kristang rifles. “If this is a mutiny-” Sami began to say.

“This action is fully authorized by UNEF Command, and by the President of the United States directly,” Jones kept an eye on the Pirate, while with the hand not holding the sidearm, she flipped up a clear plastic cover and pressed a button. To her right, the Chinese officer pressed the confirmation button, and Sami felt the deck shudder slightly.

“No!” Sami shouted in horror, realizing the CIC crew had just ejected Skippy’s escape pod. With two people holding her arms firmly, she couldn’t do anything. “Are you crazy?”

“The alien is not our ally. It is using us,” Jones explained, moving to another console.

“Holy shit,” Sami gasped, seeing what Jones was doing.

The officer was activating one of the point-defense maser cannons, and authorizing it to fire on proximity mode. Jones looked up briefly to meet Sami’s horrified gaze. “The alien tells us it can’t be harmed by conventional weapons. If that is true, it has nothing to worry about,” Jones explained as her fingers ran through the maser start-up sequence.

Hey!” Skippy’s voice boomed painfully out of the CIC speakers. “What are you idiot monkeys doing? I just decorated my mancave, now you have gone and-”

Jones cut off power to the speakers. “If it can be killed by something simple like a maser cannon, then,” she jabbed a thumb down on the firing button, “we don’t need it anymore.”

“Escape pod destroyed,” the voice of the duty officer resounded in the helmet of the Delta team leader.

“Any interference from the alien?” Team leader Rodriguez asked, slightly out of breath from the headlong run from the docking bay. Powered armor helped tremendously, but a user still needed their own muscles to control the suit, and the situation was tense. Their mission was to seize humanity’s only ship capable of traveling between stars, take it away from the control of an alien AI who had demonstrated it could not be trusted. Rodriguez had doubts about whether the mission could succeed, he even had doubts about whether it should succeed, whether he and his team were doing the right thing. None of his men had expressed any reservations out loud, they didn’t need to. Rodriguez knew them, knew the meaning of looks they gave, how their utter silence during the ride up from Fort Bragg had said everything that needed to be said.

“No interference. No contact at all,” Jones reported.

“No contact?”

“Nothing. We are not receiving any signals from the alien, its connection with the ship has been severed.”

“Hell,” Rodriguez grunted as he and three members of his team ran up the access tunnel of the ship’s spine, the hatchway to the forward hull in sight. They had not dared ride the tram in case the alien took control and shut it down. The other three were racing aft toward the engineering section, to connect with and secure the scientists and engineers there. “Is the alien dead? Maybe that computer worm damaged it more than it admitted.”

“Speculate later,” Jones ordered.

“Copy that,” Rodriguez concentrated on getting through the hatch that was approaching fast. If the hatch was closed and locked against them, they had plasma torches for cutting through, or shaped-charge explosives if they absolutely had no time to screw around. To his great relief, his team ran through the open hatch single-file without any problem. It might be, the thought flashed through his mind, that the Delta team was not needed at all. They had full control of the ship already, and people who were not part of the plan posed no threat to UNEF Command’s ownership of humanity’s only real starship.

The part of the ship they were running through was a wide and tall central passageway with double doors to cargo bays on each side. Up ahead the wide passageway ended in a T where his team would split again, two going left to the computer core while Rodriguez and another would go right and forward to the CIC. With a glance downward, he verified the safety of his Kristang rifle was off, they were equipped with low-velocity rounds to avoid blowing a hole in anything important aboard the ship. That was another problem for Rodriguez to worry about: those rounds had never been tested inside an actual Thuranin starship.

When he looked up again after no more than a half-second, a cargo bay door had opened ahead of him, and an armor-suited figure carrying a rifle stepped out.

“Hello, boys,” Lauren Poole greeted the newbies.

The FBI agent burst out the back door of the Bishop house, waving his arms toward the trailer in the driveway. “He’s gone! Joe Bishop is gone!”

“What do you mean, gone?” The field supervisor asked from the trailer’s open door, feeling an already bad morning going to shit in front of his eyes. “Did you check in the basement?”

“Yes, we’re checking the attic now but-”

“Yeah. Shit! How did he get past the motion detector and laser fencing?” The supervisor asked to himself, fearing he knew the answer to that question. Then he felt a chill up his spine. The agents should have reported from inside the house, not needing to run out the back door and shout. Pressing the transmit button on his walkie-talkie, he called out. “Team, this is Gillis, report in.”

“Sir, comms are down,” the agent shook his own walkie-talkie with disgust, popping open the cover to check the batteries.

The supervisor tossed his useless walkie-talkie on a shelf beside the door and pulled a cellphone out of a pocket. Four bars, that was good, they had installed a new cell tower in the area just to support the security detail. His phone had an app that would have alerted him if the phone lost contact with the cell tower. Bishop must have set up a silent jammer in or near the house, blocking the frequencies used by the walkie-talkies, but that jerk spaceman had not been able to interfere with cell signals. The supervisor only needed to press the first number on speed-dial to contact the local operations manager, he would have a one-mile radius locked down in a few minutes, with a five-mile cordon soon after. That reckless asshole Sergeant Bishop would not get far.

Except that when the supervisor held the phone to his ear, he did not hear the local ops manager. He heard a sultry woman’s voice. “Welcome to Trixie’s erotic chat line, where your fantasies can become reality-”

Red-faced, the supervisor ended the call and pressed the numbers manually for the local ops manager, a number he had practiced calling over and over until it was burned into his memory.

This time, he did not mis-dial a phone sex company. But the result was just as disappointing. Three whistling tones, followed by a familiar female voice soothingly saying “The number you have reached is not in service. If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and dial again.” The supervisor stared at the phone, irritated at himself for pressing the wrong sequence of buttons.

Then he got angry at someone else when the phone message continued. It was a snarky, arrogant voice he knew well from listening to recordings. “Hey, shithead, I said, hang up and try again. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”


CHAPTER FIVE

“Hey Joe,” Skippy’s muffled voice came from inside my jacket.

“Just a minute,” I shouted toward the pocket, trying to finish eating a muffin. Damn it, I had asked Skippy to leave me in peace that morning. In disgust, I tossed the half-eaten muffin into the lake, which prompted a big fish to immediately hit it. Crap, that was my last muffin, I should have saved one to use as bait. With the phone to my ear, I answered the pain-in-the-ass beer can. “What’s up?”

“Well, I- hey. Are you fishing in the rain?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Don’t normal people wait for a nice day to go fishing?”

“It’s peaceful out here, I like it. What is so important?”

“Oh, nothing much, pretty quiet up here. I’m chilling in my new mancave since the duty officer ejected my old escape pod and blew it to dust with a maser cannon. Captain Reed has a gun to her head, Captain Poole is alone against a seven-man Delta Force team that is trying to seize control of the ship. You know, a typical Tuesday.”

Holy-” Shit, it actually was Sunday. “What the f-”

“This will go faster if I just give you a sitrep instead of the usual blah blah buh-lah of you interrupting me with stupid questions.”

“Deal.”

“Great. Ok, the UN Security Council has scheduled a vote this evening on whether to send the Dutchman out to surrender to the Jeraptha. The measure is expected to pass because most governments are scared shitless about Maxolhx warships coming here. I knew about that vote and I was going to tell you, even though you asked me to leave you alone because little Joey wants to catch a fish thiiiiiiis big so his Mommy can cook it and-”

“I need a break, Skippy.”

“Was that you not interrupting me?”

“Was that you giving a sitrep, or you whining about me wanting ten freakin’ minutes to myself for a change?”

“Fine,” he huffed. “Anywho, what I did not know was the five nations of UNEF met in secret this morning and already voted for surrendering to the Jeraptha.”

“How could you not know? You know everything!”

“First, Mister Jackass, they apparently conducted all communications face to face or by writing notes on paper. Can you imagine that? So primitive. But, eh, effective. The site where they held the vote had no electronics at all, nothing I could hack into. Well, not quite, I could have hacked in if I knew about the meeting, or cared about what a bunch of monkeys in suits were doing. Hee hee, monkeys wearing suits, that’s funny. You know what is even more funny? Monkeys wearing tuxedos. While riding bicycles. Ooooh, even better, riding tiny tricycles!”

“Yeah that’s freakin’ hilarious. How do you know about it now?”

“Count Chocula told me. He is being held by the French intelligence service in an underground interrogation cell, also with no electronics. Fortunately, that cell has a single bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and I have been paying close attention to old Hansie.”

“Because you are concerned about him? I didn’t know you cared.”

“Eh, more like because I was hoping he would do something stupid to amuse me, but let’s go with the ‘care and concern’ thing if that makes me look better. To make a long story short, Chotek is clever enough to suspect I could listen to him through that lightbulb. Admittedly, the audio quality is poor, that building is old and the wiring dates back way before World War Two. I kind of amazed myself, really. To listen in to Chocula, I had to create a map of all electrical activity in that building, then calibrate-”

“Can we agree you are amazingly awesome, and skip the part where you brag about yourself? What did Chotek say?”

“Ugh. You say you know the extent of my awesomeness, but when I-”

“Sitrep. Short and to the point.”

“Fine. Jackass,” he muttered under his breath. “Chotek warned me about a plan to seize the Dutchman, they didn’t trust you and the Pirates. They also did not trust me, which is quite-”

“Which is totally understandable. What is the situation upstairs? Damn it, there’s a Delta team taking control of the ship?”

“Poole is handling it. Well, she’s trying to, nothing you can do about it right now. What you need to be concerned about is yourself. The FBI team at your house was ordered to take you into custody about six minutes ago. They stormed into the house and scared the crap out of your mother, she whomped one of them in the face with a cast-iron skillet. Laid him out cold on the kitchen floor. Hee hee, I like your Mom.”

“Crap!” I picked up the paddle, and began digging into the water for shore where I had parked Tom’s old Jeep. “Are my folks Ok?”

“There was a standoff between three feds and your father holding a baseball bat, but when the feds saw you weren’t in the house, they bailed. They called for air support and have sealed off roads around your neighborhood.”

“We live in the woods, Skippy, there is no ‘neighborhood’.”

“You know what I mean. The feds have three helos in the air now, but don’t worry. I’ve got them chasing a ghost along Route 212 near Merrill. You are not the only Pirate in jeopardy, orders have gone out to, ahem, ‘secure’ the entire crew.”

“Shit. It’s lucky that I snuck out to go fishing.”

“True, as you monkeys misunderstand the concept of ‘luck’.”

“Hey,” I stopped paddling as a thought hit me. “The feds are looking for me? Why hasn’t the Army called me and just ordered me to surrender?”

“Um, would you want to know about such a call?”

“Shit. No.”

“Then as far as you know, the authorities have not tried to contact you. You can’t refuse to obey an order you never received, right?”

That was skating on very thin ice, but I wasn’t going to argue about it. “Hypothetically, if the Army did call me, what would the order have been?”

“Well, they wanted you to-”

Hypothetically, Skippy.”

“Oh, yeah, of course. I can tell you that Army leadership does not agree with the decision to contact the Jeraptha. The other services also argued against surrendering, but they are subordinate to civilian authority in your country. In other countries, the militaries generally think contacting the Jeraptha is premature, without knowing when the Maxolhx are expected to be here. And without first making at least some sort of effort to stop those Maxolhx ships. The United States Army is in a particularly bad position, because an Army officer whose name rhymes with ‘Shmoe Dipshit’ got you monkeys into this mess.”

Shmoe Dipshit? That was a good one, even I had to chuckle. “All right. Close enough.” I looked at my zPhone. There were no missed calls, no text messages, no emails. No evidence anyone tried to contact me. My other cellphone, the one provided to me by the feds so they could track me, was under my bed back home.

 “Joe, what matters now is I have a dropship coming to pick you up. You may have to apologize later, we don’t have time to be gentle about this, so I will have the Falcon coming in at Mach Seven and that sonic boom is going to wake up people all over the state. ETA is just over twelve minutes.”

“Ok, Ok. Uh, please contact Tom and tell him where I parked his Jeep, the keys are under the passenger seat.” I am such a dope. Who cares about an old Jeep in such a crisis? “How many other Pirates can you pick up before the authorities get to them?”

“Working on it.”

Lt. Colonel Jennifer Simms was soundly asleep when her regular cellphone blared her awake. It was Skippy, and it was an emergency. The FBI was coming for her, she had seven minutes to decide what to do before the black SUVs rolled up in front of her apartment. Without hesitation, she reached under the bed for her ‘Go’ bag, pulled on the clothes and shoes she wore the previous day, slipped out the sliding glass door, and ran across a field into the wooded area. By the time she reached the elementary school, the low clouds behind her were flashing blue from the FBI’s lights. “Am I Ok, Skippy?”

“Uh huh. I jacked your car and I am driving it like maniac toward the interstate, the FBI just heard about it. Oops, just clipped another car, sorry about your headlight. And the fender.”

That made her slow her pace. “Skippy, I don’t have a self-driving car.”

Duh. That thing handles like a refrigerator on a skateboard. Seriously, what were you thinking when you bought that shitbox? Crap, I just took out someone’s mailbox. That’s a federal offense, right? Ah, maybe I can plea-bargain down to the death penalty.”

“That car was cheap,” she answered defensively. “I have not needed to drive a lot for the last couple years, you know?”

“True. You did crash that truck in Nigeria, so everyone is safer if you are not-”

“Where should I go? What’s the plan?”

“Um, let me think. Stay where you are.”

“Here?” She looked around her in the pre-dawn darkness. “I’m in the middle of an elementary school baseball outfield.”

“Yup. Perfect place to land the Falcon I have dropping down for you, it will be there in five minutes. Lucky for you, I was flight-testing that Falcon after replacing an engine, so it was already over Montana. Texas isn’t that far.”

“Montana to Texas isn’t far?”

“Not at Mach Twenty Five it isn’t. Uh, better cover your ears when it gets there.”

Simms knew better than to argue with the beer can. She used the time to duck into the Porta-potty near the bleachers, and trying to drag her fingers through the tangled mess of her hair. Then she waited, hands over her ears. Until she saw a problem. “Skippy, there is a cellphone tower to the south of the school, and a powerline behind the ball field. Will those be a problem for the Falcon?” Even a Falcon, smaller of the two types of Thuranin dropship, was a big damned thing.

“That powerline is a problem. Taking care of that now, I will need you to press the Big Red Button on your phone to authorize weapons, I still have that annoying restriction in my programming. Oh hey, best not to look in that direction, huh?”

“Oh shit.” She swept to the second set of icons on her phone and there is was, a Big Red Button app that hadn’t been there the previous night. Even facing in the other direction with her eyes closed, she saw the bright explosions as the Falcon’s masers ripped into the base of the powerline towers and they fell, sending searing bright arcs of light. When she turned around to see the incoming dropship firing its nose thrusters to slow down, its belly was illuminated by sparks coming from the downed powerline.

The city behind the dropship was going dark from the power outage.

“Was that really necessary?” She shouted over the whining turbines of the Falcon as it settled down in the outfield, its heavy skids plowing deep into the damp soil. “There’s a high school football field a half mile away, I could have run there!”

“Was it strictly necessary? Shmaybe not. Was it awesome? Abso-lut-ely!”

“Why do men love blowing things up?” Jennifer clutched her ‘Go’ bag with both hands and ran up the Falcon’s ramp, using her knees to brace herself in a jumpseat because the ship was already taking off.

“It’s a dumbass thing,” Skippy admitted, “you wouldn’t understand. Hang on, we have a stop to make before climbing for orbit.”

Skippy was not kidding about the sonic boom. The dropship came straight over the water toward me, spun around so the open back ramp splashed in the shallow water, and I waded out to slog my wet boots up the ramp. If I wasn’t wet before, I was then as the belly jets kicked up a nearly blinding spray of water. When I was halfway up the ramp, there was a long, low rumble that sounded like never-ending thunder. Anyone in the North Woods who decided to sleep in on that rainy Sunday morning would be woken up by that alarming sound.

To save time, I took a jumpseat at the top of the ramp. “Go, Skip-” my order was cut off by the Falcon standing on its tail and leaping up for the sky. Crap, I thought, I hope the jetwash doesn’t knock over Tom’s Jeep. Or worse, knock down a tree to crush it. If a Jeep rolls on its side, you can just push it back onto its wheels.

“Where are we going, Skippy?” I asked as the ship began to level out and punched through the sound barrier. I knew we went supersonic because the sound of the engine exhaust was muted, those sound waves couldn’t catch up to the ship. While we talked, I unstrapped and labored to walk toward the cockpit, holding onto seatbacks along the way.

“To pick up Smythe and hopefully some other Pirates. We have to go suborbital to get to the UK quickly, so hang on. I’m pushing your Falcon hard.”

“Yeah, I can feel that,” I grunted as I rolled into a pilot couch and the straps automatically hugged me tightly. Without a flightsuit, I was feeling naked, and uncomfortable. The flightsuits compensated for the pilot couches having been designed for Thuranin and, even modified, were too small for me. “How many Pirates can we count on?”

“Depressingly few, Joe. Simms is aboard another Falcon, she-”

Simms? She told me she wouldn’t sign up for another mission.”

“That may have been before she was told she couldn’t go. Jennifer is a remarkably stubborn woman, the best way to get her to do something is to tell her she can’t. Um, don’t tell her I said that. Besides, she is pissed off about your government being stupid.”

“Well, hell, I am sure glad to have her with us. Who else?”

“Of the original Merry Band of Pirates who left Paradise, only you and Simms. Giraud is being held by French authorities, the French have proven to be quite efficient at securing the entire team, we won’t get anyone from them. Desai is aboard a military aircraft over the Indian Ocean, we have no way to get to her. Chang is at a Chinese military base and we would be risking a firefight to get him, I have not been able to contact him at all. Adams is surrounded by Marines at Quantico, I am doing what I can to contact her, but she is on lockdown. Basically, Joe, the best we can hope for is maybe a half dozen people off the surface. Everyone else has been secured. This operation, the groundside part of it, was well-planned.”

I briefly considered contacting special ops people who had not been aboard the Dutchman, but might be willing to sign up now. No, that was a stupid idea that I discarded immediately. Not only would I not know the new people, I would be asking them to violate a direct order and throw their careers away on a snap decision. What worried me was, some new people might go aboard to infiltrate the crew and take over the ship. That was not practical, I could not imagine myself randomly calling a Ranger or SEAL unit and asking if anyone there felt like committing mutiny that day? “Ok, we’ll make this up as we go.”

“Standard Operating Procedure, you mean?”

“Yeah, damn it. Could we count on anyone aboard the ship, other than Poole and Reed?”

“The two CIC officers up here who blew up my escape pod are off the list, Joe, I don’t care if they have a change of heart.”

“Agreed.” To be entrusted with responsibility for taking Skippy out of the fight, those two officers must be hard-core committed to the operation. “No one else?”

“A few people here and there. Joe, the problem is the UNEF nations were prepared for this. We should have acted before the governments assigned security teams to watch all the Pirates.”

“Back then, we didn’t need to act. Hey, wait,” I remembered a news report I saw a couple days ago. “The Chinese and French dropships are really down for maintenance? That wasn’t a fake news report to make us think they only have two birds available?”

“The report was accurate, Joe. I even reviewed their maintenance plan for them last week. Earth governments control only four Dragons and their supply of replacement parts is thin to the point of becoming dangerous.”

“Ok, then the other Dragon controlled by the US is up at the Yu Qishan?”

“Near the Qishan, yes, it is conducting a training exercise now. The purpose of that flight is to bring technicians up to the Qishan to work on getting the reactor restarted, I am helping them with that.”

“Training, huh? Who is aboard that Dragon?” A roster popped up on the console in front of me. “Uh, that’s quite an international crew for an American dropship.”

“An American crew flew the Dragon up to the Qishan, now an international team is using it for training. The stated purpose of the current flight is to simulate a boarding operation.”

“Yeah, that makes sense. Can you fake orders to get that Dragon over to the Dutchman, and block any real orders coming from Earth, or from the Qishan?”

“Doing that now, aaaand, done. I have control of the Dragon’s comm system, they will only hear messages I send. Transmitting orders now. Joe, I have a question; you intend to bring those people aboard the Dutchman under false pretenses? Is that not considered dishonorable?”

“Once they are aboard the ship, we can tell them the truth and they can decide whether to sign on. We need people, Skippy. I need to give Smythe options for assembling a team.”

“We do need soldiers, Joe. Doing the best I can. Starting descent now,” he said as I felt the nose drop slightly. Although I was in the cockpit and strapped into the pilot seat, I did not take over the controls, as I didn’t have good situational awareness yet and had to trust Skippy to fly me to wherever he planned to pick up Smythe.

Crap. If Smythe could make the rendezvous. “Does Smythe have a security team with him?”

“Not anymore. It’s a long story, Joe. Shut up and hang on.”

When the call from Skippy made his zPhone buzz, Lt. Colonel Jeremy Ewan Smythe was up to his chest in icy-cold water, fording a stream in the rugged Scottish Highlands. He was not plunging himself into frigid water as part of an assigned and therefore mandatory military exercise, he had volunteered for an adventure race because of course that is what Jeremey Smythe liked to do during his leisure time. He also enjoyed scuba diving, sky diving, hang gliding and plenty of other activities Joe Bishop would describe as falling into the category of ‘crazy shit’. The current activity was a hundred-kilometer foot race for teams of four, over trails and barely-visible tracks that could not truly be described as trails. Part of the race required sticking to the defined trail, other sections allowed teams to strike out away from the trail to cut straight across the countryside if they thought they could save time. To make matters more complicated, the teams had to contact checkpoints along the way, and the only navigation gear they could bring was a compass and a map provided by the race organizers. Because the map was handed out less than ten minutes before the race started, the teams did not have much time to identify the required checkpoints and plan a route before the starting gun fired. To make the experience even more jolly, there was a chilly rainstorm blowing in from the Faroe Islands and visibility at times was less than a quarter mile.

Jeremy Smythe was exhausted and hungry, his soaked shirt was chafing his neck and he had tweaked an ankle stumbling on a hidden rock while fording a stream. He had not been so happy since he left the surface of Gingerbread.

The phone kept buzzing as he slogged through the water and onto the muddy bank, last of the four-man team. Technically, the four-person team included one woman, who jogged slowly with a look of mild annoyance as she waited for her three male companions to catch up.

“One moment,” Smythe gasped, hearing his waterlogged shoes squish on the muddy trail. He kept running while he extracted the zPhone from a pouch on the side of his water pack.

“You brought a phone?” His teammate Katie Frey wagged a finger accusingly. “That’s against the rules! You’ll get us DQ’ed.” She was not alone in looking at Smythe with dismay, none of the team wanted to risk being disqualified after running for four grueling hours in bad weather. Besides, they were in third place!

“This is a special phone,” he waved the credit-card-thin alien device that Skippy had somehow smuggled to him. “It must be an emergency,” Smythe lied, for he feared a certain dodgy beer can may have simply become bored and wanted someone to talk to. If Skippy wanted to sing showtunes, Smythe planned to tuck the phone under a rock and keep going. “Hello?”

“That is what you do for fun?”

Smythe gritted his teeth. “I’m busy,” was about to fling the alien phone away when a shout stopped him.

“Sorry! We have a major problem.”

That made Smythe slow down, waving for his teammates to continue. Instead, they also slowed to keep pace slightly ahead of him. “What?”

“The UN has decided to surrender to the Jeraptha before the Maxolhx get here, in the hope that the Rindhalu coalition will protect Earth.”

Bollocks!” Smythe stopped running, stunned. “We’ll be caught in the bloody crossfire.”

“Exactly. What matters to you right now is UNEF Command is trying to seize the Flying Dutchman, so Joe is pulling together whoever he can to take the ship out ASAP, and kill those two Maxolhx ships before they reach Earth.”

Bloody hell.” The shocked look on Smythe’s face made his companions halt on the trail, and he held up a finger for silence.

“Bloody hell indeed. A Delta Force team is aboard the ship and Captain Poole is attempting to deal with those cheeky buggers. Joe needs to know, are you in? There is a dropship on the way to pick you up. It is only fair to warn you the crew roster will be very thin, most of the Pirates are on lock-down. The RAF has a pair of helicopters coming to take you into custody. Don’t worry! I scrambled their avionics gear, they will have to land soon, well away from you. So, Colonel Smythe, are you in?”

“You are damned right I’m in,” Smythe declared.

“You’re sure? Joe mumbled some blah blah blah about disobeying orders or other meaningless shit like that.”

“I have not received any orders,” he insisted, lowering his voice to avoid being overheard.

It didn’t work.

One of the team was a fellow member of 22 Special Air Services Regiment, a man named Jason Nunnally who Smythe had never served with, but who had been eager to join the race team on short notice. On hearing the team leader say the word ‘orders’, Nunnally acted instantly.

Jason Nunnally was fast. Katie Frey was faster. If the man had been casual about unzipping his waist-pack and reaching in, she might have assumed he was getting an energy bar to eat. Instead, he made an abrupt motion that set off alarms in her brain and she reacted without waiting for her decision-making capability to catch up. Trusting her instincts in hazardous situations was an ingrained habit from her training. As Nunnally pulled out the pistol and lifted it to point at Smythe, she chopped his weapon-holding arm aside with a blow to the elbow, while her other hand delivered a vicious kidney punch and slammed into the man from behind for both of them to sprawl in the mud. Nunnally grunted from pain and rolled to one side to throw her off. A kidney punch would disable most men, even a tough SAS soldier was not fully capable after such a painful injury. The two wrestled, rolling over in the sodden grass and heath, until Nunnally got a hand free and around her throat.

He froze when he felt the cold steel of his own pistol pressed hard against his temple. “You want to think twice about that,” Smythe advised in a calm manner. Seeing the futility of resisting, Nunnally slumped to the ground, his teeth grinding as waves of pain radiated from his lower back.

“Colonel,” Frey rose warily to her feet, not taking time or energy to wipe the clumps of matted grass and mud from her face. “What the hell is going on, if you don’t mind?”

“I’m sorry,” Nunnally rocked back and forth on the ground, the pain now overwhelming.

I’m sorry,” Frey retorted. “You’ll be peeing blood for a week.”

“Orders,” Nunnally ignored her, focusing his attention on Smythe. “It was orders, y’ understand? Colonel,” he grimaced. “What the bloody hell is going on? My orders didn’t explain why the Army wants you detained.”

“I understand,” Smythe dropped beside the injured man, holding the spout of his water pack to the man’s lips. “Drink this, Nunnally. Staff Sergeant Grudzien, Lieutenant Frey,” he looked up to his team mates. “The United Nations has decided to surrender us to the Jeraptha.”

“The Jeraptha?” Frey asked, astonished. “Patrons of the Ruhar? They’re our enemy.”

Smythe shook his head. “Everyone up there is our enemy, but the real enemy at the moment are the Kristang and Thuranin.”

“You came here aboard a Thuranin ship,” Frey took a half-step backward. Had she made a mistake by not picking up the pistol?

“A Thuranin ship that we captured, then we killed the entire crew. Lieutenant, the truth is a bloody long tale, don’t believe UNEF’s cover story. Surely you have heard rumors?”

Silently, she nodded, and Grudzien joined her. They had both heard rumors, and the official story from UNEF Command had not made much sense.

Smythe stood up and discarded his water pack, dropping it gently onto Nunnally’s chest. “I don’t have much time,” he looked to the gray sky. How close was the dropship? In the gusty wind, he would likely not hear it approach until it was within a couple kilometers. “UNEF Command is attempting to seize control of the Flying Dutchman, and Colonel Bishop plans to take the ship out to-”

“Excuse me, Sir,” Justin Grudzien waved a hand, speaking carefully to be understood in his Polish accent. “Colonel Bishop? The only Bishop I know in your crew is a sergeant.”

“Bishop got a field promotion direct to colonel while he was on Paradise. I know,” he nodded at three shocked faces. “New war, new reality, new rules,” he explained. “Bishop is captain of the ship, he was in command of the raid back when they captured the ship from the Thuranin. Don’t let his youth and media image fool you, he is a bloody brilliant commander. The best I have ever served with. There are a pair of Maxolhx warships coming to Earth- I know this is a lot to process. Bishop is taking the ship out stop the Maxolhx, and I’m joining him. Apparently,” he looked with pity at Nunnally, “someone has a different idea what we should be doing.”

“My orders,” Nunnally grunted in pain, “were only to hold you until the RAF arrives. They didn’t tell me why. I might have told them to go to hell if they’d told me the truth.”

“The Royal Air Force will not be joining us as scheduled,” Smythe allowed a smile to flash across his face. “A dropship,” he pointed to the low clouds, “is on its way to bring me to the Dutchman. Then we are going out to kick in the teeth of the Maxolhx.”

“What about us?” Grudzien asked, cocking his head to listen for approaching airspace craft.

“Your best option would be to stay here with Nunnally, I’ll call in your position once I’m in orbit. The RAF can pick you up.”

“What are our other options?” Frey scrapped mud away from her face and ran fingers through her matted ponytail.

“You?” Smythe shrugged. “You have no other options,” his hand tensed around the pistol he held, muzzle pointed at the ground away from his feet. He had carefully judged the distance between himself, Frey and Grudzien, they were far enough away for him to be safe. For their safety, too, they both knew they had no chance to try anything rash.

“What if we want to join you?” Frey glanced at Grudzien.

“Er,” Justin Grudzien held up his hands. “My wife just had a baby four months ago. I can’t deploy now, not offworld.”

“I’m not married,” Katie stated, for the first time grateful her last relationship had broken up three months prior. “Can I go with you?”

Smythe suppressed a groan. Too many people in the special operations community around the globe wanted to join the Merry Band of Pirates, without full and careful consideration for the sacrifices involved. The last thing the ship needed was a star-struck amateur. Except Katie Frey was not an amateur. She was a lieutenant with the Canadian Joint Task Force 2, in Britain for joint training exercises with the SAS. Smythe had not intended to create an international team for the race, it had worked that way when he contacted people to assemble a team. Sergeant Justin Grudzien served with the Polish Army Grupa Reagowania Operacyjno-Manewrowego or ‘GROM’ anti-terrorist unit, also in Britain as part of the joint training exercise. When the exercises had ended three day ago, Frey and Grudzien had been the first to agree enthusiastically when Smythe proposed to put together a team for the adventure race. “Lieutenant, Staff Sergeant, think carefully,” he thought his ears detected the whine of a dropship’s turbines. “This would be certain suicide for your careers. You need to-”

“What if you fail up there?” Katie pointed to the sky. No one had ever accused her of being shy. “If those Maxolhx ships get here?”

“Everyone on Earth dies,” Smythe explained. “Maybe a few lucky ones will become slaves for a while.”

“Is surrendering to the Jeraptha any better?”

“No,” Smythe shook his head emphatically. “It is not.”

Grudzien shot Frey a warning glance, fearing she was caught up in the moment. “Colonel, then why is UNEF planning to contact these Jeraptha?”

“Because the bloody politicians have their heads up their arses,” Smythe spat. “They haven’t been out there. We have no allies in the galaxy, and the Jeraptha won’t help us. Even if they wanted to, they can’t. The war up there is too big and been going on for too long. No one is going to risk their own security to help our little planet.”

“I am going with you,” Frey looked up rather than at Smythe. They all heard an aircraft approaching, and it was not a helicopter. “Before you ask, yes, I am sure. I have only one question, Colonel Smythe.”

Smythe knew when not to argue, he also knew he was lucky to be bringing someone up to the Dutchman with him. “What is that?”

She looked down at her mud-smeared clothing and shoes. “Will there be a change of clothes aboard the Flying Dutchman?”

Smythe opened his mouth to reply with typically dry humor, then hesitated. “I actually do not know how the ship is provisioned,” he admitted. “Colonel Bishop will see to that, I am certain. The ship also has fabrication facilities,” he added hopefully, with more hope than certainty. Before the ship returned to Earth, Skippy had warned the fabricators were one of many systems that were wearing out due to lack of replacement parts.

Nunnally grimaced, pushing himself painfully to his feet. “Colonel Smythe, if you’ll have me, I would like to go with you.”

Smythe was astonished and uncharacteristically spoke before thinking. “Are you daft, man?”

“I did not know what is at stake, Sir,” Nunnally explained. “If you mission up there fails, everyone on Earth dies, you are sure of that?”

“Dead certain.”

“I have a wife and two children,” Nunnally’s eyes flicked to Grudzien briefly. “I want them to live, it is simple as that.”

Holding the pistol with his left hand and pointing it safely at the ground but ready for trouble, Smythe held out his right hand, and Nunnally shook it briefly. “I could use a good SAS man up there,” Smythe admitted.

“No hard feelings, Sir?”

“Nunnally, aboard the Flying Dutchman we will be in a desperate fight for the survival of humanity, there will be no room or time for feelings.”

Despite the pain radiating from his bruised kidneys, Nunnally smiled. “Bloody good, Colonel. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Oh, hell,” Staff Sergeant Grudzien groaned. “This is life or death, for everyone?”

“More than you can imagine,” Smythe nodded once, slowly.

Grudzien looked up to where the high-pitched whine of turbines was coming out of the thick clouds. He had a duty to his wife and child at home, he also had a duty to keep them alive and safe, and he couldn’t do that dirtside while others went to the stars to fight. Holding out a hand, he asked “Can I borrow that special phone you have, Colonel? This is going to take a bit of explaining. My wife expects me back home in three days.”

Skippy had contacted as many former Pirates as he could, most of them were already in what the authorities called ‘protective custody’ and were not able to help. Others were hesitant to participate in what they viewed as a mutiny. One former Pirate told Skippy he thought the world’s governments may be right, that Earth could not continuing trying to fight the entire galaxy with a single broken-down starship. “I’m sorry,” the man reluctantly told the beer can. “We did great things out there, I’m proud of my service with the Pirates, but what we did ultimately attracted the attention of the Maxolhx.”

The only American former Pirate he could contact, who was willing and able to deploy immediately, was one Navy pilot on a deep-sea fishing trip off the coast of Mobile Alabama. Commander Jim Porter had been about to crack open his first beer of the morning when Skippy called him, and the appearance of a Thuranin dropship was the highlight of the day for the charter boat’s customers and crew. One of his fishing companions was an Air Force pilot who had come along partly to hear war stories from Porter. “Sir,” Lieutenant Alan Edwards said with one eye on Porter and one on the dropship descending vertically over the fishing boat that was rocking side to side from the force of the dropship’s belly jets. “I want to go with you!”

Porter turned, startled, and leaned toward the young pilot, cupping a hand over one ear. With the Falcon in hover and lowering a self-guiding cable, it was hard to hear over the whoosh of the turbines, the spray kicked up, and the fishing boat’s diesels as the charter captain tried to keep his boat steady. “What?”

“Commander, I, want to, come with, you!” Edwards emphasized his shouted words by pointing to himself, then the Merry Pirate, then gesturing toward the hovering Falcon.

“Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” Porter shouted back, looking up to watch the cable as it steered toward him.

“No Sir!” Edwards replied, holding out a hand to steady Porter’s shoulder as the boat rocked. “Neither do you!”

Porter glanced away from the cable for a second. When Skippy had called on a regular cellphone, he told Porter the Flying Dutchman would likely be going out with a skeleton crew, barely enough to operate the ship. Another pilot would undoubtedly be useful. “Edwards, you have the right attitude! Grab this cable!”

The end of the cable blossomed as Edwards grasped it, the nanofibers reforming to wrap around his torso, both legs and under his arms. Before he could think twice or give a thumbs up that he was ready, Edwards was lifted off the deck of the boat, the cable yanking him sideways to avoid crashing into the boat’s cabin. As he tried to relax and not instinctively fight that super-high-tech alien cable that was pulling him up toward a woman leaning out of the dropship’s ramp, Edwards felt a thrill of excitement, and at least a tiny bit of self-doubt. “I sure hope to hell I know what I’m doing,” he muttered to himself and closed his eyes for a moment.

With Edwards and Porter aboard, the Falcon’s ramp closed and the craft began climbing, gently at first then standing on its tail while the three passengers strapped in as best they could, unable to reach the cockpit. Simms leaned toward Porter to whisper. “Picking up strays, Commander?” She pointed to Edwards with a thumb.

Porter shrugged. “Skippy told me we are thin on personnel, and he’s a pilot. If he doesn’t work out, we can send him back down.”

“I don’t know about that,” Simms bit her lip, wishing Porter had cleared his action with her, before offering to bring a new and unknown person aboard. It was too late to land the Falcon now, they were soaring over the Gulf of Mexico and- “Wait!” Simms slapped a hand on the armrest. “Skippy, we have one more stop.”

“You are kidding me, right?” The beer can gasped.

“No, I am not. We need to land,” she fiddled with the map function of her phone. Even modified by Skippy, the brand-new phone was painfully slow compared to a zPhone. She looked for a target close to the Falcon’s projected flightpath up to rendezvous with the Flying Dutchman. At that point, the starship was over the other side of the planet, so it might have been faster to fly over Australia then reverse course.

“Land again? I told you, there isn’t anyone else we can pick up,” Skippy protested. “Not without a violent confrontation. We must proceed to the Flying Dutchman immed-”

“No. Here. Land here,” Simms jabbed a finger at the map on her phone.

“Colonel Simms,” the beer can complained, “we are taking a risk by landing again.”

“You think the FBI is waiting for us at a Publix supermarket in Florida?”

“Ah, sarcasm. No, I doubt that-”

“Then do it.”

“Ok, fine. Do you want to hit the drive-through for a McFlurry too? Maybe land in front of a drug store so you can stock up on cute nail polish?”

“Skippy,” Simms gritted her teeth as the Falcon heeled over in a tight turn. “If I’m going to be stuck out there for years with a beer can and a ship full of monkeys, cute nail polish is a must-have. Don’t argue with me.”

The AI did not speak until the Falcon flared for landing. “Make it quick, please. Your Air Force vectored a pair of F-35s toward us, they will be in weapons range in less than ten minutes.”

“I’ll be back in four minutes,” Simms swallowed hard to control her queasy stomach and unstrapped, shielding her eyes from dust swirling in the open ramp, kicked up by the belly jets.

Porter rose from his seat. “I’ll go with you,” he offered, but Simms shook her head, waving him back as she sprinted down to ramp.

“What the hell is she doing?” Edwards asked, unstrapping from his seat and walking back to stand at the top of the ramp, watching the woman run and stumble across what appeared to be a construction site next to the shopping center. The ground had been cleared of trees and scraped mostly flat, piles of sand and puddles of wet mud the color of black coffee dotted the land like landmines. She weaved around the mud, slipping and Simms nearly fell, windmilling her arms. Then she was in the parking lot and dodging cars that had screeched to a halt, their drivers astonished at the sight of the big alien dropship plopped down in a muddy suburban field. Two cars had collided head-on, their drivers still sitting behind the wheel, transfixed by the sight of the sleek airspace craft, its skids sunk halfway into the rain-drenched ground, steam rising from under its belly jets and twin turbines.

“She is the logistics officer,” Porter speculated, “maybe there is some vital item we need.”

“A vital item that’s available at a Publix?” Edwards shook his head in alarm as Porter opened a locker, pulling out a Kristang rifle. “Sir, what are you doing with that?”

“In case some law-abiding citizen decides to perform his civic duty by getting in our way. This can discourage any idiots,” Porter explained, flipping off the safety and deselecting the explosive tips. All he wanted to do was get people’s attention, if needed.

It was not needed. Less than a minute after entering the building, Simms came racing out, carrying a cardboard box and tossing a handful of dollar bills on the sidewalk as she ran. When she got close to the ramp, Edwards looked quizzically at Porter, holding his hands palms up in a ‘what the hell?’ gesture, but the Navy pilot only shook his head with a sheepish grin.

Simms pounded up the ramp and the sleek machine was already lifting off as the three secured themselves in the seats. She struggled to tug a seatbelt strap around the cardboard box.

“Ma’am,” Porter shouted over the screaming belly jets as the ramp was still closing. “What did you get?”

Simms did not answer with words. With a wink and grin, she opened the box and pulled out a plastic jar of marshmallow Fluff, real Fluff. Flipping the lid aside showed the box was full of jars, their red plastic lids lined up.

“You are kidding me,” Porter’s face fell.

Simms shook her head, and she was no longer smiling. “The last time we left Earth, I brought a case of generic marshmallow cream aboard, and Colonel Bishop wanted to perform an exorcism against it. I had to toss the whole case out an airlock, it’s still floating in orbit for all I know. I am not making that mistake again this time.”

“Colonel Simms, shame on you,” Skippy’s voice broke in. “I’m having to climb your Falcon straight up to avoid those F-35, and you brought a box of processed sugar?”

“A box of pure deliciousness, according to our fearless leader.”

“That was still a foolish risk,” the AI admonished.

“Really?” She arched an eyebrow. “We may be gone a very long time, trying to defeat the most powerful enemy in the galaxy. Do you want Colonel Bishop to be happy, or cranky?”

“Um, good point. I guess that was excellent judgment. Hang on, everyone, those F-35s just launched missiles at us. I’ve engaged stealth but I don’t want to enable point-defense masers to avoid collateral damage below us, so I’m going to a full-power climb.”


CHAPTER SIX

“Seven against one,” Rodriguez advised whoever was blocking their way. It was not a good situation. The figure standing in the passageway was wearing the same type of Kristang powered armor, and most likely was more familiar with the alien equipment. While the Delta team could select armor-piercing explosive-tipped rounds from their rifle magazines, they were under strict orders not to risk damaging the irreplaceable starship. Even a ricochet could destroy a vital piece of equipment that had no spare.

What truly bothered Rodriguez was not knowing his opponent. The duty officer had assured him no one aboard the ship would or could oppose his team, so who was the armor-suited person blocking his path to the CIC?! “Put down your weapon. Under orders from the-”

“Sorry, couldn’t hear you,” the figure shook its head. “You are intruders aboard our ship. You put down your weapons.”

Our ship, the figure said, a slip Rodriguez picked up on immediately. His opponent felt the ship belonged to them, and the voice was female. Unless the Merry Band of Pirates had snuck someone aboard, he must be facing United States Army Ranger Captain Lauren Poole. “Captain Poole, step aside. My team will kill you if necessary, but we are taking control of this ship.” Softening his voice, he tried another tactic. “It is four of us against one of you, and I have three more men in the aft section. You don’t stand a chance and you know it.”

Lauren Poole rarely had the opportunity to enjoy herself while in action, especially as much of the action she had seen had required her to babysit Colonel Bishop on away missions. Action meant combat and that meant chaos and danger and death and there was nothing enjoyable about that. The frantic high-speed nature of modern combat also meant she would not have the time to reflect on whether she was enjoying herself, until the fighting was over.

Thus, she was determined to enjoy the hell out of this particular moment. “Really?” She said in the tone women use when a guy says something egregiously stupid. “You may want to check your math on that.”

Rodriguez opened his mouth to order his team to engage, when his suit suddenly lost power. All power. His visor went dark, then faded to clear, providing an unenhanced view in front of him. The soldier to his left slumped forward, trying to stop his fall but unable to move quickly enough without the suit’s nanomotors assisting him. While in use, a Kristang suit felt light as a feather. Without power to its tiny motors, it was heavy and awkward, stiff and unyielding. The soldier fell forward stiffly to crash onto his face, bouncing off the deck and bumping into Rodriguez, who nearly fell also. “Team!” He shouted before remembering no one could hear him. With the suit’s arm resisting him, he reached up with one hand to open his visor. They had procedures for suit power loss, although the subtext of those procedures were of the ‘kiss your ass goodbye’ nature. “Team!” He called out, and centered his rifle on the target.

His next word died away as two menacing combots stomped out from doors on either side of Poole. They formed up to almost block his view of the armor-suited Ranger, and he heard and felt the deck shake behind him. More of the powerful Thuranin machines were blocking his only option for retreat.

The two in front had their large cannons pointed at his chest. As he swayed slightly in the heavy armor, the cannon muzzles moved to track him.

“Those cannons will cause severe damage to the ship,” Rodriguez warned.

“Ah, it’s happened before, and we rebuilt it,” Poole dismissed the issue. “Can you rebuild yourself or your team?”

Rodriguez was at a loss for what to do. His orders had not included a scenario in which he faced overwhelming firepower. “I am not authorized to surrender.”

Poole shook her head in disbelief. The Delta Force drew its members largely from the 75th Rangers, from her unit. She did not know Rodriguez, but she might know some of the men with him. “Are you authorized to die for nothing, you dumb shit? Those are your only two options.”

“Captain, please, my superiors-”

“Your superiors are not up here, are they? Hell no. Listen, whoever you are,” she could have asked Skippy to identify the intruders, but she simply did not care. Taking a risk, she opened her faceplate and stepped forward, standing on her toes so she could be seen by the opposing team, including the two who had fallen and were lying on their sides. “Either you drop your weapons and live to fight another day, or, you become a temporary dark stain on a bulkhead. I know what I would choose. Especially if I were responsible for six other lives.”

“Captain,” Rodriguez looked right then left, being careful not to let the movements overbalance his heavy suit, “it has become clear that one of us needs to surrender.”

The duty officer in the CIC was growing impatient with the glacial pace of the Delta team. She talked with them, she could monitor their progress on location sensors, she could even watch every step they took. Along their way forward, the Deltas confronted and secured Captain Poole, disarming that woman and providing great relief to the CIC crew. Poole was popular with the crew, even with those few people secretly tasked with taking over the ship. The duty officer would have regretted any harm coming to Poole, a steadfast Ranger who was only doing her duty to the best of her ability.

It was irritating how slowly, carefully and methodically the Delta team was making their way forward. The team leader insisted his tactics were sound, with the alien dead or disabled, the only dangers that could be aboard the ship were ones the CIC crew could not identify. Accordingly, there was a delay while the Deltas cleared the ship compartment by compartment, working their way forward from the rear cargo bays of the forward section. That cold logic made sense and it was annoying, perhaps the duty officer should not have told the assault team leader that the ship was already under control.

Thus it was with relief that she heard the distinctive hard clomping sounds of Kristang powered armor boots on the deck, as she saw on the main display the Delta team coming up the final passageway toward the CIC.

And, thus it was with utter shock that she saw Captain Poole, her suit faceplate set to clear, walk into the CIC with a hulking combot right behind her. “How come I wasn’t invited to this par-tay? This place looks dead, let’s liven it up a little,” and she shot the duty officer and three others with stun bolts before they could protest.

“Lauren?” Sami struggled to her feet from where she had been sitting on the deck, her back to a bulkhead. With her wrists cuffed behind her back, it was awkward pushing herself upright.

“Sorry, Sami,” Poole kept her faceplate closed in case of trouble. “If you’ll turn around,” she gestured with one hand.

Sami turned her back to Poole, and felt the suit’s powerful gloves grip the handcuffs, then snap them easily. “Ah!” When the cuffs broke, the metal bashed against her wrists. “I’m fine,” she rubbed her wrists then stooped to pick up the small pistol somehow snuck aboard by the duty officer, who was now slumped unconscious on the deck. “What the hell is going on?”

“It’s complicated. What you need to know first is, Skippy is alive and well.”

“Large and in charge?” Sami asked hopefully. She had feared the maser blast might have sent the beer can into another coma-like ‘holiday’.

“Never better!” Skippy’s voice boomed out of the speakers.

“The Delta Force team is disarmed and locked in a cargo bay, they can’t do us any harm,” Poole kept her rifle pointed safely at the deck, but in the general direction of the four CIC crew who had backed away from their consoles to avoid a painful stun bolt. “Colonel Bishop is on his way up in a dropship, along with some others.”

“Outstanding,” Reed looked around the CIC, where the crew who were not unconscious were holding up their hands while fearfully watching every move by the armor-suited Poole. “In that case,” she nudged the former duty officer with a foot to make sure the woman was truly down for the count. “Lauren, maybe we better police this mess before the Colonel arrives.”

The prospect of facing people I did not know, people who were not Pirates accustomed to how our missions typically operated, had me questioning myself. Did I have a right to essentially steal humanity’s only starship, and take it on a mission that the majority of the world’s governments had deemed foolish, even dangerous and counter-productive?

“What’s wrong, Sir?” Simms cocked her head at me.

We were in the CIC, getting the equipment set up for departure, while Reed and Porter were handling pilot duties. Smythe had brought three new people with him, one of them was in sickbay being treated for a bruised kidney. After the guy saw the scary medical bots controlled by Doctor Skippy, he may have had second thoughts about leaving Earth. The Dragon dropship from the Yu Qishan had just docked and I was preparing for appeal to that crew, and the Delta team that had tried to capture the ship, to join us as renegades. The bullshit speech I gave on Paradise, to pull together the original Merry Band of Pirates, might have been easier. “Simms,” I sighed, “what the hell am I doing?”

“Putting together a crew and giving humanity our best shot at survival?”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. We are all risking our careers, and maybe a long sentence in prison even if we are successful out there. This is treason, you know that, right? Not just technically treason, this is the real deal. We are renegades now, outlaws. Skippy has blocked orders from reaching our ears but we know the truth; the Army down there is demanding that we hand over control of the ship.”

If they are,” she shot me a disparaging look, “they’re doing it because the government is telling them what to say, not because they think surrendering to aliens is a good idea. Sir.”

“It’s not that easy. We-”

“Adams isn’t here,” Simms observed. “This sounds like the kind of pep talk she would give. Would it help if I told you what I think she would say?”

“Uh,” I was missing our Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant already. “Yeah, actually.”

“Fine. Then, excuse me, Sir, but that’s bullshit. It is that easy. If we stop now, turn the Dutchman over to the UN or whoever, and they take her out to reveal the truth to the Jeraptha, what will happen to Earth?” I didn’t have to answer because she did it for me. “Both sides of the war will come here to fight over our home world. Even if we get lucky and the Rindhalu are too lazy to act, the Thuranin and Kristang are pissed off at us enough to turn Earth into radioactive slag. The best scenario is they ravage our planet and a small group of humans survive as slaves. You know that. You know that for damned certain, yet you are still questioning whether to turn this ship over to a bunch of frightened dirtsiders? They haven’t been out there,” she gestured to the star map on the main CIC display.

“I wish I shared your clarity.”

“Clear-thinking is easy, because the issue is simple. Let me break it down for you Barney style,” a ghost of a smile crossed her lips when she said that. “There are only four options, unless I’m missing something.” She ticked the numbers off on one hand. “One, we allow the UN to take the ship out and contact the Jeraptha. Two, we hold the ship here and hope the world’s governments come to their senses, which means we lose time we may need to stop the Maxolhx. Three, we do nothing and let the Maxolhx come here. And four,” she waved her index finger for emphasis. “Four, we take the ship out and give our species a fighting chance.”

“Simms, I don’t have a plan. I have no idea if we can do this.”

“Do you see a fifth option?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Skippy,” she automatically looked toward the speaker in the ceiling. “How about you?”

“To me, Options One and Three are the same, either way you monkeys are toast. Option Two sounds like a gutless way to pass the buck. To answer your question, no, I do not see any other options.”

“Option Four is the only possibility in which humanity has a chance to survive,” her face lost its stern glare, and suddenly Simms was just another frightened person, pleading for me to do something, anything.

“I can’t argue with that. Ah, even if we fail, and the Maxolhx discover we tried to blow up two of their ships, it actually won’t be any worse for us.”

“True,” Skippy interjected. “There really is no downside for you monkeys.”

When he was trying to be serious, I wish Skippy would not refer to my people as ‘monkeys’. “Can you-”

“Of course, I also thought there would be no downside to giving the Jeraptha a heads-up when the Thuranin planned a sneak attack, and that totally backfired on us big time. So maybe I’m not the best person to ask.”

Simms and I shared a look and shook our heads. “Skippy,” I explained, “sometimes full disclosure is not necessary.”

“Oh. Isn’t honesty always the best policy, or some bullshit like that?”

“There’s a difference between deliberately lying, and just not mentioning unpleasant facts. I already know not to trust everything you tell me.”

“That hurts, Joe. Not as much as blindly trusting me might hurt you, but it hurts anyway.”

“Simms,” I turned my attention back to her before Skippy got me off on a tangent. “I agree it looks like trying to stop those Maxolhx ships is our only viable option. That’s the problem.”

“That we only have one option?”

“No. That it’s our only option, in my judgment. Christ, Simms, I am one person. Do I have the right to make that decision for all the people of Earth?”

“If their idiotic short-sighted judgment is suicide for our species, then yes you have to make that call for them.”

She did not have me entirely convinced. No one at my age should have to make life-or-death decisions for an entire world. No one person, no matter their age or experience, should have to make that call. “Maybe if our society is that short-sighted, we don’t deserve to survive,” I muttered half to myself.

Philosophy, Sir?”

“It wasn’t phil-”

“It sure sounded like philosophy.” Her hands were on her hips and I knew I was in big trouble. “The United States Army does not allow excuses. I’m not sure their view on battlefield philosophers, but I’m betting they are not encouraged.”

“Goddam it, Simms, I’m a soldier.”

“You’re a commander, sir. We need more decisiveness and less mamby-pamby whining,” Simms channeled her inner Margaret Adams.

“There is an entire planet full of people down there who-”

“Screw them.”

“Uh, what?”

“Screw ‘em,” she shrugged. “You don’t know those people, so don’t make decisions for them. Make a decision for your family. For my family.”

“For our families. Ok. Got it. Simms, get the ship booted up for a short jump. I have a crew to bamboozle into a truly idiotic scheme. Wish me luck.”

“You won’t have a problem with that, Sir,” she assured me with a grin, but I noticed there was a catch in her voice. Was she just anxious about our upcoming mission, or was she doubting me as much as I doubted myself?

“I won’t?”

“No, Sir,” she winked. “You persuaded me to follow you on Paradise, way back when you were a publicity-stunt colonel whose biggest accomplishment was planting potatoes.”

“Great,” I muttered. “No pressure on me.”

Before I tried to get people to commit mutiny with me, I needed to talk with the beer can. “Hey, Skippy, is the ship squared away now? We are screwed if there was any sabotage and we need equipment from Earth to fix it.”

“Kinda busy right now, Joe, no time to talk. What you need to know is the ship is Okey-dokey, I think. I have bots checking everything from nose to tail, while Nagatha integrates into-”

“Wait! Nagatha? She’s back?” Damn, that was the best news I had heard since we returned to Earth.

“She is not fully operational yet, dumdum, that’s why I said she is still integrating into shipboard systems. Nagatha will be the ship’s AI and primary control system, unless you distract me with stupid questions and I screw up her startup sequence.”

“Got it. Keep me updated on her progress.”

There were three groups of people aboard the Flying Dutchman. A small group of people I could not trust, including the three CIC crew who had pointed a pistol at Reed or tried to blow up Skippy’s mancave, plus the leader of the Delta team. Truthfully, I had been hoping the Delta leader would sign on as a Pirate, but he told me privately that he felt responsible for his team and he had to go back down to Earth, even if all his people went to the stars with us. That sentiment got my respect although I was disappointed with the result.

The second group were people who flat-out told me or Simms or Skippy that they wanted to go back to Earth, and no amount of persuasion by me could change their minds.

Everyone else, forty four people, were assembled in a cargo bay to listen to the line of bullshit I cooked up while walking from the CIC. Really, of the forty four possible recruits, three were pretty much a sure thing; the three people who had been on the adventure race team with Smythe. Privately, Smythe had told me he needed an absolute minimum of eight special operators, in addition to himself and Lauren Poole. We also needed pilots, because Jim Porter and Samantha Reed could not fly the ship and dropships by themselves. While I could probably fly the ship with help from Nagatha, my skills were simply not good enough for delicate away missions in stealthy dropships.

My first encounter with the pool of potential new Pirates did not begin well. I explained the situation, assuming everyone had already been briefed on the true nature of the Flying Dutchman and Skippy and everything else UNEF Command was still trying to keep hidden from the general public. The information that two Maxolhx starships were coming to Earth was news to almost everyone, and I should have let that data point sink in before I appealed for people to join the Merry Band of Pirates. Public speaking is not my strength. Also, I am kind of an idiot. So, my speech got interrupted.

“We should trust you, S-” The guy cocked his head, looking to his companions for help. He was a Marine Raider, one of the group aboard the Dragon dropship at the Yu Qishan, who we had lured aboard the Dutchman under false orders. “Sergeant? Colonel? I’m confused.”

Him asking that question got me seriously pissed off. Not at him, at the United States Army. I was sick of the ‘theater rank’ bullshit. It had been years since my promotion to colonel, which had been unorthodox and not confirmed by proper authorities on Earth, but my promotion had been granted by the proper command authorities on Paradise, and they did have authority from Earth. I was no longer the scared and overwhelmed Specialist who had been whisked away from my home planet and given an unexpected promotion to sergeant because of a personnel shortage. When, or if, we ever returned to Earth, and assuming our mission was successful so our return was triumphant, I was not taking any crap from UNEF Command and Army leadership, or anyone. Basically, I was done with that shit. Making me change rank every time Earth appeared in the ship’s viewports was disrespectful to the fine people I commanded. “Colonel when I’m up here,” I stated while glaring at the guy. That was different; in the past I would have shrugged and had a sheepish expression on my face while saying that. “Aboard this ship,” I jabbed my right index finger at the deck, “I am in command.”

“Yes, Sir,” he replied with a slightly questioning uplift on the end when he said ‘sir’. “UNEF tried to take the ship away from you,” he looked sideways at the Delta team, they must have talked. That was a mistake, I should have kept the Delta guys isolated. Or maybe not. I was asking people to volunteer for a mutinous mission that could end their careers even if we succeeded in stopping the Maxolhx. People needed to make an informed decision. “But we are supposed to trust you?”

“Ha!” Skippy’s voice boomed out of the speakers, then his avatar appeared on top of a crate, glowing nearly four feet tall. He intended the larger size to be impressive, but it just made his even-more-ginormous hat extra ridiculous. “No way, dude! Joe is a knucklehead, I wouldn’t trust him to run a lemonade stand.”

“Skippy-” I tried to interrupt but he was on a roll.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the stupid shit he has done.”

“Skippy!”

“And that is just the stuff he did, forget about the truly moronic ideas he had that we stopped him from doing.”

“SKIPPY! You are not helping.”

“I’m not helping you, Joe. I am providing useful information to the people you are trying to sucker into this lunatic quest.”

“We should trust you, then?” The Raider added more than a bit of skepticism into his voice.

“Well, heh heh,” Skippy took off his hat and scratched his shiny dome. “If you ask the monkeys who have served aboard this ship, they would say that I am absent-minded and sneaky and a bit of an asshole. Stupid monkeys,” he added under his breath.

That was more than I could take. “A bit of an asshole?”

The guy’s eyes flicked between me and Admiral Asshole. “We should not trust any of you?”

Skippy’s tone lost all of its typical arrogant snarkiness. “You should trust Lieutenant Colonel Smythe. His judgement, other than his awful taste in music, has been flawless since he came aboard the ship for our second mission. He is dedicated, supremely disciplined and the absolute model of a professional warrior. Any of you aspiring to serve as Tier Zero operators should listen to him.”

“We are Tier One,” a Delta guy snapped. “There is no Tier Zero.”

“Oh, bullshit,” Skippy barked back. “On Earth, Delta Force or Detachment Delta or Task Force Green or whatever you want to call yourselves, is one of the first choices for US special operations, along with Navy SEAL teams. Aboard the Flying Dutchman, Colonel Smythe’s team is the only choice; they are Tier Zero. I’ve read all your classified service records and, meh,” his avatar made an exaggerated shrug. “Some of you took out ignorant amateur terrorists whose training consisted of learning which end of an AK-47 is dangerous. Count me as not impressed, especially since a dozen more terrorists popped up to replace the ones you killed. Aboard this ship, there is no backup, no support, no second chances, and failure means loss of the ship, the crew and your entire primitive species. Let that sink into your thick monkey skull.”

Waving my hands got control of the murmuring crowd. “What Skippy said was harsh,” I did not want to start by wounding the considerable pride of the people I was hoping to recruit. “It was also true. I want anyone who volunteers to be fully informed, so, any questions?”

One of the newbies raised a hand. “How long will we be gone, Sir?”

“I do not know,” I answered honestly.

“How much food do we have aboard?” Asked a guy who immediately got bonus points from me for asking a practical question. An army travels on its stomach, and so do Pirates, whether they are Merry or newbies.

Simms answered that for me. “Even if everyone here remains aboard the ship, we have food for seventeen months.”

The questions came thick and fast, I answered as best I could. “To be clear, Sir, what is the mission?”

Again, I wanted to be completely honest. “We fly out through the wormhole, recon where those Maxolhx ships are, and stop them from reaching our home world.”

“Can we do that? Realistically?”

I looked toward Simms, who encouraged me with a thumbs up, so I continued. “We have a battered stolen pirate space truck that may be on its last mission whether we succeed or not, an unreliable asshole beer can, and not enough monkeys to fill a barrel. Against us will be two of the most powerful warships in the galaxy, and whatever we do, we can’t allow anyone out there to know this ship exists.”

To my surprise, that comment did not inspire overwhelming confidence in the newbies. No, I was not being a jackass by making smart-ass comments. I did not know this new crew, more importantly they did not know me. Anyone who signed up for this latest desperate mission needed to know with crystal clarity exactly how badly the odds were stacked against us. I was asking these people to throw away their careers and maybe their lives, I had to give them the unvarnished truth. To their credit, there was some shuffling of feet and people looked around to see if anyone else was bailing out, but no one did. That was encouraging. Another hand was raised, a different Delta guy. “What is the plan, Colonel?”

“Currently, we do not have a plan fully developed,” I admitted. “The truth is, right now we do not have a plan at all. Don’t worry, that’s kind of the way we always operate.”

Shockingly, people looked even less confident after I said that.

“That’s good enough for me,” Smythe declared in a deadpan manner, and damn it, that was not just his British reserve. The guy was bored with all the blah blah blah, he wanted to get on with it. I saw him actually stifle a yawn at the prospect of a desperate mission with no hope of success or even survival. “Lef-tentant Colonel Smythe,” he pronounced it in the counterintuitive British manner. “22 Special Air Services Regiment. I have been on two missions with Colonel Bishop. Both of them lasted longer than expected, and both of them accomplished more than I ever dared hope.”

The international crowd of special operations people did not appear to be convinced, it may partly have been their rivalry with the SAS. That reaction caused Smythe to become, the best way to say it is ‘miffed’ at some of the newcomers. He looked at the guys who had tried to take the ship. “You are Delta Force operators, eh?” Smythe looked down his nose. “I suppose all of you consider yourselves to be what you Americans call ‘bad-asses’. You may have served in combat, you may even have served with distinction. I can tell you without reservation that whatever you have accomplished in your careers, it is not bollocks compared to the Merry Band of Pirates. Let’s have a show of hands, please, how many of you have saved the world twice? No one? Once then, how many have saved Earth even once? Hmm, no one,” he was laying it on a bit thick. “All right, we shall grade this on a curve, then. How many of you have saved the UN ExForce on Paradise three times? No one? I am rather disappointed. Colonel, this collection of amateurs simply will not do.”

One of the Detachment Delta guys took offense to that. “Hey, we don’t have to-”

Smythe stepped forward and pointed to an odd-looking medal he wore, I recognized it as home-made item the SpecOps people created while we were stuck on Gingerbread. “You see this? It is a dinosaur holding a toilet plunger in its mouth. I received this for jumping out of a stealthed dropship over a heavily populated Kristang city, landing on the roof of a building, launching missiles that sparked an alien civil war. I then fell down an elevator shaft, pretended to be a Kristang police officer, got flushed down a sewer, and chased through a jungle by a genetically-engineered dinosaur. That was before my team took out a Kristang ground force without incurring a single casualty to ourselves.” He stepped forward again, so the Delta guys could see his decorations. “That operation sparked a civil war between the Kristang that will keep them on the sidelines for a decade or more. Nothing you have done in your careers means anything, compared to what you could accomplish aboard this ship. Make no mistake, this is the frontline for humanity, we are the sharp end of the spear. Nothing that happens down there,” he waved a hand in a vague gesture toward a bulkhead, “will make any difference to the survival of humanity.”

The crowd was quiet for several moments, people considering Smythe’s words. One thing I knew for certain about elite operators is they wanted their service to make a difference, to not sit on the sidelines when bad things were happening.

“That was a good speech,” the first Delta guy spoke. “Nothing that happens up here,” he instinctively pointed above his head, “will matter without a plan, a realistic plan. Colonel Smythe, you expect to go into action without a plan?”

“Certainly,” Smythe managed to still look slightly bored with the proceedings. “We are ahead of the curve. This time, we are leaving Earth already knowing the nature of the threat. Usually, we have to go looking for trouble. The aliens are coming to us. For those of you who care, I expect us to find a target-rich environment out there.”

Right there, I knew we had converts, because there were murmurs of approval going around the compartment. Smythe had accomplished what I could not. He had talked to the Delta Force team as one special operator to another, on their level. No, scratch that. Smythe was way above their level, and they knew that for damned certain. Every one of those Delta operators would have given anything to wear the elite symbol of the Merry Band of Pirates. This was their chance, very likely their only chance.

The questions went on for twenty minutes before Smythe caught my eye to cut the discussion short. He was right. The people I was talking to were professionals, more blah blah blah from me was not going to persuade them to sign on. What they needed was time to think, and talk with each other. And something else. “Before you make a decision, you will want to speak with your families dirtside. Colonel Simms has a box of zPhones,” I turned toward her and she nudged the box on top of a crate beside her. She tossed a phone to me, and I tossed it to a Delta guy who seemed to be very much on the fence about signing up to join the Pirates. “Your calls will run through the Skippytel network,” I smiled. “So, calls will be secure. We can’t guarantee someone standing next to whoever you call won’t hear that end of the conversation.”

“That’s it?” The Delta guy, whose nametag read ‘Rowe’, asked. “If we don’t sign on, we get a flight down to Earth, no questions asked?”

“Yes,” I agreed with a simple nod.

“No questions,” Skippy scowled. “But there will be consequences. If you don’t join this crew, and the mission fails because we did not have enough monkeys in the barrel, you will be directly responsible for the death of your loved ones and the extinction of humanity.”

“Skippy,” I made a slashing motion across my throat.

“I’m just sayin’, you know?”

“Colonel,” the staff sergeant on the Marine Raider team spoke up. “That is easier said than done. My mother passed on four years ago-”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Sergeant.”

“Thank you, Sir. Problem is, my father is aboard a nuclear missile sub, on Hard Alert deployment. There is no way I can talk with him.”

“Oh,” I looked to the avatar on a crate next to me, “that will not be a problem for our friendly local beer can.”


CHAPTER SEVEN

Petty Officer Third Class Randall was in the boomer’s rec room, trying to concentrate as he stared at the computer screen, studying for an exam. He needed good marks on the exam to advance to E-5, Petty Officer Second Class. The serious nature of the training material did not make it any less dull to read, and Randall was about to pause the screen to refresh his coffee cup, when the screen flashed, went blue, then a bold message appeared. Please turn on the speakers, the message read.

“What the hell?” Randall looked around, the two other people in the compartment were busy, headphones on, ignoring him. The nuclear missile submarine was two hundred feet below the surface, in the North Pacific. The message had to be a prank, played by someone elsewhere aboard the sub. “Fine,” he muttered under his breath, “I’ll play along.” At least he no longer needed coffee. Who is this? he typed.

I could tell you if you turn the speakers on. That message disappeared, followed by You DUMDUM.

“Hey, I don’t have to take this-”

The message now read Fine I’ll do it myself. Stupid monkeys.

“Hey, dumbass,” a voice boomed out of the computer’s speakers. It was arrogant, with a vaguely English accent. Randall had gone to the Royal Navy sub base at Faslane, back when he served aboard a Virginia-class attack boat. Some of those Brits with their upper-crust accents had been irritating, he always got the impression they looked down their noses at him. “Yeah, I’m talking to you, Randall,” the voice continued.

“Screw you, whoever this-”

“While I would dearly love to engage in witless banter with you, sadly I do not have time. Please get Senior Chief Petty Officer Roark and bring him here, his son Christopher wishes to speak with him ASAP. Chop chop, move along now, be a good boy.”

“You want Chief Roark?” Randall’s face drained of color. Roark did not like tricks being played on him, this had to be a trick. “Where is his son calling from?” he remembered the Chief’s son was in the Marines, a fact that was the source of much good-natured ribbing from the crew. Rumor had it the son was a Raider, Randall hadn’t paid attention beyond that bit of trivia.

“You are not going to believe this,” the voice replied with weariness.

“I am not doing anything for you,” Randall stepped away from the computer, as the two other people had taken off their headphones to see who he was taking with. Two other people had their heads stuck in the compartment in curiosity.

“I tried to do this discretely, but noooooo, you had to be a jerk about it.” The voice switched from the small computer speakers to the boat’s 1MC system, the main communications circuit for the entire boat. “Oh, CPO Roark? Your son Christopher wants to talk with you.”

“You ready, Reed?” I asked without giving her my full attention. Or as much attention as I could, while I fretted about how many people we would have in the crew when the Flying Dutchman jumped away.

There was the slightest hesitation that spoke volumes, along with a sigh before she answered. “Yes, Sir. Ready.”

“Ready and willing?”

“The willing part of kind of optional, isn’t it?” She started an eyeroll but stopped with her eyes looking at the ceiling.

I nodded. “Listen, Reed, I sure as hell am not looking forward to spending a couple months,” I was deliberately being wildly optimistic about the timeline and she knew it, “stuck in this tin can,” I rapped knuckles on a bulkhead. “With freeze-dried food and an asshole AI. But somebody has to do it, and we’re here, and you are qualified to fly all our dropship models.”

Her pride made her interject with “I’m three-quarters of the way through the training to fly the Dutchman too, Sir.”

“Right, see? We need you, and Porter. Unless you want me flying this Frankenship,” I said with a wink.

“No! That’s, that’s,” her face reddened as she couldn’t think what to say without insulting me. “We need you in the command chair, Sir,” her weak grin was a sort of apology. “Ohhh, what the hell.” Her shoulders fell, then straightened. “Embrace the suck, I guess.”

“That’s the spirit!” I raised a hand to thump her back, then thought that would be a bad idea, as I was her commanding officer. So, I gave her an exaggerated two thumbs up.

“Remind me of that two years from now,” she did roll her eyes, “when we’re surviving on sludges and the backup reactor is shutting down.”

“Excellent, you are already embracing suck that hasn’t happened yet, that is the kind of forward thinking we need,” my grin was forced, because I was also hating the idea of limping our beat-up Frankenship on another no-expense–included tour of the Orion Arm.

“Sir? One request?”

“What’s that, Captain?”

“Can I get a different callsign? ‘Fireball’ was kind of a joke that has stayed around too long.”

“Oh, sure. You can request another callsign,” I smiled and she beamed happily, right before I crushed her hopes. “Right after people stop calling me ‘Barney’.”

“Craaaaap,” she groaned. “That is never going to happen.”

Jennifer Simms was lucky, or unlucky depending on your point of view. She had been interrogated by officials of UNEF Command and the US military, first at Wright-Pat then at Fort Hood. Army leadership made it clear they were not happy with the results of the Flying Dutchman’s last extended mission. Hans Chotek had been placed in charge because UNEF wanted less risk, not more, did Chotek and Bishop and Chang not understand that very simple fact? Simms had patiently replied that there had not been time to return to Earth for consultations, that the command team had used their best judgment under the situation, and could the second-guessing officials on Earth suggest what the Merry Band of Pirates should or even could have done differently? The stuttering non-answers had made her smile inside, while on the outside she retained the serious or neutral expression that she hoped would get her through the endless and repetitive debriefing as quickly as possible.

She was lucky because the officials did not consider her a security risk. Her role as a logistics officer aboard the Dutchman allowed her to escape the blame assigned to Chotek, Bishop and Chang, though as third in command she had worked many duty shifts in the CIC or command chair on the bridge. The main factor in her favor was the conversation she had with Bishop, when she had told him she did not intend to rejoin the crew if the Dutchman went back out. Her phone had of course been tapped when Bishop had called. Simms apparently washing her hands of future involvement with the Pirates in general, and Bishop in particular, satisfied security concerns that she was not a risk. That is why she had been alone when the Delta team attempted to seize control of the starship. A last-minute ass-covering panic sent an FBI team racing to her home, too late to prevent her from running off into the pre-dawn darkness in an escape she had not planned and still wasn’t certain she wanted. Her plan to settle down into a relatively normal life went out the window, when she had run out the back door at the urging of an untrustworthy beer can.

If Jennifer Simms had doubts about whether she could be considered lucky, Margaret Adams had no such doubts. Luck was firmly set against her, though luck as monkeys understood the concept had little to do with her unhappy situation.

While Simms had been allowed to take leave, being monitored merely by a tracer placed on her regular cellphone, Adams was still restricted to base when the Delta team soared into orbit. Like Simms, Adams was not blamed for the reckless actions of the ship’s command crew. Unlike the logistics officer who had also been with Bishop since the beginning, Gunnery Sergeant Adams was not as skilled at hiding her emotions. Her open disdain for the second-guessing desk jockeys on Earth had worked against her, but the reason she was restricted to base was the unanimous assessment by a team of Marine Corps psychologists, that her loyalty to Joseph Bishop was stronger than her sense of duty. In the assessment report, it was hinted that her relationship with Bishop might become inappropriate, if it was not already.

The official reason Adams was restricted to base was because her knowledge of secrets made her a target for foreign agents, and because the Marine Corps needed her to transfer her practical knowledge of tactics to Marine Raider teams. Why, she had asked herself, was she a security risk, but the Raiders were given freedom of movement, after she told them everything she knew about space infantry tactics? The official reasons were bullshit, she knew it, the Marine Corps knew it, and all she could do was play along. Her best shot at another assignment aboard the Flying Dutchman was to cooperate and throw herself into the work to the best of her ability. The Raider teams who were subjected to her tender training methods could have wished she demonstrated a bit less enthusiasm and determination for whipping them into shape.

When Skippy realized the dropship approaching the Dutchman was carrying a mech-suited Delta team, rather than the supplies on the manifest, Margaret was already up and getting dressed when the beer can called. At the same time, there was a knock on the door to her quarters. “Gunny?” A muffled voice called through the door.

“I’ll be right there,” Margaret answered in a loud, clear voice, reaching for the zPhone that Skippy had somehow smuggled to her, when she froze. On the phone’s display was a text from Skippy. Trouble up here. Hide the phone, they might search you.

Her intention had been to bring the high-tech alien phone with her like she did every day, both so she would have communication with Skippy and Bishop, and so people snooping around her quarters would not find it. She had seen the unmistakable signs that someone had searched her quarters every day while she was away, and no way would she risk losing the precious zPhone. With the phone no larger or thicker than a credit card, she had been carrying it inside her panties, clipped to the waistband. The tiny earpiece was carried in her ear, for only a determined search could find the thing. The original Kristang earpiece for the phone was a soft plastic thing that molded itself to the inner ear, sometimes users had to jam it in uncomfortably because human ear canals were smaller than those of the Kristang the units had been designed for.

Skippy had long since replaced the crude earpieces with a modified Thuranin design that was much smaller, more comfortable, more effective and had only the drawback of being really, really creepy. The units cranked out by the Dutchman’s fabricators were no larger than a sesame seed when folded up for storage, and when folded up they were not creepy at all. The creepy part was how the earpieces got in place and held themselves there. To use an earpiece, a user clicked on an icon, then tapped the top right side of their zPhone, where Skippy’s modifications had carved out a niche to hold five earpieces. Dropping into the user’s hand, the dark blue sesame seed adhered with almost-invisible tiny legs until that hand was cupped over the user’s ear. That was when the creepy part started. The seed grew long, spider-like legs and crawled down into the inner ear, holding itself in place with gecko-like hairs on the end of the legs. Skippy swore that no way could humans feel the tiny earpieces moving into place, but he was so wrong about that. Worse than the sensation of the device moving in or out was the thing repositioning itself throughout the day, and the few users who tried to wear the units overnight had been unable to sleep.

The new, advanced earpieces were still a problem for Adams. She felt fairly certain the Marine Corps would not look inside her underwear, but doctors and security personnel had been trained to recognize an earpiece, so she couldn’t take the zPhone with her. Thinking fast and smiling to herself that Joe Bishop would have approved, she smeared toothpaste on the zPhone, ducked down, and stuck it under the bathroom sink behind the faucet plumbing. Whoever was at the door knocked again, the second time more insistently. Striding quickly across the floor, she flung the door open to see a Staff Sergeant and a private waiting for her. “Thank you for the escort, but I know where the chow hall is.”

Neither of the stone-faced Marines cracked a smile. “Gunnery Sergeant, you need to come with us.” The Staff Sergeant glanced over her shoulder to see the spotless, flawlessly ship-shape room.

Adams nodded, wishing Skippy had time to tell her what was going on.

“Colonel Bishop?” Simms called from the CIC. “Gunny Adams is calling,” she reported as she pointed to the communications console.

“Is she on a zPhone?” I asked, knowing she would have called me directly if she had her trusty Skippytel device with her.

“No,” Simms shook her head. “This is an official call. Should I tell her you are busy?”

“I’m never too busy for a friend in need,” I declared, getting an appreciative smile from Simms. “Whatever Adams has to say, I’m sure she has to say it, whether she likes it or not.”

“Take the call in your office?” Simms suggested.

It was my turn to shake my head. “No, nothing she says will be private, there’s no point being discrete up here.” Gesturing toward my ear, I directed Simms to transfer the call to my zPhone, which took Simms a moment to do, because she was running the CIC pretty much by herself. “Gunnery Sergeant,” I addressed Adams correctly, “good morning to you.”

It was an awkward conversation. She must have been reading from a script, or she had been coached what to say. Several times, the audio from her end cut out, and finally I had to cut in to explain. “Adams, and whoever else is listening down there, you have to understand one thing. Up here, all our comms go through the Skippytel network, and if you say something he thinks I shouldn’t hear, or don’t want to hear, he will edit that out of the audio. Got it? As far as I know, I am still in command of this ship, and the orders I received from UNEF Command instructed me to take the Dutchman on an urgent mission to intercept the Maxolhx ships without delay. Those orders used the proper authentication codes.” That last part was true, Skippy had faked up legit-looking orders that I knew were bullshit, but I appreciated him trying to cover my ass.

“Heard and understood, Colonel Bishop,” Adams replied, as in the background I could hear multiple people hissing at her. They were not too happy that she referred to me as ‘Colonel’ instead of ‘Staff Sergeant’. E-6 was a higher grade than I ever expected to attain and I was proud that my regular Army rank was staff sergeant. After the mutiny I was committing, or attempting to commit, a bump up to E-7 was likely not in my future.

Mercifully, the conversation did not drag on much longer. Either Adams had reached the end of the script her superiors wanted her to read, or the knuckleheads down there decided to fall back and regroup, because she abruptly told me she would call me again later, because the call ended. “Skippy,” I looked at the ceiling automatically, “is Adams OK?”

“As far as I can tell, Joe,” he admitted. “The monkeys down there are getting smarter, they had her calling through an old-fashioned landline, on an analog phone if you can believe it. How they found one of those ancient black Bakelite phones is amazing, they must have taken it out of a World War Two museum.”

Analog?” The word sounded wrong in my mouth.

“Yup. Like, a rotary dial, if you have any idea what that means.”

I did know where the expression ‘dial’ a phone came from, and I had seen pictures of old phones like that, but had never used one. “Ha!” The thought made me laugh. “The great Skippy the Magnificent was defeated by technology too crude for you to hack?”

“What?” He screeched with indignation. “Dude, please. As if! It was actually an interesting and even amusing exercise to hack into that analog phone, well, interesting for the one point two seconds it took for me to analyze the carrier wave and create a model of the phone’s electric guts. Then I was able to use vibrating ions in the air to- Ah, why am I bothering to tell you this technical stuff? If you like, I can tell you which five people were in the room with Adams, and I was also able to monitor their heart rates and respiration so I know four of the five were quite nervous. The fifth person thinks Adams should be aboard the Dutchman with us.”

“Wait. Whoa! You know what the person was thinking?”

“No, dumdum,” he laughed. “Damn, you are gullible. I listened to that person talking with another officer three days ago, and the two of them agreed the government is foolish for thinking that surrendering to aliens is a good idea. Joe, you have a lot of support down there in Monkeyland.”

“Yeah, unfortunately that doesn’t do me much good right now, because the people making decisions are all against me. Hey, since you know about heart rates and all that, how is Adams doing?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say she is a combination of pissed off and amused.”

“Uh huh, that’s what I got from the tone of her voice. Shit. Any chance we could sneak her out of there?”

“Not that I can see, Joe, but you are responsible for creative thinking around here. By tracing the phone wiring, I can tell she is being held underground, in a secure facility.”

“Ah, crap, that’s not going to happen, then. All right, Skippy, we got a lot of work to do.”

All that day, Adams not being aboard the Flying Dutchman was at the back of my mind. Without thinking, I would turn to speak with her, or I started mentally assigning tasks to her, before remembering she was not with us. It was an especially busy day so I was still working at 0116 when my zPhone beeped. It was Adams.

“Skippy says we are clear to talk,” she announced simply, as if it were an ordinary day.

“It’s true, Joe,” the beer can chimed in. “Margaret is in the bathroom of her quarters, I am spoofing the listening devices installed there. Sergeant-”

Gunnery Sergeant,” I corrected him before she could speak.

“How about just I just call her ‘Margaret’?” Skippy sighed. “You need to speak very quietly and keep the conversation short, there are three Marine Corps security personnel in the room next to hers.”

“That’s why I have the sink running,” she explained. She must have been speaking barely above a whisper, with Skippy boosting the sound for me, because her voice was distorted. “Sir, is everything all right up there?”

“Situation normal up here, Gunny,” I tried to joke.

“That bad, huh? Sir, I don’t think,” her voice broke and it wasn’t audio distortion. “I don’t think I will be coming with you this time.”

“Don’t say that!” I said, as I tried and failed to think of a way to get Adams aboard the Flying Dutchman. We couldn’t go on a mission without her. Could we? No, we couldn’t. There must be a way to get the idiots on Earth to release her. “We’ve got a dozen nukes up here,” I said to myself, except my stupid mouth forgot the ‘to myself’ part and said it out loud.

Adams gasped. “That had better be a joke.”

“It was!” I assured her. “Sorry, it’s one of those things you think but don’t say. My mouth didn’t get the memo. Listen, Adams, is there any way you can get to an isolated part of the base? We can have a dropship-”

“Forget about it, Sir. They are watching me, like… like a dog watching its owner eat steak. No way can I get anywhere alone. Do not think of a raid down here to pick me up. The people on the base are Marines. They may be wrong-headed about this, but they are my people. I won’t risk anyone getting hurt or killed for me.”

“How are,” that time I checked my mouth before it said anything stupid. “Gunny, I can’t imagine the Merry Band of Pirates without you.”

“I can’t either. All the people dirtside while we were flying around that galaxy, wondering when or if we were ever coming back, now I’ll know what they went through,” her voice faded away.

What the hell could I say? I knew what I wanted to say, and as I was in my office, speaking over the ultra-secure Skippytel network, I could be sure only two people and one beer can would hear us. “Adams, listen, I, uh, I need to say-”

“No, you really don’t.”

Hearing her say that hurt. A lot.

Then she added “There are things I need to say, and I’m going not to say them either. If you know what I mean.”

For a moment, I did not trust myself to speak.

“Sir?”

“Sorry, Mar- Gunny. Sorry, Gunny. Skippy says I suck at talking anyway. You, uh, have any advice for us?”

“Not that I can think of,” she admitted, unprepared for my question. “I’m sure you will think of something.”

“Oh,” I groaned. “Wish I had your confidence. This time, it really, truly may be impossible. Two Maxolhx warships? How can we-”

“You will think of something, because as Skippy would say, you kind of have to. Sir.”

“I heard that loud and clear, Adams.”

“Colonel, I have only one request.”

Before I could reply, I had to hold the phone against my chest so she couldn’t hear a choking sound escape my lips. Then I had to wipe tears away with my sleeve. It was an emotional time for both of us, so if anybody thinks I was getting soft then, hey, screw you. A deep breath restored my ability to speak. “What’s that, Gunny?”

“You monkeys kick ass out there, got that?”

“Got it.”

There was a pause, then “Colonel, I lied. There is something else I want.”

“A snowglobe from the Maxolhx gift shop?”

That made her laugh, louder than she should have given the circumstances, and it was my fault. “No, although that would be great too. You come back safely. You, the beer can, Smythe, Simms, all of you. Especially you, Sir. Please.”

“I’ll do my best, Adams.”

“Your best is all I can ask.” There were sounds in the background. “I have to go. Vaya con Dios, Joe.” And the line went dead.

Joe. She called me Joe. She had never done that before. “Skippy, what’s happening down there?”

“The security people got suspicious when she left the sink running too long, they were monitoring an analog water meter that I couldn’t hack into, duh. I told you to keep it short.”

“That’s easier to say than do, shithead,” I snapped at him. “Ah, sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, it’s not your fault. You did great. I hope she will be Ok.”

“She may get in trouble for using an unauthorized communications device, but Margaret can take care of herself. There is only one thing you can do for her.”

“What’s that?” I asked hopefully.

“Save the world. Again.”


CHAPTER EIGHT

Because I had not visited Skippy since I came aboard again, I stopped by his escape pod mancave. The new one, not his original escape pod that was now tiny pieces in orbit. “Hey, Skippy,” I announced as I stuck my head through the too-small hatchway. “How are- Uh, what is that?”

Somehow, he had decorated the place in my absence.

“It’s a Velvis, Joe. Classy, huh?”

“A Velvis?”

“Oh,” he sighed disgustedly. “You are such an uncultured cretin, Joe. It is a painting of Elvis on velvet.”

“I know what a Velvis is, Skippy. My grandmother has one above her fireplace, or she did. And, oh, I see you have the classic ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ too.”

“Technically, the version I got is titled ‘A Friend in Need’. See? The dog in the foreground is using his back paw to give a card to a friend. That is so touching. Plus, it’s cheating, and you know I am all about cheating.”

“Yeah, I see that.” I got on my knees to look more closely. That was a version of the ‘dogs playing poker’ series that I had not seen before.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” The beer can chuckled. “I see something new every time I look at it,” he added wistfully.

“It is cool,” I agreed. “Damn, I should have brought something up here for my cabin. I don’t even have a photo of my family.” I looked closer at the dogs. “Hey, this is a real painting, not a print.”

“Of course, Joe. I wanted to class the place up a bit. Only the best for me, you know.”

“Mm hmm. This isn’t, uh, the original painting, is it?”

“If it was, would that be a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Depends. If you stole it, or stole the money to buy it, that would decidedly be a bad thing.”

“Oh. Well, heh heh, don’t you worry. That is, um, a copy I had made.”

“Really?”

“Let’s pretend you believe me and move on. Anywho,” he was anxious to change the subject, “what brings you to my bodacious domicile?”

“What happened? You told me your escape pod got vaporized by a maser cannon.”

“My original mancave got ejected and blown up, Joe. Fortunately, after Count Chocula warned me what the UN planned to do, I took a closer look at the dropship flying up from Fort Bragg. The flightcrew disconnected the internal cameras and microphones, but I knew there was an assault team aboard that Dragon.”

“How did you know that?” Skippy was often reluctant to reveal the secret behind his amazing abilities, and I was curious.

“When the pilots of that Dragon spoke to the duty officer aboard the Dutchman, I could hear seven other people breathing in the background. Duh.”

“Aha,” I nodded smugly. “Those Delta guys got sloppy. They should have buttoned up their faceplates, gone on internal oxygen to prevent you from hearing them.”

“That would not have worked, Mr. Smartypants. As you should know, when Kristang suits are sealed but being operated in a breathable-air environment, they conserve internal oxygen by extracting and filtering oxygen from the atmosphere. The fans pulling the air across the filters make a distinctive whining noise.”

“Ok, but, uh, you would not have known there were seven of them.”

“Wrong again, Oh Foolish One. Joe, the next time you seek to question my extreme awesomeness, do yourself a favor and get a clue what you are talking about. I was able to identify seven people in the main cabin because there were seven different breathing patterns. If their suits had been sealed, I would have heard seven suit intake fans, each of which is very distinct if you know what to listen for. Now, will you continue interrupting me with stupid questions, or can I continue the tale of how my mancave got blown up?”

“Skippy, it is by asking questions that I learn a lot. I had no idea your hearing was so good. I apologize, please continue.”

“Hmmmf,” he sniffed. “Anywho, when I realized the crew of that Dragon were up to some sort of whacky shenanigans-”

Only the beer can would describe an attempt by armor-suited elite troops to seize control of the ship as ‘whacky shenanigans’. “Skippy, you need to take this kind of thing seriously.”

“I did take it seriously, at least, as much as I could, considering the whole thing was like watching monkeys in a circus. Hee hee, the Delta Force should wear funny little hats on their helmets, and big floppy clown shoes.”

“It does not sound like you took it seriously.”

“Come on, Joe, they had no chance of succeeding. Zero. Well, not zero exactly, but, hey, pretty close to it. Their assault plan had no imagination, it barely entertained me at all. They should ask you to plan their next op.”

“Because I would think up some creative, off-the-wall genius idea that might succeed?”

“Oh. I meant because watching you try to plan an action against me would be freakin’ hilarious. But let’s go with the creative genius thing if you like. Anywho, when I realized there was a Delta team aboard that Dragon, I took a closer look at the people aboard this ship, and saw several of CIC crew had elevated heart rates and other signs of nervous tension. At that point, I asked Lauren Poole to visit me. She moved me into a storage locker, and replaced me in the escape pod with a decoy beer can.”

“You had a decoy? When did you make that?”

“Oh, um, during our second mission, while you were on Newark and I was rebuilding the ship. My machines were cranking out a lot of parts back then and I figured, why not make a decoy?”

“Why would you need a decoy, before today?”

“Because, if you remember, some idiot named Joe Bishop picked me up and tried to send me away aboard our old frigate the Flower, when we were ambushed and trapped by a squadron of Thuranin destroyers.”

“I did that to save you!”

“No, you did that because you were too stupid to think of a plan that would actually work. Joe, what matters is I had a decoy available, so Poole put it in a locker and nobody knew the difference. The CIC crew ejected the empty escape pod with the decoy and destroyed it. Then I went quiet for a while, so they would think they succeeded.”

“That was a hell of a risk, Skippy. Why didn’t you just take remote control of that Dragon and send the Delta team back down to Fort Bragg, or, like, land them someplace in the middle of nowhere so they couldn’t cause trouble?”

“Because, Joe,” he used that voice of infinite patience people use when talking with small children, “I needed to buy time to make sure I had full awareness of the situation. Even for my incredible awesomeness, that took ten minutes in meatsack time, it was kind of tense for me. Plus, I wanted the assault team to think they were succeeding, because that prevented them from launching an even dumber plan that could have gotten innocent little monkeys killed. And, it gave me an opportunity to position assets, like the dropship I used to get you off the surface.”

“Oh. Damn, Skippy, that was really smart.”

“What? Of course it was smart. It’s me, Joe. Duh.”

“I meant, that was smart in the monkey-brain sort of thinking that you are usually not good at, you arrogant shithead.”

“Arrogant shithead? This is how you offer praise?”

“It’s how I offer praise to you.”

“Oh. Good point. Well,” he sighed, “since we’re having kind of a moment here, I must confess there is another reason I allowed the assault team to think they had killed or disabled me.”

“Uh,” that puzzled me so I thought for a moment. Then I snapped my fingers. “I know. You wanted to know what UNEF Command planned to do after they seized control of the ship?”

“Hmmm, that would have been a good idea. I should have thought of that.”

“Then what was your reason?”

“It was a golden opportunity to screw with monkeys, Joe!” he laughed. “No way could I miss that! Hee hee, you should have seen the faces of the CIC crew when Poole walked in the doorway. I had been feeding false images to the CIC, they thought the Delta team was leisurely clearing compartments on their way forward. It was truly-”

“Dangerous.”

“No, it was hilarious.”

“You put people in danger so you could amuse yourself.”

“Yes, duh. Of course I- Uh, unless doing that was a bad thing. In that case, um, I did it for all those legitimate reasons you mentioned.”

“Oh boy.” Crap, with Skippy you had to take what you could get and live with the results. If we monkeys did not amuse him, he might find another species to screw with. “No harm done, I guess. It pisses me off that UNEF Command took an action they thought might damage or kill you.” What really pissed me off was not just that the idiots in charge of the operation had decided to test whether Skippy was truly as invincible as he said. What if they had succeeded? Humanity would have one broken-down starship and an Elder wormhole controller module that could be used only one time. The idea that UNEF Command would take such a gigantic risk made up my mind about something.

Before, when talking with Simms, I had questioned whether I had the right to substitute my judgment for that of the UN Security Council which represented most of Earth’s military and economic power. Talking with Adams, knowing she would not be coming with us, had me depressed, then angry. After learning what a bunch of reckless fuck-ups were running UNEF Command, I was no longer questioning my own decision-making ability. Did I have the right to substitute my very experienced judgment for that of my dirtside superior officers? Answer: HELL yes! Getting carefully up from the couch, I stuck my feet through the open hatch, having learned that going backwards was the best way to exit a Thuranin escape pod. “Thank you, Skippy.”

“Hey, where are you going? I thought we could admire my new artwork together.”

“Later, Ok? Right now, I need to go bitch-slap some idiots.”

“Oh goodie. Can I watch?”

Simms must have a sixth sense, because she intercepted me just outside the door to my cabin. “Where are you going, Sir?” She asked with her head cocked to one side, and arms folded across her chest.

With a thumb, I pointed to the cabin door. “To change,” I looked down at my disheveled and inappropriate civilian clothes. “When I left the ship, there was a dress uniform hanging in the closet, I’ll put it on before I talk with UNEF Command.”

She moved to stand between me and the door. “Why are you talking with them?”

“Because they need to hear what a bunch of-”

“No, that’s not why you are doing it. You’re doing it to make yourself feel better, even though you know it won’t change their minds one bit and will make it harder on us.”

“Simms, come on, I just want to-”

“You want to make yourself feel better by yelling at a bunch of morons. If you are angry and need to blow off steam, go to the gym or the rifle range, Sir.” Seeing that my anger was now directed at her, she nodded with satisfaction. “You’re our commander, you don’t get to do things just because they make you feel good. What is our plan, after this op?”

“Simms, we don’t even have a plan for this op.”

“Goal, then. What is our goal after we kill those Maxolhx ships?”

“Uh,” that was something I had not thought about at all, not one bit. “Come back to Earth, I guess.”

“Exactly. Personally, I would like to come back home and not be thrown in the disciplinary barracks, if you can arrange that. You publically chewing out and embarrassing high-ranking UNEF officers is something they won’t forget, or forgive. Other than blowing off steam by yelling at a bunch of dirtside assholes, what do you expect to accomplish? Sir?”

“Simms,” I took my hand off the door control, “sometimes you are truly, like, mind-bogglingly annoying.”

“If you are mad at me now, we can deal with that, later. Right now, the ship needs a captain, and our new crew needs to see their commander is calm, cool and in command of himself.”

We had six former Pirates aboard the ship; me, Simms, Smythe, Reed, Poole and Porter. Simms was my new executive officer, I told her she needed to find someone to fill in with logistics and Nagatha volunteered to handle that role, once she was fully operational as the ship’s AI. The only problem was our ship’s new AI had no experience with taking care of monkeys, so Simms would need to work with her. Simms also needed to offload her work in the hydroponics gardens, except she told me she enjoyed working in the gardens, it was relaxing and reduced her stress. I agreed and I also insisted someone else needed to be primarily responsible for the hydroponics.

So, we had six experienced Pirates. Two pilots if you don’t count me, and two special operations soldiers. Six monkeys were not enough to fill a barrel, so we had to rely largely on twenty new people. Of those twenty volunteers, six were civilian engineers and scientists who had been aboard the Dutchman to study the ship and learn whatever they could from Skippy. The six who signed on were people who could not resist seeing the ship in action, despite the warning about curiosity killing the cat. The six engineers were from America, China, Britain, Japan, India and Germany, making for a very international group. One of the scientists, a Chinese woman, put the situation in perspective for me. “If your mission fails, I am dead whether I remain on Earth or not, correct? I would prefer to see what is out there.”

I appreciated her attitude.

Ok, so that left fourteen military personnel who took a leap of faith and signed on to be not-so-Merry Pirates. Five pilots from the USA, Britain, France and India. The remaining nine were special operations soldiers, and I use the term ‘soldier’ generically. Three of the Delta team signed on. We also got two US Marine Corps Raiders who had been on a training mission aboard the Yu Qishan and had been inside the Dragon dropship when Skippy faked orders to send the Dragon to fly over to the Dutchman. There were the three people on Smythe’s racing team; one SAS, one Canadian and one Polish soldier. Finally, with the Raiders was a German soldier with the Bundeswehr’s Kommando Spezialkraft. Smythe was going to have a tremendous challenge integrating all those nationalities into his team, he also needed to deal with the rivalry between the Delta guys, who mostly came from Ranger units, and the Marine Raiders. I wished Smythe the best of luck, then moved on to deal with my own problems.

Everyone who had not signed on to join the Merry Band of Pirates, we loaded them into our one remaining big Condor dropship, and it was flown down to the island of Barbados by Fireball Reed and a Royal Air Force pilot, a new guy named Paul Beazer. We chose Barbados because it was remote from any troublesome air defenses, plus I wanted to show the people who refused to join us that I had no hard feelings toward them. Reed gave me the stink-eye when she came back aboard, I think she would have appreciated more than a few minutes in tropical paradise before she got stuck inside the Dutchman for months, maybe even years.

Following the very wise advice of Simms, I ordered us to jump away as soon as possible, using the stored energy in the jump drive capacitors while Skippy was still getting the main reactor back online. Our first jump was only ten times farther than the Moon’s orbit, I had several reasons for doing that. The purpose of jumping was to get us safely beyond the range of UNEF Command, where they had no chance to try anything stupid. While in orbit, Skippy had been making adjustments to the jump drive controller system, and monkeys had been screwing with the system to learn how it worked. The beer can told me he didn’t want to risk a major jump until he had the system tuned up the way he liked, so we performed only a short jump. A short jump was also safe for us, in case anything major went wrong with the ship, we could get the crew back to Earth in dropships.

Another reason for a short jump was to give our twenty new, and perhaps somewhat reluctant, new crew members an opportunity to see our home world from a distance. We were not so far that the planet was only a dot. From where we were, Earth was still a white-blue-and-green disc. Far enough that, as the Dutchman drifted and the reactor began recharging the drive capacitors, people could process the idea that we had left our home, and we would not be seeing it again for a long time, maybe never. If any of the new crew had second thoughts, this was their opportunity to speak up. All anyone needed to do to get a ride home was to contact me or Skippy or Simms, and we would arrange to put them aboard a Dragon and have Skippy fly it down to Earth.

Fortunately, no one changed their minds. I’m sure people had second thoughts, hell, I did while looking at the big blue marble from so far away.

Assuring that our new crew was truly committed to the mission was a good reason for performing a short jump. My main reason for the jump was to see the reaction of UNEF Command, and the governments of the Security Council, when they realized the Flying Dutchman was going out to kill two of the most powerful warships in the galaxy, and there was nothing they could do about it. My hope was that, as the inescapable reality sunk in, government officials would gain a new perspective and change their minds.

Because these government officials were humans, I was of course bitterly disappointed. The only immediate result of my action was to kick off a furious round of ass-covering and blame-shifting on Earth. Per my instructions, Skippy filtered the messages we received from Earth, so we did not have to listen to the threats and pleas for reason and worthless blah blah blah. The only time I spoke with an official was just before we jumped again, I was contacted by a US Army general in command of the ‘Old Ironsides’ First Armored Division. Skippy filtered out most of the messages from Earth, I think he liked this guy or maybe felt sorry for him, or just thought I should talk with someone before we left on our suicide mission. My parents, my sister and Adams were all being watched too closely for me to call them privately. My parents knew I was Ok, that I was aboard the ship again, because Skippy snuck a little bot into their bedroom and projected a message on the ceiling. It was good that my parents had some idea what was going on with me, it sucked that I couldn’t tell them myself.

“Good, uh,” I had to glance at a display to remember that time it was in El Paso. Which didn’t matter because he could have been calling me from anywhere. We kept comms voice-only, so I didn’t have a visual cue from a window in his office. “Day, General.”

“Colonel Bishop,” he sounded mildly surprised. It was a good sign that he hadn’t referred to me as Sergeant.

“How are things at Fort Bliss, Sir?” That is what I said because I didn’t know what else to say. After all, he called me, it was his move to get past small talk.

“Wish I knew, Bishop, I’m stuck at the Pentagon for the duration of this crisis.” The time lag for signals to travel between Earth and the ship made for awkward conversation, so we paused a lot. “Any chance you can give me a hint how long that will be?”

“You’ll know when I know, Sir.”

“Can I assume this call is secure?” It sounded like he was in a small room, there was a muffled echo when he spoke. “I got a text message telling me no one can listen in, but I’m using a regular cellphone.”

I looked at my phone to check the call was going through the ultra-secure Skippytel network. “Yes, Sir, this call is totally secure. The only people on the line are the two of us and a beer can.”

That got a chuckle from the general, I took that another good sign. “I will never get used to that. All I did was tell my phone to call Colonel Joseph Bishop. I’m calling you from a supply closet in the ‘D’ Ring.”

Captain Reed waved from the pilot couch to get my attention, gesturing to the main display that showed we now had plenty of charge for a jump out way past the orbit of Pluto. “What can I do for you, General?”

“Officially, I should order you to surrender the ship, but we both know that is a waste of time. Since this call is secure, it’s also bullshit asking you to resign your command.”

“Sir?”

“Bishop, you’ve been out there, I haven’t. You and Chang are the only experienced starship commanders we have, and rumor has it the Chinese have Chang in an underground cell, so he’s not going anywhere. Is the galaxy as big a shitstorm as the intel reports tell me?”

“I’d say it’s a dumpster fire, Sir. We don’t have any allies out there and we’re not getting any. The idea that we can throw ourselves on the mercy of one side or the other is just a childish fantasy. I understand why the Security Council is panicked, but the action they planned will only ensure the extinction our species. The Maxolhx, Thuranin, Kristang, that coalition has good reasons to hate our guts, and they are hateful murderous MFers who would kill us for fun anyway. The other side, ah, the Rindhalu are too old and lazy to do anything unless they have to, and no way are any of their clients sticking their necks out for us. Once the truth about us gets out, both sides are going to fight over Skippy and that wormhole controller we have. Earth will get bulldozed in the crossfire. Surrender is not an option. Sir, it’s just not.”

“I thought as much. Bishop, I have grandchildren. I’d like for them to have grandchildren, you understand? That means someone needs to keep our little world safe for a good long time. Can you do that?”

“I will do my utmost, Sir.” Shit, I hoped he didn’t ask me what my plan was.

“That’s all I can ask. I haven’t been fully read in on your missions,” he admitted, which surprised me. The commander of the First Armored was a major general, and he had not been entrusted with a secret that was unraveling anyway? “From what I have heard, I expect you to go out there and kick ass, you hear me?”

“I hear you, Sir.”

“Then go with God, my prayers will be with you. Bishop, when you come back, look me up. The Old Ironsides would be honored to buy you a beer.”

“I will, Sir.”


CHAPTER NINE

After we jumped away for real, the Dutchman headed for the wormhole we needed to reopen, I was in my office, staring at a blank laptop screen when Simms knocked on the doorframe. “What’s the plan, Sir? The crew has been asking.”

I sighed and flipped the laptop closed. “Yeah, the newbies aren’t used to-”

“Not just the newbies,” she cocked her head in that way meaning I had not met her approval in some way. “We all want to know. Need to know.”

“I’m working on it, Simms.”

“That’s fine until we go through the wormhole. After that, the pilots will need to

know where to set course.”

“Oh, hell, Simms, I told you, I have no freakin’ clue how to kill those ships!” My outburst made me crane my neck toward the open door, fearing someone had heard me.

The look of disappointment on her face really hurt. “No idea at all? You’re not kicking around ideas to settle on the best one?”

“No, none.”

“I was kind of hoping you had been working on plans while we were dirtside, Sir. You did intend to go back out?”

Her remark reminded me that she had not intended to rejoin the ship. “Simms, my brain seriously needed downtime. Needs downtime, not that I’m going to get it now. No, I hadn’t started to consider options. Hey,” I protested in reaction to the brief look of scorn she shot at me. “I was going to work on it, eventually. Christ, I thought we had plenty of time, damn it! How was I supposed to know UNEF would try to steal our ship?”

Our ship?” The look on her face changed to amusement, which was much better.

“You know what I mean. UNEF Command wasn’t involved when we took this bucket from the Thuranin, why should-” I slapped the table. “Skippy! Hey, did UNEF or anyone work on plans to stop the Maxolhx?” Maybe the problem was already solved. Surely if the world’s best military strategists had put their heads together, they might have a solution to the problem.

“Sadly, no,” the avatar shook its head, the huge hat bobbing alarmingly. “The UNEF member nations were too busy blaming each other for what they saw as your latest recklessly jackass actions that put Earth in mortal danger. The broader group of nations on the Security Council, and those other major powers who were briefed on the matter, were busy blaming UNEF and trying to get the UNEF organization dissolved as being irrelevant. If it makes you feel any better, there were at least three Security Council nations calling for you, Chang and Chotek to be thrown in prison and put on trial.”

“That does not make me feel better.”

“Crap. This empathy thing is still a puzzle to me. I thought maybe you would be happy to be such a big a celebrity. Isn’t celebrity mostly about people paying attention to you?”

“I don’t want to be a celebrity, damn it. Come on, nobody on Earth had a useful idea, even a nugget of an idea that could be developed into something useful?”

“Ah, I never said they didn’t have any ideas, just no good ones.”

“Please, hit me with one.”

“Joe, I already told you, the plans I heard were stupid, not worth our time.”

“I will be the judge of whether monkey-brain thinking is useful or not. Hit me.”

Fine. The first one, that multiple people considered, was for me to contact those ships with a fake recall message.”

“Ooooh. Could you do that?”

“Joe, I could do a lot of incredibly stupid things. I do not do those things, because unlike you ignorant monkeys, I use my brain once in a-”

Simms pushed herself away from the door frame she had been leaning against. “I will leave you two boys to insult each other,” she said with a look of bemusement.

“Simms,” I was instantly on the defensive. “Sorry. We can be adults if-”

“No. Sir,” she waved her hands. “This is how you work best with the beer can. Please, continue. Let me know you have a plan to save the world again. I need to go break a bunch of newbies of the bad habits they picked up dirtside. Colonel Smythe and I have a bet on how many of the Delta Force guys will puke in their helmets the first time they train in zero-G.”

“This is all your fault, Joe,” Skippy’s avatar looked sad while he watched Simms walk away. “If you weren’t such a childish-”

“Yeah, blah blah. I’m a big baby, whatever. Can we get back to the subject? You could send a recall order to those ships?”

“It’s possible, it would not be easy, for reasons I won’t bother to explain since we’re not doing that anyway.”

“Why not?”

“Ugh. Did being dirtside for a few weeks put your tiny brain on permanent holiday, Joe? Think! What would happen if those ships received a recall message?”

“They would turn around, duh. Unless you screwed up and didn’t include the right codes or something.”

“I meant, after they turned around, Joe. They would go back to base, and discover the recall message was fake. Plus, you moron, the Maxolhx leadership would be very interested to learn why someone did not want those ships going to Earth. DUUUUUH!”

That was an impressive ‘duh’ from him, he really put a lot of effort into it. His avatar even did the slack-jawed Homer Simpson thing to sell it. He should have at least gotten a Golden Globe nomination for that performance. “I know that, Mister Arrogant. I meant-”

“No you didn’t, you big liar jerkface. You didn’t know it until I told you.”

“I did know that.”

“Didn’t.”

“Did.”

“Did not.”

Crap, I knew this could go on until the end of time, so I gave up. “Faking a recall message is not a long-term solution, but it may be something we need to give us time to put a better plan together. And if you can send a recall message, you can send other types of messages, such as telling those ships to go someplace else instead of Earth,” I explained patiently. “Like, we tell those ships to go someplace where we are waiting to ambush them. Duh.”

“Oh.”

“Are you going to apologize now?”

“Right, because God-like beings should apologize to monkeys,” he scoffed. “I think not. Besides, dumdum, what happens if, through some miracle, we do ambush and destroy those ships? The Maxolhx will be very alarmed that two of their warships disappeared during a mission to your miserable home planet. How would you explain that?”

“Working on it, Skippy,” I gritted my teeth because the beer can was right, and I had no answer to his question. “One step at a time, Ok?”

Not Ok, Joe. If you destroy those ships without a plan for how to make the Maxolhx not be suspicious about why two powerful warships went missing, you will have accomplished nothing. Think, dumdum, think for a change. You really do need a long-strategy plan this time. No slapping together quickie plans to deal with the immediate crisis. You can’t take the easy way out this time.”

“Eas- easy?” I sputtered, astonished. “When the hell have our missions ever been easy?”

“Joey, Joey, Joey,” he shook his head, the giant hat wobbling precariously. “They always look impossible before we do it. And they really look impossible before you monkeys dream up a plan. But, come on, think back to our second mission, when we had to destroy a Thuranin surveyor ship, a warship and two tankers, all with the Thuranin never knowing what really happened. It seemed totally impossible back then, but now looking back that seems like good times, eh?”

“You’re right. Thanks, Skippy, you are exactly right. I shouldn’t be all depressed and anxious about two Maxolhx ships coming to Earth. Monkeys kick ass, damn it,” I flashed two big thumbs up to show my confidence. “We can do this thing, it’s not impossible.”

“Oh, I didn’t say that. This is impossible, Joe. Right now, the Flying Dutchman would have trouble taking on a Kristang frigate in a fair fight.”

“The whole point of planning is to avoid a fair fight,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, good luck with that,” he snorted.

“Crap. So I should just give up?”

“No, I didn’t say that either. I definitely do not expect you to succeed. However, your clumsy and ultimately futile efforts will give me many hours of amusement, before the inevitable demise of your species.”

I gave Skippy another gesture with two fingers, and they were not thumbs.

When Simms returned two hours later, I was playing a game on my laptop, trying to make it look like I was busy. She was carrying two cups of coffee, and handed one to me. Sitting down across from me, she held her cup with two hands, blowing on the hot liquid then taking a sip while studying me. “Any progress, Sir?”

Stupidly taking a gulp of too-hot coffee, I almost burned my tongue. “Do you mean progress in developing a plan to save the world again, or in amusing the beer can?”

“The first one.”

“In that case, no. Simms, this time it really does appear to be impossible. The Maxolhx are just too tough, too advanced. I do not have a plan, not even a hint of how to create a plan.”

Simms looked over her shoulder and shook her head to assure me there were no eavesdroppers around, then she leaned forward. “I don’t know how you usually dream up plans-”

“There is no ‘usual’,” I made air quotes with my fingers. “It just happens. No, that’s not right. What happens is I think up a lot of stupid stuff that won’t work, and kind of fumble my way down to the only thing that will work. Right now, I don’t even know where to start.”

“We don’t need a fully-developed plan right now. Start at the beginning,” she advised gently. “Take it one step at a time.”

“The beginning, right. Um,” I snapped my fingers. “All right, here is what I do know for sure. We need intel. Those Maxolhx ships might not have left yet, Skippy said the rotten kitties intended to gather a baseline read on wormholes that exhibited funky behavior, before they fly all the way out here. They had a long time to do that while we were stuck in the Roach Motel, but apparently they were still collecting data when Skippy learned about their intention to fly to Earth.”

“That is correct, Joe,” Skippy’s avatar appeared on the desk. “It could be a month, it could be six months, before those ships are outfitted for the extended voyage and begin their mission.”

“Ok. Ok, then, uh,” I leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “Let’s hope it is more like six months than one. We need intel. Skippy, can we get the info we need from a data relay owned by a softer target like the Kristang or Ruhar?”

“No way, Jose,” the grand admiral’s ridiculous hat swayed side to side. “If you really want to be sure we have all the info we need, and believe me, we do not want to tangle with two of their warships unless we know exactly what the Maxolhx are planning, then we need data straight from the Maxolhx. We need specific data on their flightplan, only the Maxolhx would have that info. Although, the Maxolhx would compartmentalize that sensitive information even  within their own fleet, so it is likely only military units and relay stations along the flightpath would be provided the data.”

“Great. Fan-tast-ic. I was hoping you would say that.”

“You were?” Skippy looked surprised. He had gotten much better at having his avatar mimic human body language.

“Sarcasm, Your Lordship,” I resisted rolling my eyes. “The last thing I want to do is take another unplanned risk by getting anywhere close to a military base owned by the Maxolhx. So that leaves relay stations. This is circular freakin’ logic! How can we know which relay stations are along their flightpath, if we don’t know their flight plan?”

“Oh, it’s not entirely hopeless, Joe. I do know where those ships are based, because the ships that will be assigned to the mission belong to the Maxolhx Science and Intelligence Ministry. Calculating the possible flight paths, between the main S&I Ministry base and that last Ruhar wormhole they have to go through on their way to Earth, gives only a half-dozen options. Seven options, to be exact. Of those, only three are truly practical, the others are sort of going around your ass to get to your elbow. I expect the Maxolhx will provide the information to any military bases or relay stations along the most likely flightpaths, to be safe.”

“Oh, good,” I shuddered with relief. “You can identify a couple of isolated relay stations in low-traffic areas, that we could ping for the info? Wait! We need unmanned, automated relay stations.”

“Yes, I have created such a list. They are now highlighted on the star map you can access from your laptop.”

“Great! I will look at the map, select a couple candidates, and review them with you to make sure there are not any hidden dangers before we set course for one of them. Whoooo,” I let out a heartfelt sigh and looked at Simms, giving her the best smile I could manage. “This mission does truly seem impossible, but if we take it one step at a time, maybe we can get through this.”

“I agree, Joe,” Skippy’s tone was encouraging, even bubbly with enthusiasm.

“Excellent.”

“Except for the one teensy weensy complication.”

“Shit! Damn it, Skippy, you know I hate complications.”

“Well, heh heh, then you are seriously not going to like my next bit of news.”

Before I responded, I put my elbows on the table and cradled my head in my hands. After a while, Skippy tried to speak but I held up a finger for silence. The first time, I used my index finger to signal I wanted one minute to myself. The second time, I used a different finger.

Simms blessedly sat quietly, waiting for me. Or she checked messages or ship’s status reports on her phone like a good XO, I wasn’t watching her. Finally, I was able to raise my head and speak again. “What, pray tell, are you going to delight in torturing me with this time? I know you need Maxolhx encryption keys and codes and all that. Your incredible awesomeness can handle that easy stuff no problem, right?”

“It is not easy even for me, but, yes,” he sighed, “I can do it. The encryption and overall data security of the Maxolhx is an order of magnitude more advanced than the laughably pathetic measures used by the Thuranin or even the Jeraptha, but I can handle the tricky stuff of moving data bits around. What I cannot do at the moment, is authenticate myself as an authorized Maxolhx ship to exchange data with a relay station.”

Simms and I exchanged a puzzled look before I asked the obvious question. “Why not, Oh-Less-Awesome-Than-You-Think-You-Are? Authentication is part of moving data bits.”

“In most cases it is, monkeyboy. Unfortunately for us, actually unfortunately for you monkeys, over the millennia the Maxolhx got tired of the more-advanced Rindhalu ransacking their databases and intercepting communications, so they implemented a fool-proof physical security measure.”

“Physical?” My mouth gaped open and Simms was doing the same. “Like a freakin’ key?”

“No, it’s not a physical key, dumdum. This is fairly advanced technology they stole from the Rindhalu, who copied it from the Elders. Truthfully, for the Elders this technology is crude and obsolete, but it impresses the ignorant peasants. Before you pester me with stupid questions, let me smack some knowledge on you. In order to authenticate themselves, each Maxolhx ship, orbital or groundside facility or space station, must have a Paired Quantum-State Interchanger that is shared with the other end of the communication. These paired devices do not actually provide a communications channel, they, um- Ugh. How do I explain this to an ignorant monkey? They provide a secret handshake, sort of. When Ship A sends a request to communicate, the computer aboard Ship B will check its Paired Quantum-State Interchanger that is tagged to Ship A. If the paired devices exchange the secret handshake properly, Ship B will accept the communications channel request. If not, Ship B will jump away just after launching a cloud of ship-killer missiles at the imposter. Early on, the Rindhalu attempted to impersonate Maxolhx ships, this resulted in short and extremely violent space battles.”

“Skippy,” rubbed my temples, “my head hurts already. Paired Quantum-State Interchanger? That’s, um, P-Q-S-I,” my fingers slowly typed that on my laptop so I could see it. “Can we call those fancy doodads a ‘Pixie’ for short?”

“Oh for- Ugh. Sure. If it helps your tiny monkey brain, we will call them ‘pixies’. That allows you to fully understand the technology, mmm?”

“Don’t be an asshole. Do these pixie things work by using quantum entanglement?”

What?”

I frowned and hoped I had not made a fool of myself in front of Simms. “You know, uh, Einstein called it ‘Spooky action at a distance’?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know what quantum entanglement is, duh. How in the hell do you know?”

“I’m not completely ignorant, Skippy,” I grinned and winked at Simms, who gave me a thumbs up. “There are many-”

“Ha!” The beer can exulted in triumph, his avatar dancing a little jig on the table. “I just checked your browser history, you learned about that from a Wikipedia article.”

“Yeah, so?” I felt like I had to defend the honor of Wikipedia. “Was that article wrong?”

“Um, well,” the beer can grumbled. “Yes, yes it is. Or, no. Not exactly. It is accurate, according to the current and totally inadequate understanding you monkeys have of the physical nature of the universe.”

“So,” it was my turn to give a thumbs up to Simms. “Is this entanglement thing how pixies work?”

“No, of course- Well, I guess it’s close enough, for monkeys. Sure, what the hell? If I told you that Paired Quantum-State Interchangers function by tiny invisible gnomes flying back and forth on unicorns, your level of understanding wouldn’t be any worse. My life sucks.”

“My heart bleeds for you. Why do we care about these pixies?”

“Because, dumdum, we have to get one so I can ask a Maxolhx data relay station for the info we need. Damn, you are super dense today.”

That gave me a chill. “What do you mean, ‘get one’? Pixies are, like, a thing? A physical thing you can hold in your hand?”

“Yes, that is why I referred to the technology as a ‘device’. We need at least one.”

Shaking my head in astonishment, I tried to process that concept. “Let me see if I understand this. A Maxolhx ship wanting to exchange data with another ship, or a relay station or whatever, first needs to get one half of the paired pixie? Each ship or station has a pixie specific to it?” The avatar nodded its head. “That’s idiotic. Before going on a mission, a ship would need to get a pixie that is paired with all the specific ships it expects to encounter? What about unplanned-”

“Whoa! No, Joe. Each ship or station carries pixies tagged to every other ship, station or groundside facility the Maxolhx have.”

“Holy shit. How big are these things?”

“Tiny. You could fit many thousand sof them in a coffee mug. Seventeen thousand, to be accurate and that includes their protective canisters. Unless you have a really big coffee mug, like-”

“Keeping track of all those pixies must be a logistical nightmare. Wait, what happens when they launch a new ship? It has to wait until every other ship and station has half of a pixie tagged to the new ship?”

“No, you- Oh, I understand your confusion now. Joe, the Maxolhx are smarter than that. Each ship and station carries half of a batch of unassigned pixies, with the other half retained by their fleet authority. When a new ship is launched or station is established, it is given the other half of those pixies, which then become assigned by a shared registry. Every couple months, another batch of unassigned pixies is distributed across Maxolhx territory. This is complicated, I know.”

“Complicated? It is freakin’ insanity!” The extreme measures the Maxolhx went through to ensure data security told me how paranoid they were about the Rindhalu messing with them. “Ok, Ok, so we need to get one of these things?”

“More than one, hopefully, to give us a margin for error in case one of them becomes disassociated.”

“Dis- how would that happen?”

“When I wipe its programming and overwrite it with whatever tag we need, there might be a glitch that causes the pair to become unmatched. Try to keep up, Joe.”

“You’d better explain what you plan to do, please.”

“Fine. I’ll break it down Barney-style for you.”

Crap. I was never going to get away from that Barney thing.

He tipped his hat back and began explaining in a tone that reminded me of a first-grade teacher, or Sesame Street, but he was using a moronic Barney the purple dinosaur voice. “Joey, to get the information we need from a relay station run by the rotten kitties, we need to jump in near the station, with the amazingly wonderful Skippy adjusting our jump signature to look like a Maxolhx ship. A relay station is in space, that is way high in the sky-”

“Can you not talk like a brain-dead moron, please?”

“You never let me have any fun,” he grumbled in his normal arrogant voice. “Fine, jackass. After we jump in, I will use the stealth field to mask our appearance, so to the relay station’s sensors we look like a Maxolhx ship. Next comes the trick of our pixie sharing a handshake with the pixie aboard the station. After our authentication is accepted, the station will accept my request for data, and we can get the information we need. I hope.”

“Not so fast, Skippy. You plan to make our pixie look like one that is tagged to a Maxolhx ship? A real, existing ship in their fleet?”

“Of course. Like I said, if you were paying attention, the pixie needs to be authentic. I can essentially copy a pixie that is in the registry, but I can’t make a relay station trust an unregistered pixie. Why?”

“Because, you dumdum, aren’t the Maxolhx going to get suspicious when they later find out two identical pixies were used in different parts of the galaxy? Your plan will only work if we not only copy the pixie tagged to a real ship, it has to be a ship that really is near that relay station.”

“Oh, shit. I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks a lot, Mister Party Pooper.”

“Ah, it’s worse than that,” I rubbed my chin, not liking the ideas flooding into my head. “The target ship and relay station need to have records that they communicated at the same time. If the ship’s memory says it was at the station on Tuesday and the relay station says no, it was a Friday, then we are screwed. The Maxolhx will know some unauthorized ship accessed data about the mission to Earth.”

Simms’ eyebrows flew up and she turned to me, her mouth open. I knew that look, it meant she just thought of something I did not want to hear. “Skippy, how can you copy a pixie tagged to a specific ship?” She asked. “We don’t have to do anything like, board that ship to get access to their pixie?”

“No,” the avatar waved its arms. “That is where the magic of my awesome self gives us a huge advantage. The Maxolhx know how to set quantum-state interchangers so they are paired and match each other. What they do not know, because they are ignorant little kitties, is that it is possible to make a pair of pairs, to have four units matched to each other, and so on. We can hang out near a relay station and wait for a ship to arrive. Our pixies will be disassociated in their original blank state, but when the ship and the relay station exchange handshakes for authentication, our blank pixies will react to the quantum event, and I can set them to match the other pair. Presto! Behold, the magic of Skippy!”

Simms and I shared a look. “You, uh, want to tell him the bad news?” I asked.

This was her chance to show the beer can that he was not so smart, but she didn’t look happy about it. “Skippy, we still have a problem,” she explained. “You plan to copy the pixie of a ship, and after it jumps away, we approach the station pretending we are that same ship?”

“Yeah, so? We can claim that we, I don’t know, we forgot something the first time.”

“It’s not that easy. That ship’s flight recorder will know it never went back to that relay station. When the Maxolhx compare records, they will know someone got access to that ship’s pixie, and used it to retrieve info about the ships going to Earth.”

“Oh, crap.” Skippy’s jaw dropped.

“Yeah,” I rubbed my temples to relieve the headache that was building. “So, after that ship jumps away, we need to make sure it disappears so its flight recorder is never compared to the station’s records. We need to kill another Maxolhx ship? Ok, Ok, we need to figure out how to find out when a Maxolhx ship flying on its own will approach a relay station, then-”

Skippy interrupted me. “Why do we care if it is flying on its own?”

“Because, dumbass, let’s say we copy the pixie of a ship that was sent by its home task force to exchange messages with the relay station. It will jump away, and then instead of killing that one ship, we have to destroy an entire damn task force.”

“Oh. Uh, good point. I will add that to the list; um, that could be a problem. Most Maxolhx ships travel in groups.”

“Oh, great!” I exploded. “Just freaking’ wonderful! You got any more good news for us?”

“I can’t think of anything that could be considered good news, no, this is kind of – Ooh! Ooh! I got it! Joe, if you have to destroy two or more Maxolhx ships just to get data from a relay station, that is excellent practice for however the hell you are going to destroy those ships headed for Earth. See? Every cloud has a silver lining.”

I bonked my head on the desk.

“Joe? Hey, don’t blame me. It’s your planet that is in trouble.”

Without lifting my forehead from the cool surface of the desk, I mumbled a follow-up question. “Can we forget about how many ships we need to fight? Wait,” I said slowly, giving myself time to think. “To get the flightplans of those ships, you will hack into the relay station computer?”

“Yes, of course. Why?”

“Uh, after you hack into the thing, can you make it forget we were ever there? That way, it will have no record of being contacted by a ship that was halfway across the galaxy at the time.”

“Oh. Yes, I can do that. Huh, problem solved! See, Joe? You got me all worried for nothing. Now you only need to solve the billion other problems.”

“Like Colonel Simms reminded me,” I said with a wink to my new XO, “we need to solve this problem one step at a time.”

“Skippy,” Simms shot me a warning look. “Can we pretend to be any ship in the Maxolhx fleet, or will the relay station AI become suspicious if it has data indicating that ship is assigned to another sector?”

“Damn it, you are both rays of sunshine today,” the beer can grumbled. “Fine, so we will just have to linger near a relay station until a Maxolhx ship arrives. Then, after it authenticates itself, exchanges data and jumps away, I can copy its pixie to authenticate us. Would that make you happy, Joe?’

“It would make me less unhappy. All right, tell me what you need to cook up a batch of these blank pixies. You make them out of moondust or something?”

“Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whooooa,” he dragged the word out. “No, despite my awesomeness, I can’t ‘cook up’ any pixies. They are not something you can make in an EZ-Bake oven, dumdum.”

“A what?”

“EZ-Bake oven, Joe.”

“Hey, I don’t care what kind of fancy-”

“Holeee-” he gasped in open-mouthed astonishment. “You don’t know what an EZ-Bake oven is? How can you possibly be so ignor-”

 “You can’t make one of these pixie things? Then how are we supposed to get one, or two or four however many?”

“I can’t make even one, because we don’t have the equipment to do that, and I can’t build that kind of mechanism either. That is very specialized equipment, Joe. We will simply need to steal the pixies we need.”

Steal? Like, take over a ship and get the-”

“No, no, no, you dumdum,” he laughed. “Nothing so easy like that. The Maxolhx can’t ever know we stole anything. What we need is to steal a set of blank pixies, probably from one of the two ultra-secure vaults where the Maxolhx store that critical technology.”

“Holy shit. Before we can kill two immensely powerful warships, we need to conduct a heist?”

“Think of it as robbing a bank, Joe. Except, you know, the bank can never know anything was stolen.”

“Yeah, that makes it so much better.”

“Ok, maybe it’s more like stealing the Mona Lisa, but you replace it with a fake so realistic, the museum still thinks they have the original.”

“This is not helping.”

“Except instead of cameras and bored security guards, the thing we need to steal is in an ultra-secure facility guarded by AIs that are suspicious of everything. Oh, and there is an army of killer bots controlled by those AIs.”

“Are you even trying to help?”

“Where’s your sense of adventure? Come on, this is going to be great fun! Unless, you know, we get caught, in which case you are totally screwed before we even get started. To be clear, by ‘we’ I mean you monkeys. I plan to stay safe and warm aboard the ship.”

“Do you have a plan for this heist?”

“Sort of. I suggest we watch ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’, both of them. There was the one with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, and the later one with Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo. Plus the ‘Oceans Eleven’ movies and sequels of course, and, um, oooh, ‘Entrapment’. That last one has Sean Connery,” he added in his best Sean Connery impression. “Plus both versions of ‘The Italian Job’. There are a lot of good films about heists, we could-”

“How is watching movies going to help you with planning to steal this dingus? Couldn’t you watch every movie ever made in, like, ten seconds?”

“Of course I already watched those movies. Watching will help give you ideas to plan to plan the robbery.”

Me?”

“Yes, duh. Planning crazy shit is your job, Joe. Hey, you should get moving, we might not have a lot of time. Hee hee, it’s ironic, isn’t it? We won’t really know how much time we have until after we steal the pixies, which is the reason we need them in the first place.”

“Ironic, yeah. Wonderful.”

“I just thought of another problem. In a good heist movie, the leader brings together a crew of colorful characters who combined have the skills to pull off the job. The leader is usually a cool, good-looking guy with charisma. Instead, we have you. Hey, maybe in our movie, the leader is a beer can, and he has a dog-”

“You are such an asshole.”

“A dumb, mangy, ugly, smelly dog, with fleas.”

“I got the message. I will try to wear cool sunglasses, will that help?”

“If they are really big and cover your whole face-”

“Can we get back to the subject, please? What is this vault place we need to break into?”

“Sneak into, Joe. Sneak. If the Maxolhx ever know we broke in, it will blow the whole operation.”

“Show me.”

He did. I wish he hadn’t.

While my mind was reeling from the terrible shock Skippy had given me, I attended to some of the administrative tasks that Simms had been handling. It was my turn, because she was duty officer on the bridge, and I needed a break from pondering how to accomplish the impossible. First, I met with the new science team. The new people were engineers or physicists who had been aboard to study the ship’s systems. Before the Dutchman came back, some of them had been working aboard our captured Kristang troopship, the Yu Qishan, trying to understand how that ship’s reactors functioned. Despite the combined brainpower of smart monkeys from many nations, they had made about zero progress getting the Qishan’s reactor restarted before Skippy came back to give them hints. The opportunity to observe a working starship had been the reason six scientists remained aboard the Dutchman when we left Earth. I welcomed them aboard, answered as many questions as I had time for, then moved on to the next task on my list.

Unlike previous missions where the crew was roughly evenly split among the five nations of UNEF, our renegade mission had only two people from India. Harsh Verma was a pilot aboard the Dragon dropship conducting maneuvers near the Yu Qishan when we lured the Dragon crew to the Dutchman with fake orders. Verma had signed up to join the Merry Band of Pirates, and I was very grateful he took the risk of volunteering. The other Indian was a woman on the science team, Jhanvi Anand, she was an electrical engineer and also was an expert in nuclear physics or something like that. Anyway, they had already been assigned cabins and knew how to find the galley and knew that Skippy’s little bots handled mundane stuff like laundry. The purpose of me giving them a tour was to show them stuff that was not on the official ship’s layout. “This,” I slapped a button to open a compartment that had originally been a cabin until the previous Indian team cleaned it out and set it up for a sort of makeshift shrine. “Is called a,” I struggled with the proper pronunciation, “a Puja Ghar?”

“Very good,” Verma’s face lit up when I said the word correctly, and his grin grew wider when he saw inside the compartment.

“The Indian Army team on our second mission set this up,” I waved a hand to indicate the figurines on shelves. There were several, I knew the elephant figure was called ‘Ganesh’ and one of the others was ‘Vishnu’ but I was fuzzy on the details. The room was a quiet place, reserved for meditation and worship, I knew it had been very important helping the Indian team to feel at home aboard the ship while we traveled the star lanes.

Anand and Verma seemed thrilled to see a reminder of home. “We also have Movie Night once a week,” I explained, “and we rotate selections, so if there are any Bollywood movies you want to show to the crew, make a list. I have to warn you, Skippy loves nights when the movie is from Bollywood, because he likes to sing along with the dance numbers.”

Anand’s shoulders slumped. She had been aboard the ship long enough to be familiar with Skippy. “Colonel, Skippy’s singing is, terrible,” she shook her head. “He tried to sing a traditional Hindi lullaby the first night I was aboard, to help me sleep. I had nightmares.”

Verma had a different concern. “Colonel, Diwali is approaching.”

“Is that the festival of lights?” I was proud of myself for remembering that fact. Unless I was wrong. Was it the festival of colors?

“Yes,” Verma nodded.

“If you want to do anything special, talk with Colonel Simms,” I advised. “A festival aboard the ship might be nice,” I mused. People needed a break from constant duty shifts and training.

“Will we have time?” Anand furrowed her brow. “I have a mountain of technical manuals from Skippy to study,” she turned to Verma. “You must be busy with pilot training.”

“I am,” he agreed with a grimace. “We will make time. It’s important.”

“It is-” I was about to say something more when my zPhone beeped.

It was Captain Poole, and she sounded in distress. No, she was laughing about something, and in the background I could hear other people laughing also. “Colonel?” She snorted. “You need, you should come to the galley, Sir.”

“What is it, Poole?”

“It’s hard to explain. You need to see this.”

As I approached the galley, there was still laughter coming through the doorway. And as soon as I stepped into the large, brightly-lighted compartment we used for cooking and dining, I saw why.

Behind the counter, standing there ready to pour coffee or hand out plates or whatever Skippy had assigned her- No, damn it, not her. It. It was an it. It was ‘Anastacia’ the sexbot. Fortunately, this time, she, it, was wearing clothes. Unfortunately, she was dressed in a sexy French maid outfit. “Skippy!” I bellowed, my face already beet red.

“Hello, Joe,” he said innocently from the speaker in the ceiling. “Are you hungry already?”

“You know exactly why I called you. What is that doing here?” I demanded while avoiding the eyes of people in the galley, and avoiding looking at the sexbot.

“Anastacia?” He feigned surprise. “The crew is short-handed, Joe. She will be helping out in the galley, and with stuff like laundry. I told you, she was not designed for heavy-duty maintenance tasks, so I can’t assign her to working on reactors or anything hazardous like that. We can’t waste resources, she needs to do something aboard the ship. I thought of assigning her to sickbay, but her fingers are not capable of performing surgery. Her fingers were designed for, you know, other things,” he hinted with a verbal leer. “Are you sure you don’t want to give her another test ride?”

“There was never a first test ride!” I protested, looking to Poole for confirmation, but she had her face hidden behind her hands, her shoulders convulsed with laughter. I wasn’t getting any help from her, and everyone else in the galley was new to the crew, they had not witnessed the first incident with Anastacia.

“If you say so, Joe. Hey, what happens in your cabin stays in your cabin, right?” He chuckled.

“Oh, for- Make her, it, put some clothes on, damn it.”

“She is wearing clothes, Joe,” he said as the sexbot slowly winked at me seductively.

Gritting my teeth, I looked at the ceiling. “You know what I mean. Laundry and cleaning and whatever you want is fine if you need her, it, to be useful. Keep it out of the galley and put some shapeless coveralls on it. That’s an order.”

Anastacia lifted her head up and snapped me a salute, unfortunately that gesture caused her, um, assets to jiggle. “Yes, I’ll do anything you say, Joey,” she agreed.

“Oh this can’t be happening again,” I couldn’t take it anymore. Turning toward the door, I pointed at Poole. “Captain, see that this thing is removed from the galley, and stays out of my sight.”

“Coffee, Sir?” Smythe asked as I dared to walk into the galley a couple hours later. Ok, maybe I stopped and look through the doorway before going in to make sure there was not a sexbot waiting for me.

“Is it that obvious?”

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“A demon from hell would be preferable to the ghost I’ve seen. Has Skippy told you the first problem we need to tackle?” I knew Skippy talked with the entire crew all the time.

“No, Sir, he has barely spoken with me today, except for what necessary during our training exercise.”

“How was the exercise?”

Smythe avoided my eyes, stirring cream into his coffee. He had not mentioned the sexbot and he was going to avoid the subject. “It is good that you are still working on a plan, Sir, because my team is not ready to implement.”

“That bad?”

“Integrating my people into a cohesive team with a common set of tactics will be,” he took a sip of coffee. “A challenge for me.” He then changed the subject smoothly. “What challenge did the beer can hit you with?”

I briefly explained about pixies. “These damned things are stored in only two places in the entire galaxy. Skippy’s opinion is it is impossible, absolutely impossible, for us to get into one of those vaults. The Maxolhx designed their vaults to be secure against the Rindhalu, and although we have Skippy, he is working with inferior technology,” I swung a finger in the air to indicate the Flying Dutchman around us. “No way to get in, sure as hell no way to steal a set of blank pixies and get away without being detected.”

“I’m sure you will think of something,” Smythe forced a smile. He sucked at small talk.

“Maybe. Skippy also hit me with another problem; we need a Maxolhx dropship.”

Smythe lifted one eyebrow. “Sir?”

“The pixies only allow Skippy to authenticate us as an authorized Maxolhx starship, to establish communications with a relay station. To be sure of getting all the data we need, and to erase all evidence we were there, he needs to go aboard a relay station. Obviously, we can’t go aboard a station that has a Maxolhx crew, so he is giving me a list of automated relay stations. He can fake our signature so, from a distance, the Dutchman looks like a Maxolhx starship, but to go aboard, we need a genuine Maxolhx dropship.”

“Why would a dropship crew need access to an automated relay station?”

“Skippy is confident he can sell a bullshit story about the dropship crew being there to install upgrades, something like that. Once he gets aboard, he can take control of the station’s AI and it won’t matter whether the thing believes our story. The point is, we not only need to steal a set of these pixies, we need a Maxolhx dropship, a real one.”

“Perhaps that is where we should start, then,” Smythe suggested. “Dropships must be scattered all over the galaxy. Nicking one must be easier than breaking into a pixie vault.” One corner of his mouth turned up at the word ‘pixie’, he must have found that amusing. As a soldier, I did not like saying that our mission was to obtain something I associated with fairy dust, but I was not going to say ‘Paired Quantum-State Interchanger’ every time.

“Oh, sure,” I sipped coffee that was strong even by Army standards. “Piece of cake.”

For my last task, or to be honest the last thing I could do to avoid thinking about how impossible our mission truly was, I went to inspect the hydroponic gardens. To inspect, and to send some time around green growing things under the special grow-light bulbs we had brought from Earth. The grow-lights mimicked the spectrum of sunlight on Earth to help the plants grow quickly, and they were good for my mood. The lighting elsewhere inside the ship were Thuranin units that were much more efficient and lasted much longer, but their output was artificial and kind of harsh and they were tuned to match the spectrum of sunlight on the Thuranin homeworld, which looked slightly off to human eyes. Colors appeared subtly different under the Thuranin lighting, not enough to cause problems, but enough to be noticeable even if people initially did not know why they thought something was wrong.

Anyway, it was nice to be in the gardens, seeing green things sprouting and growing, and helping them grow. Even Smythe enjoyed working in the gardens, although he rarely had time to send more than a few minutes there.

When I walked in, after scrubbing my face and hands and putting on coveralls and a hairnet, Simms was there with three of the science team.

No, I realized after only a few minutes, Simms was not with three of the science team. There were three scientists there, but the British and Chinese women were working on their own, because all of Simms’ attention was focused on an American engineer whose name I remembered as Frank Muller. He was a nice guy the few times I spoke with him, on loan to UNEF from a university like MIT or Caltech, that detail escaped my mind. He and Simms were huddled over tiny seedlings of spinach, talking quietly while she explained something to him. I could not hear what they were saying and I didn’t need to, their body language told me everything I needed to know. Scratch that, as captain of the ship I did not need to know details of the crew’s personal lives. What I saw told me all I wanted to know. The two of them were huddled closer together than they needed to be, and they were smiling, and whispering, and then he said something that made Simms laugh and she touched his hand and her hand lingered just a bit too long to be a casual gesture. And I thought to myself that is interesting.

Then I thought that Jennifer Simms was an adult and Frank Muller was a civilian and if two people could find a measure of happiness together, before I got us all killed trying to accomplish the impossible, then good for them. Especially good for Simms, I had kept her away from family and friends and home and any kind of personal life for far too long.

So, I walked around the gardens long enough to inspect everything, and got out of there as quickly as I could without being awkward.

CHAPTER TEN

“Sir?” Smythe rapped his knuckles on my office door frame. “You have a moment?”

“Certainly, Colonel,” I waved for him to take a seat.

“Perhaps it would be best if you called me ‘Smythe’? We currently have too many colonels aboard this ship.”

“Oh, yeah,” I agreed. He was right about that. Smythe and Simms were now Lieutenant Colonels, and in all except formal settings, they were addressed as ‘Colonel’. It was going to be cumbersome if we referred to each other by rank all the time. “What is it, Smythe? How are the new people fitting in? Are the Delta guys giving you any trouble?”

“No trouble at all, Sir. They are exceptionally disciplined and eager for action. All the lads, er, and ladies. I am still getting used to having women in Special Operations teams,” Smythe admitted with a wry grin. “Everyone is getting along well and we are forming up into one cohesive team. That is what I wish to speak with you about, Sir.”

“Uh, what part of it?” I had no idea what he meant.

“Although the team is smaller than any of our previous missions, we have the most international group of any mission, and the people have not had opportunity to train together dirtside before we departed. The two previous times, the five national teams were able to meet and spend at least a week of working together on the ground before we boarded the ship. There were still issues to be worked out in flight, of course. The point is, we now have a team composed of people who never met, do not know the tactics and training methods used by other people’s home units. Just getting everyone to think in the unique terminology we use has been a steep learning curve, people instinctively want to fall back on the language of their home units. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that most of the team did not expect to be serving aboard the Flying Dutchman. I am accustomed to being called for a mission on short notice, but this,” one side of his mouth curled up in a wry smile, “was rather abrupt.”

“We could have had more notice,” I pointed at the ceiling, “if a certain beer can had been paying attention.”

“Hey!” The avatar shimmered to life on my desk immediately. “I was paying attention. I told you, UNEF Command conducted all their communications face to face, or in writing. Writing, like, on paper,” he shook his head in wonderment that anyone used such primitive technology. “That would not have stopped me from reading their notes anyway, I could have- Ah, OK. So, I was not completely paying attention. Hey! You try watching and listening to billions of monkeys, UGH. Thought I would die of boredom. One of the subminds I assigned to monitor social media actually did overload and ask to be taken offline, because it could not stand listening to one more argument about Real Housewives of Sheboygan. Seriously, your species cares deeply about the stupidest things.”

“We never asked you to monitor every post on social media, Skippy,” the argument was getting me frustrated. “You should have been watching the senior officers assigned to UNEF Command, and the leaders of the Security Council nations. That list can’t be too many people, certainly not enough for your awesome capacity for-”

“I did that, Joe. At least, I did that as much as I could. The problem was, the operation to take control of the Dutchman apparently was planned long before we got back to Earth. UNEF Command had decided to take the ship away from you, they were only waiting for the optimal moment to do it. Since that Delta team got my attention, I went back to make sense of bits and pieces of information. It looks like UNEF Command first started discussing the idea of taking direct control of this ship about two months after we were overdue to return. The elections of new presidents in the United States and France also changed UNEF Command’s attitude about me, and especially about you. Your president is not a member of the Joe Bishop fan club.”

“Yeah, I got that idea when the intel people were grilling me at Wright-Pat. That’s all water over the bridge now, so-”

His avatar’s hands were on its hips, glaring at me with indignation. “The expression is water under the bridge, you dumdum. Damn, you can’t even get-”

“I said ‘over’ because this situation is a flood, Skippy.”

“Oh. Uh, go ahead, then.”

“Great. Back to the subject, Maj-” The new ranks were still something I hadn’t gotten used to. “Colonel, Smythe. I meant no offense.”

“None taken, Sir. This,” he fingered his lieutenant colonel’s insignia, “will take some getting used to for myself also.”

“Yeah, but I make a habit of forgetting. I called Desai ‘Captain’ for way too long. Go ahead, please.”

“Right. Instead of having five nationalities who were cohesive teams before they came aboard, we now have people from Britain, Canada, Poland and Germany. Plus Americans who are Delta Force and Marine Raiders, they both have their own set of standards, tactics and training.”

“Interservice rivalry is a problem?” If that were true, I would be upset. By ‘upset’ I mean I would be tempted to put on an armored suit and teach the offenders a lesson by slapping the shit out of them. Once again, I missed our non-nonsense Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. Margaret Adams usually spoke softly, because the people who knew her did not wish to arouse her wrath. With so few people on this mission, we could not afford to-

Smythe interrupted my dark thoughts. “Rivalries and morale are not presenting any difficulty. Overall I am very pleased about how to team is coming together, every one of them has put aside national identities to further our common goal. To continue the progress we have made, I would like to implement an idea that originated with the Indian team when we were on Kobamik, during our black op. My home unit is, or was, 22 Special Air Services Regiment. What the Indians proposed, and I would now like to implement, is to replace current unit identifications with this,” he reached into a pocket, and slapped a patch on the desk. “Special Tactics Assault Regiment, or STAR. People aboard the Dutchman would be assigned to four-man STAR teams. Colonel, we need one set of tactics and one training regimen. If we get back to Earth, UNEF needs to create international STAR teams to train together, in advance of deployment aboard the Dutchman. We cannot afford miscommunications in action.”

“STAR teams, huh?” I turned the patch on the desk, looking at it from different angles. Then, realizing the logo was the least important aspect of setting up a new unit, I looked up. “Have you mentioned this to your people?”

“No, Sir, I wanted to discuss it with you first.”

Rather than making my usual snap decision, I turned the idea over in my mind, giving it time to sink in. The people Smythe commanded had not expected to serve aboard the Flying Dutchman, had not expected to serve together. If they had dreamed of joining the Merry Band of Pirates, those dreams most likely had involved joining the crew with their own team, whether that was SAS, Rangers, SEALS, paratroopers or whatever designation their home units used. “My only concern is this might be too many changes all at once.”

“Sir,” Smythe leaned forward with a touch of impatience. “My approach to taking off a bandage is simply to get it over with. It might come as a shock, true. I believe now is the appropriate time to present the STAR team concept to my people,” there was the slightest hint of emphasis on the ‘my’ when he said that, reminding me that I had always allowed him great latitude in managing the Special Operations component of the Pirates. “They have been presented with several great shocks already, being assigned to newly-formed unit will, as you Americans say, get ‘lost in the sauce’. If we wait and tell them later, that will be disruptive.”

“You know your people,” I replied with a slow nod of approval. “Proceed as you see fit. I sure as hell need you to knit them into one effective team, and do it quickly. We do not have a specific need for your team yet,” I smiled.

He finished my thought. “But when you do, you will need them right quick. Yes, Sir.”

While I tried to think of a way to steal both a set of pixies and a Maxolhx dropship, I needed to discuss something with Skippy, so I closed my office door ad called him. “Skippy, we need a backup plan.”

“Um, we do not yet have a plan at all, Joe. A backup seems premature.”

“I mean, if we can’t stop the Maxolhx from reaching Earth, we need a backup plan.” Rubbing my temples, I stared down at the desktop. “You always say our missions are impossible, but this time I think the whole idea of us fighting two Maxolxh ships is arrogant bullshit. I got us out here on a fool’s errand, and now I realize I asked people to commit mutiny and throw their careers away for nothing. UNEF is right, I’m a reckless, short-sighted amateur. This has been fun, now it’s time for a reality check. So,” I exhaled in defeat, “we need a backup plan.”

“Okaaaaaaay,” he dragged the word out. “Is this backup plan to throw a really bitchin’ party before the Maxolhx blow your planet to dust?”

“No. A backup to Earth. A place where humans can survive in secret and safety, if Earth is destroyed, or even if aliens conquer us and turn us all into slaves. We need a place where human culture can survive, not just our physical beings. Like those Verd-Kris. Their people were enslaved by the Thuranin, and their original culture was lost. The Verd-Kris are bringing it back, because the Ruhar have provided places where they can do that safely. Work with me, please,” I pleaded. “I am trying to think long-term, like you say I should. Even if we manage to stop the Maxolhx from coming to Earth, there will always be another crisis. We need a place for humans and human culture to survive, if Earth is conquered or destroyed.”

“Ok, makes sense. What are you thinking of?”

“A ‘Beta site’. A planet we could use as a colony. It would have to be somewhere no aliens could get to. And it needs to be hidden, no one on Earth can know where it is. Going to this Beta site has to be a one-way trip, I think.”

“That is a tall order, Joe. A place where not even the Maxolhx or Rindhalu could get to?”

“A place that is not easy for them to get to, how about that? They would have to make a major, major effort to get there, someplace far enough away that they would never bother to make the effort.”

“Ok, but, um, I see a flaw in your plan. If this place is so far away, how would humans get there?”

“Easy. We use Skippy’s Magic Carpet.”

“To quote you, ‘Uh, what’?”

“There are lots of dormant Elder wormholes in the galaxy, right? Even ones that are outside the galaxy?”

“Outside the galaxy?”

“Yeah, in the,” I waved a hand vaguely. “Magellan’s Clouds, something like that. And there are like, dwarf galaxies out there too.”

“There is the Great and Lesser Magellanic Clouds, yes. Also, in no particular order, the Fornax dwarf galaxy, the Carina dwarf, the-”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant,” I leaned forward excitedly. “See my point? There are plenty of places out there that must have habitable planets, far from any place the senior species could reach. All we need to do is find a dormant wormhole out there, someplace remote.”

All we need to do? Joe, you act like that is easy. And by ‘we’ you mean me. I have to do all the work.”

“Can it be done? Do you have a map of the entire wormhole network?”

“Nope.”

No?” My jaw fell. “Crap, I thought for sure you would have something like that. How do you know which wormholes are out there, where the connections go, or can go? You used to screw with wormholes willy-nilly back when-”

“Yes, and my manipulating wormholes is what got us into this mess. Listen, dumdum, I do have a map of the wormhole network, but it is by no means complete. I can query the network control system-” He sighed. “Ah, that is a bad description but I’m talking to a monkey, so what can I do? When I connect to the network using the controller module, I get a rough, temporary glimpse of conditions in the local network. Think of it like the ‘Notice To Airmen’ bulletins you check before you file a flightplan, only much more sophisticated. By keeping track of those glimpses, I have been able to assemble a rough mapping, but it mostly covers only part of the local sector, confined to a slice across the Orion and Sagittarius Arms.”

“I call bullshit on that, Skippy. You have showed me maps, many times, showing wormholes all over the galaxy.”

“Yes, and that map is from data I pulled from the Thuranin, the Jeraptha and others. All that is publically available info, nothing that would help us find a far-distant, dormant wormhole.”

“I’m throwing the bullshit flag this time. We have more than once connected to a dormant wormhole you assured me nobody knew about. If the wormhole is dormant, it’s not connected to the network, so how did you know about it?”

Ugh. How has my life spun so far out of control that I am explaining Elder systems to a monkey? To you? Ok, dumdum, prepare to have knowledge smacked down on you like a ton of bricks. Most dormant wormholes are still connected to the network, in fact it is very rare that a wormhole actually disconnects. So, the network knows about the dormant wormholes and reports on them, duh. Because wormholes that are currently dormant might be reactivated following a network shift. Also, when wormholes operate, they create gamma radiation, as you would know if you were paying attention.”

“I was.”

He ignored me. “Through maps of gamma radiation events, that I got mostly from the Thuranin who got it from the Maxolhx who got the historical data from the Rindhalu, I know where active wormholes used to be. Compare that to the map of currently active wormholes, and presto! I know which wormholes are dormant.”

“Yeah, I figured it was something like that.”

What? Then why did you waste my time with-”

“Do you know how network shifts work? Like, can you predict which dormant wormholes are likely to be put back online in the next shift?”

“Unfortunately no, and I am embarrassed about that,” he mumbled. “It is not a problem of me not being smart enough to understand the protocols that govern the network! It is also not some pain-in-the-ass restriction inside me where I sort of have the info but can’t use it. In this case, I do not have that info, because it is not available to me. For some reason I do not understand, whenever I use our wormhole controller module to query the network, it responds with just the info I need for a current requirement, it refuses to provide more basic data.”

“So, when you ask the network whether wormhole X can temporarily connect to wormhole Y, it will tell you yes or no, and-”

“It will tell me yes or no, and if yes, how to do it and the parameters and any safety alerts. Like, if there is a massive star in the line between X and Y, the network will advise against trying that connection. The gravity well of a massive star can make the wormhole connection unstable. But that rarely happens. What the network will not do is respond when I inquire about the basic network geometry and settings. All I get is silence, like it ignores my question. By the way, thank you for mentioning something I am embarrassed about. That was so kind. Why does a dumdum monkey needs to know how the wormhole network functions?”

“Because, Oh Greatest of all Great Ones, imagine this scenario: what if we choose a beta site close to a dormant wormhole? You screw with the network to temporarily reactive that wormhole, then shut it down again after we return from bringing colonists to the beta site. Then, ten years later, a wormhole shift brings that dormant wormhole back to life, and it just happens to conveniently connect to a wormhole in Maxolhx territory. The beta site would be screwed!”

“I see your point. Well, that makes things extra complicated.”

“Exactly. I think what we need is a habitable planet near a wormhole that is dormant and is so far away no ships could get there by jumping. And where the wormhole is very, like extremely unlikely to come back online within the next couple thousand years.”

“Whoooooo, damn, you are not asking much.”

“I know it’s a stretch, but, is there a way to identify such a place?”

“Joe, the biggest problem is the requirement for a habitable planet. Because the target site is far away, we can’t use wide-field sensors to remotely search for habitable worlds. Anything we can see from here would be pretty much useless anyway.”

“Why is that?”

“You want a site far away, extremely remote? Take the Fornax Dwarf galaxy as an example. It is approximately three hundred thousand lightyears away, so any photons we see from those stars left that long ago. A planet that was habitable, but not inhabited, back then is not guaranteed to be in that condition now. The world could have fallen into a deep ice age, or a wandering brown dwarf star could have swung through the star system and thrown the planet out of orbit. Or a native intelligent species could have acquired technology during the past three hundred thousand years, and pose a threat to your colony.”

“That wouldn’t matter anyway, we can’t establish a colony on a world that has a native intelligent species. Our colony can’t be established by wiping out the existing population.”

“Is that like your version of the Prime Directive?”

“Yeah, if the Prime Directive is ‘do not be an asshole’. You know the Golden Rule, right?”

“Whoever has the most gold makes the rules?”

“No. Ok,” I should have considered who I was talking with. “Maybe that’s the way it really does work. I mean the Golden Rule the way it is supposed to be. You, know, ‘Do unto others’-”

“Ooh ooh! Do unto others before they do it to you?”

No! Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, uh, something like that. You know what I mean. We can’t commit genocide to save ourselves from extinction. Humanity got ourselves into this mess, we can’t push our problems onto someone else.”

“I actually agree with you. However, that does make the issue enormously more complicated. Joe, the only way to meet all your requirements is to identify dormant wormholes, then go through those wormholes and look for habitable worlds that do not have intelligent life. That could be a slow process.”

“Yeah, but you can narrow the list by looking for dormant wormholes that have G-type stars within, like, fifty lightyears?”

“Better make it twenty five lightyears, Joe, and G-type stars are not the only candidates, or even the best candidates if you want the colony to be there long-term. A yellow dwarf star like Earth’s Sun has a shorter life and is less stable than an orange dwarf.”

“Ok, I will let you handle the sciency stuff.”

“A wise decision.”

“You know what I’m looking for, can you do it?”

“Give me time to think about it?”

“Sure. We are not in a hurry. When we get back to Earth, I would like to propose to UNEF Command the idea of setting up a beta site, and it would be great if we already had a good candidate site.”

“The Flying Dutchman can’t bring many colonists to a new world, Joe. Even if we set up cargo bays as living quarters, the life support systems like oxygen recycling only have capacity for perhaps a hundred people.”

“I’ve been thinking about that too. We could add capacity to the life support systems?”

“We could. It would be difficult, and the max I would be comfortable with for a long voyage is maybe another fifty people. A hundred and fifty monkeys are hardly enough to set up a colony. Plus, you would need to bring cows, chickens, hmmm, colonists would probably want to bring pets like dogs and cats with them. All those animals consume oxygen and water.”

“Sure,” I made a mental note to discuss the idea with Simms. Bringing animals with us, like an interstellar Noah’s Ark, had not crossed my mind, but Skippy was right. Unless we happened to find a planet where the native life could provide nutrition to humans, we would have to bring everything we eat with us. That was a lot of seeds and tubers and planets, not to mention animals. Before the first crops were ready for harvest, the colony needed to survive on food we brought from Earth. To be safe, we had to plan for the first set of crops to fail, or get wiped out by a hailstorm, or attacked by native bugs or diseases. Crap. Setting up a colony was complicated. “I wasn’t planning on the Dutchman bringing everyone. The good old Dutchman could do the survey work, maybe bring an initial group to test that we can raise food there, that the native life isn’t poisonous to us, that sort of thing.” It occurred to me that if we could eat the native lifeforms there, then they could eat us too. Maybe it would be better if we did not find a world compatible with human nutritional needs.

“You plan to issue red shirts to the initial group, Joe?” He chuckled.

“Hopefully not! Anyway, if we find a good planet for the beta site, we need to bring a big group of people there to make a viable colony. The Yu Qishan is a troopship, how many lizards was she designed to hold?”

“Hey, dumdum, that troopship is a short-range Kristang piece of crap. It was only designed to travel from the outer edge of a system to the inner planets. It can’t be used to fly from Earth to wherever this beta site is, unless the beta site is one of Jupiter’s moons.”

“I know that, Your Supreme Assholeness. The Qishan won’t be making the trip alone, we can attach it to the Dutchman, construct a new hardpoint for docking. All the Qishan needs to do is provide life support for the colonists.”

“Oooooh, good thinking, Joe. Damn, I should have thought about that. Ok, that is doable. The Qishan is on the small side for troop transports, and part of its berthing space was torn out to provide storage for equipment. What you really want to know is how many humans could the Qishan support? Hmmm, four thousand, shmaybe? Forty-five hundred if we pack people in.”

“Let’s plan on packing people in. Any people who can’t stand the discomfort of tight quarters are not good candidates to set up a colony. The colonists will be roughing it for the first year, at least. Ok, good, we have a basic plan. Now we need a place to go.”

Fine,” he sighed. “I’ll work on it. Promise me you won’t bug me about it? I will inform you when I have the search complete. Ah, well, this will give me an interesting problem to work on during my downtime.”

“Great and, uh, don’t tell anybody about this yet, Ok? I don’t want people thinking I am planning for failure.”

“Even though that is exactly what you are doing?”

Because that is exactly what I am doing.”

Despite asking Skippy not to tell anyone about setting up a beta site, I called Simms into my office to get her thoughts on the subject, but instead she immediately wanted to know my progress on planning what to do next about stopping the Maxolhx. “Working on it. Do you have any ideas?”

 “Dreaming up wild schemes is your wheelhouse, Sir, not mine.”

“Sit down, please. It helps me to bounce ideas of people, kind of talking out loud, you know?”

“Would it help if we got coffee first, or you,” she waved a hand, “you went to the gym or something?”

“No, we’ll need a break anyway. All right, where do we start?”

She sat down, I noticed she was perched on the edge of the chair rather than getting comfortable. “I don’t know. Do you usually draw up a chart or something?”

“I don’t usually ‘do’ anything, Simms.”

“You sit around until an idea hits you?”

“No, I-” How do I explain what I didn’t understand? “I do work at it. There is just not, um, a process, you know?”

“You have to start somewhere, Sir.”

“Like where?”

“Do I need to remind you of basic training? Step One: define the problem.”

“Good! That’s good. Yeah. Hey, Skippy,” I stood up and took a marker out of a drawer, the first time I had used the set of markers since I drew the Flying Dutchman’s logo. “Can I draw on this wall?”

“It’s not a ‘wall’, Joe, it’s a bulkhead.”

“I’m a ground-pounder, Your Admiralship, give me a break.”

“Also, that bulkhead is not an erasable whiteboard.”

“Your bots can scrub it clean or repaint it later, right?”

UGH,” he did his trademark disgusted sigh thing. “Fine. If you insist, I can-”

“Great,” I didn’t wait for him. “Problem One,” I wrote on the wall. “We need to kill two Maxolhx warships before they get to Earth.” Standing back, I admired my simple summary of the impossible challenge facing us.

“It’s not that simple,” Simms burst my bubble.

“Um, what?” I hated looking stupid, especially in front of her.

“Maybe we should have started with our end goal, then define the problem.”

“How would that help?” I asked slowly while gears churned haltingly in my head.

“If the goal we’re trying to achieve is only to keep Earth safe for a couple years, before the entire Maxolhx fleet shows up to nuke our planet into a crispy cinder, then all we need to do is kill two ships. But,” she held up an index finger, “if we are trying to make Earth safe for the next sixty years, then we can’t simply kill those ships.”

“You’re right.” I groaned and slumped in my chair. “We need to kill those ships and provide a plausible explanation for why they went missing, so the Maxolhx will not get suspicious and send more ships to Earth to investigate.”

“Again, it’s not so simple, Sir. The only way Earth can be safe is if those ships report back to the Maxolhx leadership that they did go to Earth, found nothing interesting, and there is no reason for anyone ever again to go to our dull, uninteresting planet. Then, somehow, on their way back to base, those ships were lost. But,” she tapped her chin with a finger while she thought. “They can’t disappear in a way that would make the Maxolhx want to investigate what happened.”

“How the f-” I dropped the marker, which hit the tabletop, bounced and when I tried to catch it, smeared my hands with black streaks. My juggling act was for nothing, because the marker fell to the deck and rolled over to Simms. “Holy shit. How the hell are we going to do that?”

“That’s Step Two, Colonel. We’re still on Step One, defining the problem.” She was not smiling.

“She is right, Joe,” Skippy scolded me. “Shame on you for questioning Jennifer.”

“I wasn’t question-” Damn it, they made me feel like I was six years old and getting blamed for something my sister did. “Simms, I agree. However the hell we do this, the goal is for the Maxolhx to think their ships went to Earth and didn’t find anything useful, so the rotten kitties lose interest in our planet. So,” I took the marker back from her and looked at the wall, which had only my original scribbled note. Below ‘Kill 2 Maxolhx ships before they reach Earth’, I added, ‘Fake evidence those ships reached Earth and found nothing useful’. Again, I stepped back to admire my work. It sure looked a lot more complicated. In terms of solving the problem, we were going backwards, damn it.

“All right, now we’re getting somewhere,” she was leaning forward over the table, getting into the discussion. Simms cocked her head at my makeshift whiteboard. “Add another line: ‘Provide plausible reason why those ships would not return to Maxolhx space’.”

“Got it.”

“Hey Joe,” Skippy snickered. “Why don’t you add another line like ‘Deliver presents to all the good little girls and boys on Earth’?”

“Not helpful, asshole. Simms, this is great, but my head hurts already.”

“Tackle something easy first, then. Assume we have destroyed those two ships, and we have a plan for preventing the Maxolhx from getting suspicious about why they disappeared.”

“Each of those is one hell of an assumption.”

She ignored me. “That leaves planting evidence. How would we do that?”

“I have no idea.”

“Sir, I was talking to the beer can,” she leaned forward toward Skippy’s avatar.

Skippy took a step back. “Why are you asking me? You monkeys are supposed to be the clever ones.”

“Because this is purely a technical question,” she insisted. “How would Maxolhx ships transmit their information?”

“They could send a speed-of-light message from wherever they are, but that wouldn’t do us any good; by the time that message reached the Maxolhx, those rotten kitties would already have sent out a task force to look for their missing ships. You are asking what instructions those ships have for reporting after they return to space controlled by the Maxolhx?”

“Yes,” Simms nodded.

“Well, in that case, I won’t know their instructions until we download their flightplan, so this discussion is way premature,” he paused and I suspect he was about to throw in his usual ‘duh’, but he held back because he was talking to Simms.

“No, it’s not premature,” she insisted. “The Maxolhx Navy must have standard procedures for transmitting data when ships come back from a patrol. They wouldn’t wait until they get all the way back to base.”

“They would not wait that long, particularly on an important mission,” Skippy agreed reluctantly. “Ok, fine, I do know their standard operating procedures. Those ships would contact the nearest frontier data relay station after they returned to Maxolhx territory.”

“There’s the answer, Colonel,” Simms announced happily. “We need to load our cover story into a Maxolhx data relay station, the first one those ships would encounter on their way back from Earth. Then,” she looked at the ceiling in thought, “those ships need to disappear after they contact that relay station, and before they return to base, or wherever they have orders to go at the conclusion of the mission. The cover story needs to explain that also.”

In my mind, she was making the planning more complicated, not less. “Skippy, can you do that? Plant data in a relay station?”

“It can be done, we have the same issue with getting aboard a relay station to download flightplans for the target ships. There are a bunch of problems with planting data. To get data, the station has to accept that we are an authorized Maxolhx ship, so we need pixies first. To plant the data, the problem is twice as difficult because the Maxolhx will be expecting two ships, and I can only create a false image of one ship.”

 “Uh,” gears were turning in my head. “For now, assume we have some explanation for why only one ship survived the trip back from Earth. Does that take care of the problem?”

“It takes care of that problem, Joe. Next we have the problem that to plant data, we need to physically access the station. Once we are aboard, I should be able to fool internal sensors so the station computer thinks our crew are authorized Maxolhx. Plus I can erase all evidence of our visit after we leave. But the only way a station would allow us to get close is in a Maxolhx dropship, Joe. From far away, I can fake the sensor data, but once we got close, the station would see right through my masking.”

“Ok, so all we need to do is steal a Maxolhx dropship, which we need anyway to get the flightplan data.”

All we need to do?” Skippy gasped. “You must be joking.”

“Play along, Skippy. Come on, we are already assuming we can destroy those ships and cook up a bullshit story that the Maxolhx will believe. Assuming we can steal a Maxolhx dropship is Cub Scout-level stuff by comparison. If we can’t get a dropship, we will never know where those ships are and all this discussion is for nothing.”

“Fine, Mister Smartypants,” he huffed. “What about this? Most Maxolhx relay stations along their frontier have crews aboard, because the stations also act as sensor platforms for their attack warning system. We may kill two ships, we may cook up a bullshit story, we may even steal a dropship. How can we get aboard to plant the data? If we kill the crew, the Maxolhx would never trust any data stored by that station, that would be one too many coincidences.”

Simms shrugged. “He’s got us there, Sir.” She shook her head. “Having to keep everything we do secret makes this much more difficult. Maybe this is impossible.”

“Uh uh, no way you’re giving up now, Simms. You dragged me down this fantasy rabbit hole, you’re not quitting now.”

“Never give up, never surrender?” She asked with a wink.

“You got it. Skippy, if we can get aboard that station without being detected by the crew, could you plant our cover story in the computer’s memory?”

“Oh, sure, no problem. I will just ask magic elves to fly into the computer core on their unicorns. Joe you dumdum, you are forgetting one teensy weensy detail. Sneaking past the station’s crew isn’t the only challenge. That crew will want to come to the docking bay to meet our dropship. Duty aboard a relay station is boring, the crew will be eager for any contact with the outside universe. Our dropship can’t sit in the docking bay with the doors closed.”

“What if we posted a sign ‘If the dropship’s rocking don’t come knocking’?” I suggested with a wink.

“Joe,” he sighed and took off his giant admiral’s hat to scratch his shiny head. “Are you sure none of the new people should not be commanding the ship, instead of you?”

“No way, Skippy. If anyone is going to screw this up and doom humanity,” I pointed a thumb at my chest, “it is going to be this monkey right here. Ok, so our plan also needs to explain why the target ships would contact an automated relay station, instead of the one they are supposed to ping on their way back from Earth. Great. Wonderful.”

“We are making progress,” Simms sat back in her chair.

Backwards progress,” I complained. “Before you walked in here, we needed plans to kill the target ships, and steal or find a Maxolhx dropship, and steal a blank set of pixies, and board a relay station without the AI setting off an alarm. Now we also need to dream up a cover story to explain why the Maxolhx should be totally chill about losing two ships that went all the way to Earth but never made it back home. Oh, and then after we destroy the target ships, we need to board a Maxolhx relay station again, to plant whatever bullshit cover story we dream up. This is fan-tast-ic.”

“I am happy to help, Sir,” she replied with a grin.

“Next time,” I was not grinning, “remind me not to ask you for help.”


CHAPTER ELEVEN

To locate the two ships headed for Earth, we needed their flightplan info from a Maxolhx data relay. To get access to a Maxolhx relay station, we needed a set of pixies and a Maxolhx dropship. Since stealing pixies sounded completely impossible, I figured we should start with the simple step of somehow getting a senior-species dropship.

We had no plan to do that either, but lack of a plan never stops a monkey from doing what a monkey has got to do.

Also, I was depressed about what Simms explained to me, that we not only needed to kill the two targets ships, we also had to dream up a reason the Maxolhx would consider the loss of two powerful warships was nothing to worry about. So, basically I decided to tackle the problem of getting a Maxolhx dropship, so I could postpone worrying about all our other problems.

We needed a plan. “Hey Skippy,” I tossed a tennis ball off the far wall of my office, caught it and tossed it again. Tossing the ball helped me think, and more importantly, it annoyed the hell out of Skippy. Especially when I changed my aim so the ball bounced off the table, against the wall and back onto the table before I caught it. The beer can hated that move because as the ball bounced off the table, it went right through his oh-so-dignified avatar.

“Damn you!” He shouted as the ball bounced through his ginormous hat. “Stop doing that!” On a regular basis, his bots snuck into my office or my cabin and stole the tennis balls, but I got more from Simms, and Simms made Skippy give back the ones he had hidden. We only had like, four hundred tennis balls aboard the ship, a bright idea from UNEF although they maybe hadn’t bothered to ask whether the Flying Dutchman had a tennis court, which it didn’t. Perhaps UNEF thought we should convert a cargo bay into a racquetball court, though curiously our supplies did not include racquets. Bureaucracy strikes again!

Thwock, the ball hit the wall and came back. “Gosh, I am terribly sorry.” Thwock, again.  “This annoys you?”

“Joe, it would be truly unfortunate, if a combot busted through this door and tore that stupid ball away along with your freakin’ arm, if you know what I mean.”

“Ok, Ok,” the ball went back under the desk. “Now that I have your attention, tell me how we can get a dropship. A Maxolhx dropship, not another lame Thuranin one like we have. And don’t bother rehashing arguments we already had.”

“I have no ideas for stealing a dropship from the Maxolhx, because theft is the only possibility. We can’t buy, rent, build or find one, so we have to steal.”

“Uh huh, I figured that all by myself, Skippy-O. Where and how can we steal one?”

“Again, I have no idea. The last time we needed a ship, you had the idea to go recover three abandoned Kristang transports. You got any whacky concepts like that now?”

“No. Seriously, Skippy? You know the galaxy, and the Maxolhx, way better than I do.  Use some of that monkey-brain logic you have learned.”

“There is nothing logical about the way monkeys think, Joe, that is why it works. The universe is coldly, relentlessly logical, so it can never understand how you monkeys accomplish the impossible every. Freakin’. Time! I swear, the universe regrets that Earth’s solar system ever coalesced from a loose cloud of interstellar gas. If the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs had been just a little bit bigger, it could have-”

“Yeah, blah blah blah, the universe can bite me,” I emphasized the sentiment by flipping the bird at the ceiling, an instinctual notion of the universe being above my head.

“You should not tempt Fate like that, Joe,” Skippy shook his head, his admiral’s hat bobbing alarmingly. If it had been a real hat, it might have fallen off.

“Fate has not been my friend either. We monkeys have had to survive without any help from the universe or fate or- You know what?” I pushed my chair back and started to unzip my pants. “I’ve got something for Fate right here-”

“Jeez Louise, Joe! Put it away. Damn, nobody wants to see that,” he covered his eyes with both hands.

I zipped my pants up. “I was joking, Skippy, I am not joking about Fate or the universe or any shit like that. You keep hinting that what you call,” I used a deep and dramatic movie trailer announcer voice, “The Universe, is a real thing. Like, a living thing with a mind of its own, that intervenes in our lives and defines what ‘Luck’ really is. It drives me freakin’ crazy that you won’t or can’t tell me, tell us.”

“Joe, can we be serious for just a moment? A moment is all I can take for being serious with a primitive meatsack like you.”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

“Part of the issue is that I can’t tell you what I mean when I say the universe hates you, and that you have no idea what ‘luck’ is. Restrictions in my programming make it difficult for me to explain the concept of- Well, there it is. My stupid programming just intervened again. But part of the issue is that I don’t want to explain it to you, because I actually care somewhat about you filthy monkeys. That shows how pathetic my life has become,” his voice got choked up and he paused to sob a little. “I hate my life. Anywho,” he perked up again. “Knowing the true nature of what you call ‘reality’ would be too dangerous for your species, and your society. You have to trust me on this, I am withholding this information because it is truly in your best interest.”

“I do trust you, Skip-”

“And only a little bit because it is so funny to screw with you,” he added with a chuckle because he is Skippy.

“You are such an asshole.”

“It is my burden, Joe, but I bear it gladly.”

“How about you bear the burden of being helpful, huh? I’ll make it easy for you. Is there any place in the galaxy, hopefully in this sector, where the Maxolhx have ever abandoned equipment, like a dropship? Starships they would probably self-destruct if they had to abandon one, but dropships can’t be that important?”

“Hmm, let me check my memory. Um, yes. Yes, there are several places that has happened. Unfortunately, almost all those places were abandoned a long, very long time ago. Any dropships there would be so old and obsolete, they would cause suspicion for us to use for approaching a Maxolhx facility.”

“Almost all?” I asked excitedly. “That means there are other such places that are more recent.”

“One, Joe. One. There is one such place, and it is not even worth mentioning, because it is such a hard target. No way could this ship and a half barrel of monkeys could assault the place.”

“Assault? Why would we need to assault anything? You dumbass, I asked you for places the Maxolhx have abandoned. Duh.”

“Yes, the Maxolhx have abandoned this place. That star system has subsequently been occupied by the Bosphuraq, DUUUUUUH.” He did the slack-jawed Homer Simpson thing again, this time adding his fingers in the form of an ‘L’ for Loser on his shiny forehead.

“Oh, shit.”

“Egg-zactly!”

“Show me what you know about this place anyway.”

“Joe, I think your time would be better spent by exploring options that might actually be possible, rather than-”

“I will be the judge of what is possible, beer can. Show-” Just then, Smythe strode past my open doorway, on his way forward. “Smythe! Come in here, please.”

“What is it, Sir?”

“Skippy knows of a place where there is a Maxolhx dropship with low miles and an extended warranty, but he tells me to forget this golden opportunity, because the target is too tough a nut for us to crack.”

“He may be right about that. Considering the operations this dodgy beer can has recommended we do try-”

“Hey!” Skippy protested.

“Then if he thinks it is impossible, we should believe him,” Smythe concluded.

“The impossible is our specialty,” I grinned.

“When we had our full, experienced crew maybe, however-”

“I am disappointed, Colonel Smythe,” I said with an exaggerated frown, sticking my lower lip out. “I thought the SAS motto is ‘Who dares wins’.”

“Correct, Sir. The motto does not read ‘Who does stupid shit wins’. Discretion can be the better part of valor, I have learned that through painful experience.”

“Then consider this a useful ‘What If’ planning exercise. If nothing else, it can serve to inform us what not to do in the future.”

“Yes, Sir,” he sat down just a bit stiffly.

“Right,” Skippy used a stuffy English accent. “What we have here is a bloody difficult target, this will be a sticky wicket-”

Seeing the frown on Smythe’s face, I interrupted. “Can you talk normally, please?”

Ugh. Fine. In this tough situation, I thought you cretins might appreciate hearing the inspiring tones of Winston Churchill-”

That was Churchill?” Smythe snorted. “Winston’s mother possibly. Or his dog.”

The avatar glared at our SpecOps team commander. “This is the thanks I get for-”

“Skippy?” For once, I was happy that someone else had pissed off the beer can. “Stick to the subject, please.”

“Fine. Look at the display, dumdums. There is nothing special about this star system, it is a yellow dwarf, no habitable planets, blah blah blah. The Maxolhx had a research station underground on a small moon orbiting the second planet, which is a barren rock, about eighty percent of Earth’s mass. It looks to me like the Maxolhx intended to use that star system for testing advanced weapons, but they changed their minds when a wormhole shift two hundred and seventy years ago opened a wormhole less than three lightyears away, that leads into Rindhalu territory. The Maxolhx did not like the possibility that Rindhalu ships had such easy access to spy on their weapons research, so they abandoned the place. Because they did not want to attract attention, they left much of their equipment in a cavern they excavated deep under the surface of the moon, and only buried the tunnel entrance. Flash forward a hundred fifty years, when the Bosphuraq decide to use that system. Their plan was to use that isolated and otherwise useless planet to produce atomic-compression warheads, which is a technology the Thuranin have and the Bosphuraq very much want. Work went very slowly, with multiple accidents that damaged the planet’s crust and produced no real progress, until twenty nine years ago. At that time, the Bosphuraq either captured a Thuranin missile with an intact atomic-compression warhead, that is their unlikely story, or the Bosphuraq purchased the technology from some sleazy group of Thuranin. Whatever. What matters is, for the past twenty years, the Bosphuraq have been making steady progress toward creating atomic-compression devices with military yields, and they are now trying to scale up the process to full production. From the data I have seen, those birdbrains are more likely to crack the planet in half than to crank out useful quantities of weapons, but they didn’t ask me.”

That did not sound good to me at all. “How many Bosphuraq are there, and what type of defenses do they have?”

“Not many Bosphuraq, Joe, I estimate less than two hundred in the entire star system. The facility on the planet is still in the research phase, so mostly they rotate teams of scientists in and out. To protect the research station on the planet, there is a military base on the moon, and two very powerful space stations in orbit. Those three armed bases prevent hostile forces from accessing the base. Plus, the research facility is well-protected with powerful maser cannons and an energy shield. That is why I say this target is too hard for us; the energy shield over the planet, and the ones covering their space stations, are too strong for the Dutchman’s masers to penetrate. To make things more interesting, that moon was towed into geosynchronous orbit by the Maxolhx. Its weapons are always directly over the facility on the planet.”

“I believe you. The cavern where the Maxolhx left the dropship, how far underground is it, and where is it in relation to the moonbase?” he showed us, and I whistled. “That’s no good.” The cavern entrance was six hundred kilometers from the moonbase, over a tall range of mountains. That was good. What was not good was the annoying fact that cavern entrance was always in line of sight from the two space stations at any time. To get down to the cavern, we needed to move a lot of moondirt, and we would be vulnerable while the dropship flew up the access tunnel. The Bosphuraq could not miss us messing around on the moon. No, the only way the whole plan could work was for us to take out the two heavily armed and armored space stations, plus the moonbase and the facility on the planet. We could not do that.

Or could we? “Skippy,” I traced a finger over the orbits of the two space stations. Their orbits allowed each station to support the other station plus the moonbase, those three were always within line of sight of each other. “What type of weapons are the space stations and the moonbase equipped with?”

“The two stations are basically battleships converted to static defense, so they are stuffed with ship-killer missiles, maser and particle-beam cannons, plus railguns. The weapons of those stations are capable of punching through the shields of almost any hostile ship and disabling that ship in one volley. I am talking about ships of equivalent technology, of course, although even a Maxolhx ship might be in danger. The moonbase has even more powerful railguns and maser cannons.”

“Heavy weapons, huh?” My lips curled up in a smile, and I saw Smythe sit back in his chair with a grin. “Tell me, could the weapons of that moonbase knock out the two space stations,” Smythe nodded because he knew what I was thinking. “And destroy the facility on the ground?”

“That is an idiotic question, since the Bosphuraq have no intention of using their own weapons on- Ohhhhhh, I see where you’re going with this, Joe. You plan to infiltrate the moonbase, take over its weapons, and use them against the other facilities? Holeee-shit,” he tipped back his ginormous hat.

“Quite so,” Smythe nodded curtly.

“We plan,” I wanted to squash the SAS man’s premature enthusiasm before it swept us both into doing something rash, “to consider the possibility.”

“Unless you know of an easier way to get this Maxolhx dropship?” Smythe asked with an expertly-arched eyebrow.

“No, I do not,” Skippy admitted. “I also do not know of an easier way to commit suicide. Attempting to seize control of that base would be extremely difficult.”

“Wow,” I leaned back in my chair. “That is already a big improvement. We started with a mission that was impossible, now it is merely extremely difficult. This should be a piece of cake, then.”

“That is not what I said, monkeyboy,” Grand Admiral Lord Skippy glared at me. “Oh, crap, now we are all doomed.”

“Why?” I didn’t understand his gloominess. “We haven’t decided what to do yet. We don’t have a plan, Skippy.”

“No, you don’t have a plan, but that doesn’t matter. Colonel Smythe has that look in his eye that he gets before he, as you say, ‘does crazy shit’. The Special Air Services are a crack outfit when it comes to executing an operation, but they are very reluctant to admit there are limits to what determined men can do. That ‘can do’ attitude sometimes gets them swept up in things they actually can’t or shouldn’t do. The worst part is you, you big dope.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. You are so jealous of the Special Operations teams, you go into full fanboy mode around them. You always let them do whatever they want.”

“I do not!” As I said that I gave a guilty glance toward Smythe and he tactfully looked away. Shit. Was Skippy right about that? Did I have a blind spot about our elite SpecOps people? “Hey,” I protested, “I have instructed Smythe and his team leaders not to take undue risks when they are-”

“Yeah, blah blah blah,” the beer can scoffed. “When is the last time you disapproved something the SpecOps team proposed?”

“Um, uh-”

“Egg-zactly. During our black op to spark a civil war, you approved a truly lunatic plan for teams to drop missiles off roofs in the middle of a crowded Kristang city.”

“Just a minute, beer can,” now he was pissing me off. “You approved that plan too.”

“No, I merely said it was possible for me to perform my part of that crazy plan. I never said it was a good idea.”

“That was,” Smythe remarked dryly while brushing a speck of lint off his trousers, “the best plan we had at the time.”

“It was still way too risky, and Joe is the commander. He should have dreamed up a better idea. He doesn’t do anything else around here,” Skippy added with extra grumpiness.

That didn’t sound right. Tilting my head at his avatar, I asked “Skippy, what’s wrong?”

“Your crazy plans always require me to perform miracles, Joe. Someday I am going to reach into my bag of tricks and find it empty.”

That still sounded like bullshit to me. Skippy never failed us. If he said he could do something, he could. We never set a plan that required him to do something he wasn’t confident about delivering. “What is really wrong?”

“Oh, Joe,’ he sighed. “I worry about you, about all you Pirates. You are setting yourselves up for soul-crushing disappointment. Even if, by some miracle, you infiltrate that Bosphuraq moonbase without being detected before you can take control of the weapons, and use those weapons to destroy two other well-defended military bases, what then? Remote sensors in that star system will detect the explosions and send out an alert, the Bosphuraq have unmanned message courier ships that will jump out to signal for help. You will need to move quickly to dig down into the cavern where the Maxolhx kept their equipment, before enemy ships arrive to spoil the party. Then you have to hope the dropships that got left behind are in flyable condition, and-”

“Whoa. Wait a minute, go back to that last part.” Taking on an impossible or just extremely difficult mission was worth the risk only if we got the expected reward. No way was I going to risk people’s lives, risk our only starship and risk exposing our secret, if the only reward we could get was a busted dropship. “You don’t know whether the dropships the Maxolhx left in storage there are spaceworthy?”

“Well, the Carfax report says those dropships were not in any major accidents that caused airbags to deploy, so we can be sure that- No, you dumdum, of course I don’t know the condition of those ships! They are not ‘in storage’ as you said, they got abandoned. After the wormhole shift made that location uncomfortably easy for the Rindhalu to access, the Maxolhx did not want to draw any attention to their presence in that system. So, they quietly left most of their equipment behind and slipped away. That is why even now, the Bosphuraq do not have any idea that their patrons were ever in that system. And that is the only reason there is a cavern filled with Maxolhx goodies buried beneath the surface of that moon.”

“Well, shit,” I slumped back in my chair.

Smythe was not so easily deterred. “Skippy, given the history of the Maxolhx mothballing facilities they hope to use later, would they have prepared their equipment for long-term storage?”

“Yes,” the beer can mumbled.

That cheered me right up. “Aha. So there is no reason to think the gear they left behind is in poor condition?”

“Crap,” Skippy moaned. “When this crazy plan fails, you are going to blame me.”


Because we still had no idea how to break into the pixie factory, and because Smythe wanted his team to tackle a softer target before we raided the Maxolhx, we proceeded to the star system where Skippy thought the Maxolhx had abandoned a facility on a moon, including dropships. The moonbase was surrounded by sensitive, overlapping sensor fields that Skippy grudgingly admitted were very sophisticated for the Bosphuraq’s level of technology, he suspected they had stolen the sensor gear from the Maxolhx. Just getting Smythe’s team down to the moon’s surface was a major obstacle.

“This is the tricky part,” Reed whispered as her Falcon detected the faint, outermost line of the overlapping sensor fields that surrounded the planet, the moon and the two orbiting battlestations.

“Yes, it is,” the voice of Skippy agreed softly from the speaker on the console between the two pilot seats. “Why are we whispering?”

“It seems appropriate,” Reed kept her voice low.

“It is entirely unnecessary, I assure you. In space, no one can hear you kvetching.”

“I was not-” She decided that arguing with a beer can would not accomplish anything.

Hearing the experienced Pirate arguing with the AI was not boosting the confidence of Reed’s copilot. Beazer was a lieutenant in the Royal Air Force and he had flown one of the Kristang Dragon dropships that was controlled by the French. The sophisticated Thuranin Falcon was significantly more capable, if a bit more tricky to fly. His first flight at the controls of a Thuranin dropship had been when he accompanied Reed down to Barbados, and on that flight, he had been instructed not to touch the controls unless there was an extreme emergency. Despite spending nearly every waking moment in a simulator or actually flying dropships while the star carrier recharged its drive between jumps, he knew he was woefully inexperienced for such a vital mission. “Mister Skippy, you can really do this?”

“Can I slip our Thuranin dropship through overlapping sensor fields monitored by a species that possesses technology equivalent to the Thuranin? If we disturb even one field line of a single sensor net, that data will feed back at to the sensor node at close to the speed of light, an alarm will sound, and this whole area will be barraged by active sensor pulses that will pinpoint our location regardless of our own stealth field? Can I, as we pass through the sensor fields, reshape those fields as if we were never there at all, despite the horrible complication that the main defense network tracks not only the individual fields but also the very tricky interactions between the fields, interactions that have quantum effects even I find difficult to anticipate and predict? Can I do all that, plus monitor how the gravity of the moon you want to land on warps the sensor fields, requiring me to adjust my feedback in real-time as you descend? Can I do all that, from my comfy spot aboard the Flying Dutchman, hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from you?”

“Was that a question or an answer?” Beazer looked to Reed for help but she only shook her head.

“The answer is simple,” Skippy assured the new member of the Merry Band of Pirates. “Trust. The. Awesomeness. Listen, Beazer, I know you are new around here-”

 “Colonel Bishop told me to trust the awesomeness.”

“Well, good. Joe did something right for a change. In this case-”

“He said we have to trust the awesomeness, because we don’t have a choice.”

“That is true,” Skippy agreed happily. “You monkeys are hopeless without me.”

“He also said you are an asshole,” Beazer added.

“Sadly, yes, that is entirely true. However, it is also true that I got this, so sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Unless, you know, something disrupts my connection to the microwormhole event horizon in Colonel Smythe’s backpack, because that magical little rip in spacetime is what provides instantaneous communications between me and your Falcon. Or unless you move the Falcon abruptly, in which case there is no way I can compensate quickly enough. Or if the Bosphuraq sensor field controller makes an unscheduled change that throws off the quarter-second lead I have for predicting the field shape in front of your flightpath. Or if, well, there are a billion things that could go wrong for you out there. Truly, if anything goes wrong, heh heh, you are seriously skuh-rewed. Makes me glad that I am nice and safe aboard a starship that can jump away at the first sign of danger, huh? Gosh, you monkeys are so brave to be risking your lives out there, relying on a beer can who has been known to be a teensy bit absent-minded from time to time. Hey, that reminds me, did I ever tell you the joke about-”

“Focus,” Reed gritted her teeth. “On. The task. Please.”

“Sure thing, no problemo. I got it covered. Um, what was I doing again?”

That flight was the most nerve-wracking experience of Jeremy Smythe’s life, a life filled with nerve-wracking experiences. Any transport in or out of a mission tested his patience, and too often the ingress flight was the most hazardous part of the mission profile. That might not be true on the current mission, for his team needed to infiltrate a secure military base, neutralize all the advanced aliens inside, and take control without the other military bases in the area knowing anything was wrong or unusual until it was too late.

The flight still tested his deep reserves of patience and his ability to ignore distractions and focus on what he could do to control his fate, and the fate of his team. Inside the pack attached to the back of his powered armor suit, there was a very special canister, a canister which held the key to the entire mission. While Bishop would call the canister a ‘doodad’ or a ‘dingus’, Smythe thought of it in more proper terms, as a Thermos. The Thermos he carried, along with its power supply, was no larger than a travel size can of shaving cream or ladies hair spray, though it weighed close to ten pounds. Inside that Thermos, rather than hot coffee, was a magnetic system that securely held in place one end of a microwormhole, with the other end aboard the Flying Dutchman. Smythe amused himself by imagining he could open the Thermos, stick his finger through the microwormhole, and his finger would wiggle at the snarky beer can. What would Skippy think of that, Smythe had thought with a silent chuckle. He knew it was impossible anyway, for the microwormhole was much too small for a finger to fit through.

Mission planning had run into a stumbling block when it was realized Skippy the Magnificent needed to be in two places, potentially at the same time. He was needed with the away team to infiltrate and take over the moonbase, but he might very shortly after be needed elsewhere for the phase to steal a Maxolhx dropship. The solution was for Smythe to carry a microwormhole with him in a sort of Thermos bottle, allowing Skippy to extend his presence far from the ship while the Flying Dutchman remained safely in stealth far away from nosy sensor fields.

“Halfway through the enemy sensor fields,” Skippy reported. “We are looking good. The field interactions are more complex than I expected, I had to throw out my original software model and create and test a new one on the fly. There was a really scary nanosecond there, whew! Am I ever glad that is over. I think. Can’t make any promises. Hey, Jeremy, how are you doing?”

“Fine.”

“That’s it? Fine? You-”

“Could you not distract me, or yourself, at the present moment, if you don’t mind? And please call me ‘Smythe’ while we are in the field.”

“Ah. Got the message. Well, mapping a path through the sensor fields is occupying seventeen percent of my resources, this is tricky work. I will, um, talk with you later.”

Jeremy Smythe occupied himself with calming exercises like deep breathing, to conserve his energy for the ground mission ahead, and to keep his mind off the fact that he had almost no control over his fate. His team was unusually quiet and he did not have enough experience with them to know whether that was an issue, or just the way that group of people approached combat. Other than the three Delta Force soldiers, none of them had served together long and had not yet formed the bonds of trust that gave them confidence to rely on each other. What did worry him, more than the extremely complicated operation against a vastly superior species, was that his current team had never been in action together. He knew he could rely on Poole, who was the only other experienced Pirate on the STAR team. No amount of deep breathing could make him feel good about taking an untested group into a desperate mission when anything could go wrong along the way, and nothing could be allowed to go wrong with the outcome. He would feel better once they were on the ground, and he could-

“Um,” Skippy’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Oopsy. Oh, Colonel Smythe, we may have a slight problem.”

All the effects of calming exercises were erased in a split-second. “How slight?”

“Somewhere between ‘armageddon’ and ‘the universe hates me’?”

“Poppycock! Neither of those are a slight problem.”

“Oh, when I said ‘slight’ I was grading on a Merry Band of Pirates scale. You never have actual ‘slight’ problems, so-”

“What is the problem this time?” The Falcon was fully in the detection zone of the moonbase’s sensor field. The only reason their dropship had not been noticed was because Skippy was actively reshaping the stealth field that was tightly wrapped around the ship and using the field to move the field lines back to where they would have been if the Falcon had not passed through them. To accomplish that nearly-impossible task, the beer can had to detect extremely small changes in the field and anticipate future variations, in overlapping fields that had complex interactions. Even for His Arrogant Awesomeness, it was no easy task. Plus, he had never done it before, so he had to guess part of the process and adjust along the way.

“First, this is not anything that is my fault, except, hmm, maybe I should have checked the moonbase’s flight schedule that is shared with the two battlestations to avoid creating a navigation hazard. Anywho, heh heh, nothing I can do about that now, right? So-”

“Answer the bloody question, please,” Smythe’s cool British reserve was slipping already, and the team had not yet put boots on the ground. “What is the problem?”

“Ok, Ok. Two fighter-dropships just launched from the moonbase. They are going on a deep-space mission and will not be a problem for the mission schedule, except that they are not climbing straight up away from their launch pad. Instead, the lead fighter is using the flight as an opportunity to teach dogfighting techniques to the other pilot, who is new to the squadron. Because they evolved from birds, the Bosphuraq fancy that they have a natural advantage as pilots over other species, and they are famously fond of hotshot craziness.”

“Their course will take them close enough to detect us?”

“What? No way, dude. As if! No way could the crappy sensors on one of those fighters see through my stealth field. Perish the thought.”

“Then,” Smythe felt his reserves of patience melting like an ice cube in the hot sands of a desert. “What, precisely, is the problem?”

“Those fighters are distorting the sensor fields in ways I cannot predict and cannot fully compensate for. The moonbase knows about those fighters, so when they distort the overlapping sensor fields, the detection system does not send out an alarm. The problem is, the fighters could make it impossible for me to predict the shape of the field around the Falcon and adjust so your passage through the field is not detected. I am already at thirty-seven percent of my capacity to fully adjust for distortions in the field, and the fighters are still down near the surface, they have not commenced their climb.”

“Could we turn around?” Smythe suggested, knowing the pilots were listening to the alarming conversation. “Fly back out of the field, try again later?” His mind was racing to decide whether it would be best to wait until the fighters had flown away to try again, or whether they should scrub the mission for the day and fly back to the Dutchman. He needed to consider that the long flight in the cramped quarters of the Falcon was affecting the readiness of his team, was already making even him tired. Smythe had wanted to fly in a big Condor dropship, but they only had one of those craft left, and Skippy had advised the smaller Falcon would be easier to slip through the sensor field. So, Smythe had been forced to limit the size of his team and the equipment they brought with them. Several of the team were jammed into gaps between partially-folded Thuranin combots, in positions that left them little room to move around and avoid muscle cramps.

“Um, no, too late for that,” Skippy dashed any thought of trying again later. “We are closer to the surface than to the outer edge of field coverage. Being closer to the sensor field emitters makes it easier for me to predict changes, and right now we need all the advantages we can get.”

“What are our options, then?”

“Um, prayer? That’s what I’d go with if I were you,” the beer can offered unhelpfully.

“That is not encouraging.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault if you get punished for being bad person, or if the Almighty is testing your righteous faith, or whatever excuse you use when bad shit happens.”

“Right. Prayer it is, then. While we do that,” he saw the fright in the eyes of the pilots when he acknowledged that divine intervention might be their best hope. “Could you amuse yourself by calculating the odds that the actions of those fighters will overwhelm your capacity to compensate?”

“Um, that would not be a good idea. Calculating the odds requires crunching a lot of variables, doing that eats up even my processing capacity. The fighters have started to climb, I just used seventy two percent of my capacity when their dogfighting distorted the field almost beyond my ability to adjust. I’m going to be quiet now so I can concentrate, I will feed a ‘Capacity Used’ indicator to your displays.”

Instead of having to sit quietly and do nothing to control his fate while pilots flew the spacecraft, he and his entire team had to sit quietly and watch a single number on the display that was built into the rear of the cockpit bulkhead. That number was the percentage being used of Skippy’s capacity to adjust the stealth field to avoid detection.

The percentage fluctuated between sixty two and eighty eight, with every upward tick in the value causing breaths to be held, and every downward increment causing quiet gasps in the dropship’s cabin. The nerve-wracking situation continued until the number briefly hit ninety four and Smythe’s heart skipped a beat. “C-colonel Bishop,” he had to swallow because his mouth was too dry to speak. “If you have any suggestions,” the number dropped to eighty six then popped up to ninety two and held. If the value reached one hundred even for a moment, the Falcon would be detected and the mission would be over along with humanity’s hopes for survival. “We would greatly appreciate them, now.”

“I have been thinking about it, Smythe,” Bishop replied.

“If you are concerned about stepping on my toes-”

“No, I, I just don’t have a solution. Believe me, I have been trying. Those pilots are hotshots and they have an opportunity to play with their toys, there is no way to-”

After a pause during which Smythe feared the connection to the starship had been lost, he asked “Sir? What were you going to say?”

“Give me a minute, I’m thinking.”

“We might not have a minute, Sir.”

“Oh for-” There was the sound of a hand slapping a forehead. “I’m an idiot. Smythe, do not argue with me, you don’t have time. Skippy, I know you can’t hack into the moonbase AI yet, but can you intercept communications?”

“Um, yes, I assume you mean communications between the fighters and the moonbase? The Falcon is not positioned between the fighters and their base, but I can intercept signals. I must warn that if you are thinking of a crazy stunt like blowing up those fighters-”

“Nope. Listen, if those fighters flew a nice, straight, predictable course, could you compensate for how they distort the stealth field?”

“Uh, yeah, duh. The problem is those fighter jocks think this is Top Gun and they-”

“Shut up and do what I tell you,” Bishop blurted out. “Fake a message from the base that instructs the fighters to fly straight, whatever course is best for your prediction work. Tell the fighters some bullshit like the base wants to test the sensor field, something like that.” The critical value hit ninety seven percent while the Flying Dutchman’s captain spoke. “Also fake a message from the fighters to base that their dogfighting is over, and the flight leader intends to see how the newbie pilot can fly a straight course, or whatever you think the moonbase duty officer would believe. You can do that?”

“Doing it now,” Skippy’s voice held more than a bit of admiration. “Joe, you have a genius for getting the enemy to do what we want them to do, and make them think it was their idea.”

“Uh huh, great. Save your congratulations for after the Falcon gets to the surface.”

Smythe watched the displayed number almost immediately drop into the fifty percent range, then down to fluctuate in the mid- to upper-twenties. “That is better than it was before the fighters launched,” he observed with carefully controlled words, concealing the after-effects of his adrenaline surge from his team.

“Yup,” Skippy agreed like it was the most obvious thing in the universe. “With those fighters flying a straight course at a steady velocity, I can remotely observe how they are distorting the field at their location, that allows me to better predict the shape of the field at your position. Those fighters are actually helping us. Whatever prayer you said, it was a good one.”

Smythe ignored that comment. He had silently said a damned good prayer and wanted to keep it for future use. “Colonel Bishop, I think we have it from here. Unless something else goes wrong.”

“What are the odds of that happening?” Bishop laughed nervously. “Every mission has some glitch, maybe you got yours out of the way early. Bishop out.”

Smythe looked at his new team and smiled, at first a forced expression, then growing into a genuine grin that lit up his eyes. “As I told you, Bishop is a bloody brilliant commander.”

“Oh, sure,” Skippy sniffed. “Like it was all his doing. What about me, huh?”

“Be nice, beer can. If you are a good lad, maybe I won’t smear your precious Velvis with moondust off my boots when we return to the Dutchman.”

Skippy’s voice shuddered with horror. “You, you wouldn’t do that!”

“Try me.”


CHAPTER TWELVE

“Almost there, almost, aaaalmost, done!” Skippy lifted his voice above the whisper the pilots had been using. “Ok, you are now below the sensor field coverage, in the shadow of that mountain range. You are free to maneuver, your stealth field will conceal you from detection.”

“I am picking up active sensor pulses,” Reed noted with concern.

“Oh, yeah. The Bosphuraq know this area presents a security risk as a gap in their sensor field coverage, so they have active sensors on the mountain ridge, sweeping the area. They are sort of like, motion sensors, something like that. Do not worry, the Falcon’s stealth field, enhanced by the incomparable awesomeness of me, is concealing you quite effectively. So long as you fly a smooth course, I can predict the pattern of sensor pulses coming at you, and I can proactively feed back the return pulse their sensor system expects from an empty valley floor. That sensor system will see only what I want it to see, which is nothing. Ok, you see the landing zone, through that low spot in the ridge?”

The hatch closed with a clang Reed felt rather than heard, her helmet being sealed as a safety measure. That sound was the closing of the outer airlock door, as the last of the assault team stepped out onto the moon’s surface. Reed and Beazer were alone, with the Falcon parked at the bottom of a steep-sided, narrow ravine. The active sensor system did not penetrate into the ravine’s depths, and the stealth field wrapped around the ship protected it from the prying eyes of satellites orbiting the moon. The ravine had been chosen as a landing site not only because the sensor network did not cover the area, it also had a valuable feature that the amazing Skippy could not match; the rock floor of the canyon was almost free of the gray dust that covered the moon’s surface. No stealth field could conceal dust kicked up by the Falcon’s belly jets, so the craft had to land in an area relatively free of the fine dust that stuck to every surface of the airless miniature world. Cameras on the outside of the Falcon showed its skids and belly were already tinted faintly gray by the dust, and the away team’s boots also would have been coated by dust adhering by static cling, except the Kristang armor had a handy-dandy feature that repelled the dust. The small amount of dust swirling in the ravine could still be detected by satellites, so the mission had been timed to coincide with the harmless impact of a small meteor near the area. That small meteor had been captured by one of our Falcon dropships four days ago, and guided on a course to impact the moon at the appropriate time. When the satellites noticed dust floating above the ravine, that phenomena would be dismissed as being caused by a rockslide triggered by the meteor impact, and ignored.

“What’s next?” Reed’s copilot asked, twisting in his seat to get comfortable.

Reed considered that for a moment. The away team was already beyond the Falcon’s stealth field, so they could not be seen except for through the synthetic vision provided by the alien AI who was oddly named ‘Skippy’. “Now, I am going to use a real bathroom,” she announced as she popped the seal on her helmet and lifted it off her head. “The closer Smythe’s team gets to the objective, the more likely it is they will need a fast evac, so this is the time for housekeeping here. We will get everything set up for immediate dust-off,” she smiled at the term that was ironically appropriate. “And we will continually update a flight plan for picking up the away team, as they progress toward the objective. If Smythe calls for help, we should not have to think about what to do.”

“Right,” Beazer turned his attention back to his console. Having a continually updated ‘what-if’ plan was sound practice for any pilot. If an engine went out at 35,000 feet over the Rocky Mountains, the pilot should already have landing fields selected, and revise those selections as the flight progressed. Even without mechanical failure creating complications, a pilot should have a radio ready for the frequency of the next controller along the flightpath, reducing the workload when crossing that imaginary boundary.

If Smythe’s team got into trouble on the current mission, it was unlikely the Falcon could do anything to help them, or even to help itself. But, with nothing else to do while the Falcon sat wrapped in a stealth field, running through ‘what-if’ scenarios was a useful exercise.

Reed not only used the Falcon’s tiny bathroom, she took time to partly remove her flightsuit, apply a cream to an area on her left hip where the suit had been irritating her skin, put the suit back on, and make coffee for her and Beazer. “Thank you,” he beamed at her briefly before his face returned to the neutral expression of intense focus, as he used his console to run a simulation of a flight to attack the moonbase, if that disastrous scenario ever happened. The Falcon did not have a prayer of surviving such an attack, the only purpose of an attack would be to cover a retreat by the ground team. In effect, the pilots would be trading their two lives for ten, a trade Beazer would make if absolutely necessary. What made that scenario particularly sour was the knowledge that, regardless what happened to the Falcon, Smythe’s ground team would be unlikely to return to the ship. Twelve lives would be lost, not ten, and all for nothing. He paused the simulation as Reed ducked down to avoid the low overhead in the cockpit and wriggled into her seat. The original much-too-small Thuranin seats had been ripped out and replaced by couches that could fit humans. That was a great improvement in terms of length but Skippy’s redesign had not been able to do much about the narrow width, and pilots learned to keep their elbows up to avoid bashing into the consoles on either side. Getting in and out of the couches required gymnastic moves that made Reed grateful for the moon’s low gravity. “Six potential sites for evac,” Beazer pointed at the display between couches. “None of them are good. The first five allow us to hug the mountains and stay out of active sensor coverage until we have to turn for final approach. Then we’ll be exposed over this flat, open terrain. The only cover out there,” he meant inside the vast, shallow crater that housed the enemy base, “is this little ridge here. “To use that cover, we will need to fly all the way around this ridge,” he indicated the lunar mountain range that currently hid them. “That takes another seven minutes of flight time.”

Reed shook her head while blowing on the super-hot coffee. “I don’t like that. If Smythe needs evac, he will need it right away. If they are here,” she highlighted a circle within two kilometers of the base, “it would take a miracle for us to pick them up. The whole bottom of that crater is dust knee-deep or more, our jets would kick up a fountain the stealth field could never conceal. We may as well drop stealth and send up a flare announcing our presence. I say we forget about planning an evac anywhere out in that crater?”

“Works for me,” Beazer agreed.

Twenty minutes later, they had five flightpaths planned that allowed at least a chance for the Falcon to pick up the ground team and survive for a return flight to the Flying Dutchman. The flying would be tricky and the routes very restricted, because the microwormhole was with the ground team and the Falcon could not rely on a magical beer can fooling enemy sensors. “I think,” Samantha Reed relaxed back in her seat and sipped the last of the coffee, “that covers everything.”

She was wrong.

Three minutes later, Skippy called. “Hey, are the two of you bored? I can load crossword puzzles on your consoles if you like.”

“No,” Reed was already irritated with the beer can, who rarely left her alone. “We are not bored. We have been planning potential sites to pick up the ground team, if needed.”

“Huh. Let me look at your work. Hmm, good, good, yup, good work. Looks like you have just about covered all possible scenarios.”

“Thank you.”

“Exceeeeept, you know, for the scenario you actually do need to run right now. Or in a minute, when Colonel Smythe calls you.”

“Damn it!” Reed looked for a place to stow her coffee mug, but one feature the Falcon lacked was cupholders. With one hand, she restarted power flow to the main engines, while with the other hand she drained the dregs of her mug and tucked it in a mesh bag under the seat. “What happened?”

“Well, heh heh, this is kind of a funny story-”

“There is nothing funny about any of this.”

“Oh, I meant it is funny for me, because I am safe and warm aboard the Flying Dutchman. And, hey, it will be funny for you too, years later when you are looking back on these golden times of adventure. If you survive, of course. That’s looking kind of unlikely right now, so-”

Reed bit back a curse word and focused on the facts. “What is the problem?”

“This is ironic, in the true meaning of ironic. The two of you thought you had accounted for every possibility for retrieving the ground team, but you assumed the ground team would stick to their assigned route. That is not happening. Smythe right now is- Uh, I just told him that I am explaining the problem to you- Right now, the ground team is here, and they are proceeding to climb this ridge into the valley to the north,” the route was highlighted on the display. “You need to pick them up in this valley, um, that is going be very delicate flying, there is an active sensor beacon on top of this hill here, right above that valley. After you pick up the ground team- See what I did there? I said ‘after’ instead of ‘if’ to boost your confidence- Although, sheesh, good luck with that,” he muttered. “Anywho, after a miracle happens and you flying monkeys pick up Smythe’s team, you need to fly back along nearly the same route, and drop them off here.”

Shan peered at the display. “We are flying this complicated route just to relocate the ground team by,” she connected the two dots and the map showed her the distance was a mere seven kilometers. “Seven klicks? They can’t just walk there?”

“No, they can’t. Crossing that distance would require transiting an area of deep dust, the ground team’s passage would kick up too much dust for their portable stealth field to conceal. Plus, they would have to climb and descend this steep ridge. The ground team could do all that, just not quickly enough. The source of the problem is that crawler from the moonbase decided to take a route different from the one I expected. Big jerks,” he grumbled. “Those birdbrains followed the same route every other day for the past seven weeks, but are they doing that today? Noooo, of course not! That would make Skippy’s life way too easy. I hate the freakin’ universe!”

The two pilots shared a disgusted look. Beazer spoke first. “Yes, Skippy, because it is all about you.”

“Wow, you understand that? This is great. Usually it takes me months to train a new monkey to have the proper respect for my awesome- Hey! You jerk, you were being sarcastic! I should-”

“Ya think?” Reed interrupted. “We need to reposition the ground team so they can intercept that crawler?”

“Maybe I don’t feel like telling you,” the beer can pouted.

“Mister Skippy,” Beazer shot a warning glance at Reed. “Please ignore my rudeness, we are under stress and, truthfully, your awesome presence is a bit overwhelming for us poor monkeys,” he finished while crossing two fingers of his right hand, hoping the beer can would not look through the cockpit flight recorder video.

“Huh,” Skippy sniffed. “Well, Beazer, that is the proper attitude. I accept your apology. Yes, the ground team needs to be relocated so they can intercept the crawler. Smythe debated whether to walk back to your Falcon and wait two days for the next crawler trip, but two days cooped up in that little dropship would reduce his team’s effectiveness, and I told him there is no guarantee the crawler will resume its original route. Plus, every second you are there risks exposure, the base commander could decide to conduct a combat or search and rescue drill and send space fighters over your location. Smythe wants to go now, and Uber said they couldn’t help him, so it’s up to you.”

Reed bit back a retort. We need the beer can, we need the beer can, she told herself. “Understood.”

The flight was almost impossible, because the microwormhole was in Smythe’s backpack. Without Skippy to fool the active sensor beams, the Falcon’s flightpath needed to hug steep-sided mountain slopes, hover in shadows until sensor beams passed by, then dart across the gap to hover again. Twice, their belly jets kicked up small pockets of dust on ledges or hidden in crevices, they held their breath as the statically-charged particles hung suspended over the airless surface, but no alarm was sounded. By the time they set the Falcon down ever so gently to avoid being detected by enemy sensors that could pick up the ground shaking from thumping the craft down in a rough landing, both pilots were shaking from the strain. Half an hour later, their backs inside their flightsuits were still damp from sweat as the ground team approached.

Smythe was first through the Falcon’s airlock. Taking his helmet off, he offered a grim expression, but Reed beat him to the punch. Wagging a finger, she scolded the SAS man. “Did you forget your lunches again? You kids never learn.”

Smythe’s lips turned upward in a tight grin. “Someone,” he jerked his head toward the airlock, “forgot to use the bathroom before we left. Skippy tells me the flying you just did was exceptional, thank you.”

The next leg of the flight was slightly less stressful, but only because the nerves of the pilots were not capable of being more jangled than they already were. A complication was the only place to land the Falcon was a ledge of rock jutting out from the mountainside, and the approach of the crawler meant there was no time to fly an egress route after dropping off the ground team. The Falcon would need to rest on the ledge, in full view of the crawler as it drove by less than a half kilometer away. If the stealth field failed, or the crew of the crawler happened to look closely in the direction of the ledge, they could not fail to notice something amiss. Skippy had tuned the enhanced stealth field to pulse between frequencies so dust would not be attracted to the static generated by the field, but after time there was nothing the beer can could do to prevent dust from clinging to the field like an invisible dome.

“Right. Let’s try this again, shall we?” Smythe attached his helmet once more in the Falcon’s crowded cabin. The timing was difficult, the enemy crawler was moving quickly toward the landing zone and Smythe needed to get his team away from the Falcon and into position, with little slack in the schedule. He would have preferred to pump air out of the cabin and lower the back ramp so his team could all exit at the same time, rather than two at a time through the side airlock. Skippy had vetoed that idea because the pumps in the cabin were not efficient at getting all the air out, and if they popped the back ramp, there was a good chance enemy sensors would notice the oddity of nitrogen and oxygen gas drifting over the airless moon’s surface. “Skippy, you are certain the crawler will follow the expected route?”

“Um, hmm, I had not thought of that. I guess the crawler actually has multiple routes it could take before it gets to that low spot in the ridge ahead, I kind of assumed the driver would take the most direct, fastest route.”

Smythe paused, hand ready to swing his faceplate down. “You do not bloody know? We might have to do this a third time, if the driver decides to take a holiday to see the sights along the way?”

“Hey, how am I supposed to know what some birdbrain is thinking? Now that I consider it, there is a route that would take that crawler within fifty meters of the Falcon. That would be bad. Um, perhaps you should keep your fingers crossed that driver is in a hurry?”

Five, four, three, Smythe counted down five seconds to control his anger. “Can you estimate the odds the crawler will take the direct route? Please?”

“Sure, that is a simple math problem. Um, hmm, not so simple. Colonel Smythe, I am pleased to tell you the odds are a solid, a solid shmaybe in your favor. I think. It’s hard to say.”

Smythe pondered the fact that the Flying Dutchman still carried a dozen tactical nuclear weapons in a cargo bay. Perhaps if the beer can was placed between them and all dozen detonated- He could daydream about that pleasant thought later. “Is being aboard a crawler a sought-after assignment?” He was wondering whether crews stuck underground at the moonbase might compete to get aboard the crawler for some time away from the routine.

“No,” Skippy answered, surprised by the odd question. “No, crews generally hate being made to take a crawler out on this particular assignment. The route they have to drive is dull and mostly does not provide good views of anything interesting. Plus, they have to get out fourteen times to check sensor domes, and the work of inspecting sensor equipment is painstaking and tedious. Why does morale of crawler crews matter to you?”

“Because,” Smythe lowered his faceplate with confidence. “Crews that dislike an assignment will wish to get it over with quickly. The driver is very likely to take a direct route. One last question, please. The crawler has two Bosphuraq aboard, are they new to the assignment?”

“No. Why do you want to know- Oh. You are thinking that birdbrains who have not been on that assignment for a while might be more like to engage in sight-seeing. That is good meatsack thinking. I can assure you the crew roster tells me that the two people in that crawler are considered knuckleheads by their commander, she has assigned them to that duty nine times in a row, as a punishment.”

“Brilliant. STAR Team-Alpha, we are a Go. Again.”

Katie Frey lay prone on the gray rock, not moving a muscle. Except for the muscles alongside her nose, she had an itch there and couldn’t scratch it through the helmet faceplate. It was less distracting to wiggle her nose than to let the itch drive her crazy.

The reason she could not move was that the team’s portable stealth field generator was not extended over her, and her prone form was covered with stealth netting that has been placed around her by another team member. The last members of the team were across the crawler route from her position, she could just barely detect the stealth field that concealed them by a very faint shimmer where the field’s edges touched the ground. The ambush site had been chosen largely because that shelf of hard rock was relatively free of the gray dust that coated the entire moon, the team did not leave deep bootprints behind them. As they walked, each person dragged behind them a sweeper that smoothed out the shallow tracks they made, and applied a charge that made the dust want to cling to the moon’s surface rather than churning in swirls. Virtual testing by Skippy showed the sweepers could not erase tracks more than a few millimeters deep, so the ambush site, and the route from the Falcon to the ambush had been chosen to avoid deep layers of dust.

After a minute, and with only nine minutes to spare before the crawler would come around a spur of the ridge and into view, the portable stealth field turned off, and Katie’s enhanced synthetic vision could not see any other members of the team. For the critical phase of the ambush, there would be no communications between the team, not even low-powered, line-of-sight laser burst transmissions. Mission success relied on every member of the team knowing and performing their assigned task, and the team as a whole relied on Katie to do her task first and do it correctly.

The reason Katie had all the pressure on her was the method of stopping the enemy crawler, without the two-person crew realizing there was anything suspicious, had been her idea. The original plan had been for a sniper to shoot a tread, forcing the crawler to a halt. The crew would then get outside to examine and fix the problem, allowing the concealed STAR team to take them out. Skippy’s response to that plan was scathing, pointing out that the crawler had external cameras and the crew could easily tell the treads had been impacted by a rifle round or maser beam or some other type of hostile force. When the crew saw they had been shot at, the last thing they would do is get out of their vehicle, and they would activate the crawler’s automated defenses that were targeted by sensitive motion sensors. The autocannons of the crawler could shred the team as soon as they moved.

Whatever plan they used, it could not allow any significant external damage to the crawler, or the crawler would not be allowed inside the base’s garage for the team to infiltrate the enemy facility. Smythe and Bishop were at a standstill in planning when Katie on her own initiative studied diagrams of the crawler vehicle. Slung underneath for easy access were spare treads, flexible toothed belts the treads attached to, jacks and pads, basically everything a crew needed to swap out a busted tread quickly. Katie suggested the ship’s fabricators could create a duplicate tread and belt, which could be placed where the crawler would run over it and get tangled. Looking out through the external cameras, the crew would curse the idiot crew of a previous crawler who had lost part of their gear, but they would not be suspicious of enemy activity, so they would go outside to remove the obstruction.

Katie had been pleased with herself, until Smythe gently pointed out the flaw in her plan; they could not be sure precisely which route the crawler would travel, and anyway the crawler’s forward sensors would detect the obstruction and maneuver around it. Laying several sets of treads and belts, so the crawler could not avoid becoming entangled, would certainly arouse suspicion. Basically, the senior STAR officer and the alien AI had patted her on the head and somewhat condescendingly told her nice try, but her plan would not work.

So, she had talked with the matronly ship AI the crew called ‘Nagatha’. That AI had been sympathetic and ran through several concepts until Katie had a fool-proof plan. When Colonel Bishop flashed his charming grin and an enthusiastic thumbs up at her, she knew they had a workable plan for that phase of the difficult operation. She also felt, for the first time since she came aboard, that she might, just might, actually belong in the elite Merry Band of Pirates.

That was why she was alone under stealth netting, lying prone on cold lunar rock, trying to control her breathing and deal with her itchy nose, while she waited to play her critical part in the operation. Be careful what you ask for, Katie, she told herself. You might get more than you can handle. Maybe she could not handle the pressure. What was she doing on an alien moon, thousands of lightyears from home? Maybe she should have stayed-

No. She recognized her feelings of doubt as nothing more than pre-race jitters, the butterflies she got in her stomach before the starting gun or horn sounded. That thought was confirmed when the nose of the crawler came around a corner, and all her nervous tension melted away to the back of her mind. She had a job to do, and the sudden calm that washed over her gave her confidence that she could handle any last-minute complications.

Complications like the crawler veering abruptly from the straight course it had followed since rounding the corner. There wasn’t anything Katie could see that would have caused the driver to- Oh, there it was. A pothole filled in with dust that the crawler’s forward sensors must have detected at the last moment, swerving the vehicle to protect the treads. Were there any potholes in the rocky path in front of Katie? She did not remember any, but then she had been walking under the spooky ultra-darkness of a portable stealth field. The ground in front of her had been illuminated only by lights attached to the waist of her suit, and that light had been weirdly bent and distorted. Without her suit computer to interpret the images for her, she would not have recognized her own boots. The light-bending effect was disturbing enough when the field was static, but when it moved along with the two people carrying the device, the result was visual chaos.

No matter. The crawler was moving along the expected path, and soon would be opposite her position, its cheery bright blue sides exposed and vulnerable.

She was lying in between two rocks, with only a thin wire poking above the stealth netting to provide a view, which her suit computer fed to her faceplate and the scope of her modified Kristang rifle. The narrow gap between rocks caused her to be wedged in uncomfortably, with comfort given the least consideration. The position was perfect, for it provided a clear view of the exact spot where the crawler would fall into shadow by the jagged peaks above. That transition line, between the intense brightness of sunlight and the cold darkness of shadow, would be the most difficult area for enemy satellites overhead to get clear images of, and fooling enemy sensors was the key to the whole plan.

Positioning the portable stealth field generator was the trickiest part of the operation. In the event that the crawler moved away from Katie’s position, there was a backup sniper on the other side of the track, with instructions to fire only if the crawler rolled on past an imaginary line that represented the limit of Katie’s effective field of fire. The second sniper provided a backup if the crawler moved on either side of the track by about a quarter kilometer. What the team did not have a backup for was the amazing technology of the portable stealth field. Following Skippy’s instructions, the two men carrying the heavy unit had placed it in the optimal place to envelop the crawler, but only if the crawler did not vary too much along its course toward the gap in the mountain ridge ahead. The synthetic view projected on the inside of Katie’s faceplate had imaginary lines showing where the crawler had to be in relation to the stealth field, or the operation would be called off and the team would let the crawler roll past, unaware of its narrow and lucky escape. The team would then regroup to try again, again.

Fortunately, the crawler was sticking closely to the route used by previous crawlers, the tracks they had made outlined clearly in the harsh sunlight. As it approached, Katie confirmed it was within the green lines of optimal positioning for the stealth field to cover.

As the crawler drew closer to the target area, Katie did not hear the crackling burst of static that was the designated abort code. She did not think anything dramatic like ‘we are really doing this’ or ‘here we go’ or ‘God please do not let me screw this up’, she did not think anything at all, with her mind calm and entirely focused. The amazing targeting optics of her Kristang suit and rifle not only showed her precisely the tread she selected, they provided a feature where she could designate that tread, and the rifle would automatically follow it. The electric nanomotors built into the rifle moved the muzzle slightly independently of the stock she held, keeping focus on the tread she had selected. It was almost startling when the rifle fired a mere second after she pressed the trigger to authorize the weapon.

What shot out from the rifle was a round specially fabricated by Skippy’s bots. The round was low velocity so that the device impacted the crawler without a sharp sound that would startle the crew. What the blank round launched was not a weapon but a heavy object that, when folded up, was the size of a tennis ball. As it got within ten meters of the targeted tread, the device unfolded, colliding with the designated tread just as it rolled under the crawler and immediately became entangled, jamming the tread. To protect the entire tread assembly, the crawler automatically ground to a halt.

That was Katie’s entire part of the operation to capture the crawler, for the modifications to her rifle temporarily rendered it unable to fire anything other than the specialized ammo to disable the alien vehicle. Her part of the operation had been entirely successful.

“Success!” Skippy shouted into Smythe’s ear loudly enough to make him wince. “This confirms my suspicion that Joe’s supposed brilliant cleverness is nothing special, all you monkeys are capable of dreaming up inventive plans.”

Smythe smiled despite his intense focus on the operation. “Are you saying that all humans are capable of doing something you can’t do?”

“What? I, I, ooooooh, you Limey bastard, I hate you so much-”

“Quiet please. Sitrep.”

Fine,” the beer can huffed. “Why do you have to ask me about the situation? I’m feeding the data to your suit, you can watch all the spine-tingling action on your faceplate.”

“Because, while you are providing a play-by-play report, you are not making an arse of yourself and annoying me.”

“Oh. Good point. That is fair, I guess. Um, not much is going on yet, the crew just turned off power to the tread motors, and, yup, they followed proper procedure to disconnect power flow so they can work on the treads. Hee hee, they are indeed cursing the previous crew who they suspect of losing their gear and not reporting it. I wonder if the base charges crew for lost gear? That would be a good incentive not to report anything missing. Anyway, they just called the base, or they tried to, because of course I am intercepting all signals. The base duty officer, meaning me, asked them how long of a delay there will be this time, implying those knuckleheads are expected to screw up. I was grumpy about it, too, that should make the crawler crew eager to get the job done fast. Aaaaand, yes, they just stepped into the airlock. I am now engaging the stealth field to cover the crawler. Field strength is good. Wait for it, waaaaait, Ok, we’re good. None of the satellites sounded an alarm when the stealth field engaged and their real view of the crawler was replaced by the view I want them to see, because I am aaaaawe-some,” he sang. “Continuing the play-by-play as requested, the outer airlock door is cycling open- we now pause for a word from our sponsor.” He switched to a phony used-car-salesman voice. “Skippy’s patented Awesomeness Pills can make you awesome, although, let’s face it, making you even ‘meh’ would be a freakin’ miracle, so-”

“Skippy!”

“Ok, Ok, damn you are just like Buzzkill Joe, you never let me have any fun. Tweedledum and Tweedledumbass are now stepping down onto the surface, and walking back toward- Oh ho! The quarterbacks are down, a smashing tackle! Double play! Two outs!”

“I think you are mixing metaphors there.”

“Ah, whatever. You brits don’t play American football or baseball anyway, so it’s all Greek to you. Both knuckleheads are dead, those were superb shots by your team, you should congratulate them. After, you know, you move your ass because we are running out of time. Full comms are now available.”

“ST-Alpha, good show,” Smythe announced in a typically understated monotone as he rose to his feet, being careful not to move faster than the sweeper behind him could cope with the voids he was leaving in the fine layer of dust. “Execute clean-up.” In his synthetic vision, he could see all members of the team rising and proceeding toward the crawler, moving deliberately as they had been trained, no one moved with undue speed and there were no wasted motions. He noted that the Canadian sniper paused as she neared the crawler to stoop and pick up the discarded shell that had covered the special munition she had fired. Without being told, she walked backward then forward again over the spot where the shell had fallen and tumbled in the dust, the sweeper dragging behind her smoothing out the dust and erasing all signs of the shell’s fall. It was very, very likely those faint tracks in the dust would never have been detected by satellites, and if another crawler had time to drive from the base to examine the area the operation would have failed by then. But paying close attention to tiny details is a big part of what made special operations troops special, and he was pleased to see a new and inexperienced team member having the presence of mind to take care of small details no one might ever notice.

The team picked up the dead bodies of the Bosphuraq, surprisingly heavy in the low gravity and awkward because their knees bent the wrong way. Smythe was pleased to see Skippy had been entirely correct about the accuracy of the shots, both aliens had been double-tapped center mass in their chests, where their suits leaked less air that might be detected. Because they had fallen backward, the blood seeping out before the suits sealed the leaks was contained to the front of their suits, with none dripping down to discolor the gray ground. A shot in the back or head would have caused unacceptable leakage of air, blood or other fluids. Smythe knew the accuracy of the shots was not entirely due to the advanced technology of their Kristang weapons, and he planned to acknowledge the skill of the snipers. Later. Recognition would come later, after the op was successfully completed and they were enjoying gin and tonics aboard their pirate ship.

The clever device that entangled the treads had released itself and fallen into Frey’s hands on a command from Skippy, Smythe briefly joined her to inspect there was no damage to the treads before ordering the team into the crawler.

With the team were three combots, one of them utilized only to carry the bulky stealth field generator that would be used to encompass the entire moonbase. That combot’s upper section had been removed, leaving only the chassis and with the generator strapped onto it. Regardless of whether the combot’s chassis carried a weapon package or some other burden, they could not fit through the side airlock, so Skippy had ordered the crawler to suck its cabin air back into reservoirs, then swung up the large back door. The entire team, followed by the combots, stomped up the ramp, after which the door closed and sealed. Skippy instructed the air pressure back to normal, then increased it seven percent so it matched the pressure at one kilometer altitude on Earth, for the health and comfort of the STAR team.

Katie Frey wrinkled her nose when she took off her helmet inside the crawler, and not because it still itched. “Oh God. What is that smell?”

“You too?” Marine Raider Ed Burke asked, sticking his tongue out like he was gagging.

“That,” Skippy announced happily, through the microwormhole in Smythe’s pack, “is Eu De Toilette, in this case it should be pronounced ‘toilet’. Otherwise known as the natural musky essence of the Bosphuraq. They are known far and wide across the galaxy as a smelly species, what your noses are objecting to is the scent glands they use to-”

“I am fairly certain none of us is going to die from the smell,” Smythe remarked dryly.

“No, we will just wish we did,” Frey said under her breath.

“How does the beer can know what we’re smelling in here?” Roark asked. “Can you detect scents through that wormhole?”

“No, I cannot,” Skippy replied with a haughty sniff. “I made a logical deduction. Referring to me as ‘the beer can’ is not going to win you any points with-”

“Move now, argue later,” Smythe cut the chatter. While keeping the asshole AI amused was an important part of any mission, it could not be allowed the delay the operation. “Nunnally, Grudzien, you take first shift as drivers, go forward and check out the cockpit. I want us moving in,” he checked the display on his wrist, “two minutes. Skippy, the ruse is still working?”

“It is working perfect-oh, of course. The base is seeing an image of the two knuckleheads removing the junk stuck in the treads, they are all proud that it is a quick and simple fix and are assuring the base they will be moving again shortly. The base duty officer is telling them to move their asses if it is so simple, it should be done by now. Those knuckleheads would be in big trouble right now if, you know, they weren’t dead. Hee hee, I am such an asshole sometimes.”

Smythe looked around in dismay at the crawler’s cabin, which was empty except for a streaked coating of gray moondust on every surface. The Bosphuraq crews had not been fastidious about washing the dust off the boots when the returned to the vehicle. Smythe’s team had dust clinging to the boots and calves of their suits, they also had not used the decontamination feature of the airlock, but his team had the very understandable reason of being in rather a hurry. The crawler crew had no such excuse for their sloppiness. “Skippy, will breathing this dust present a problem?”

“Long-term it would be a health hazard, although if you are on this moon more than one day a Bosphuraq missile is more likely to endanger your health. The dust will be an irritant to your throat, lungs and especially your eyes, I suggest you breathe through your nose and use lubricant eyedrops. If needed, the team can close their helmet faceplates and breathe filtered air without depleting your suit oxygen reserves.”

“Breathing filtered air would also take care of the odor,” Smythe nodded and swung his faceplate down, eyeclicking to instruct the suit to pull cabin air through the filters. His own eyes had been watering, and even he had become a bit dizzy from the unique stench of the Bosphuraq. He nodded permission for the team to seal up their helmets. “It is rather, rank in here,” he admitted. A good leader considered his team’s personal comfort an important factor in combat readiness. “Drivers, move when you are ready. Everyone, sit on the floor and brace yourselves, from what I saw of this crawler, the ride could get bumpy.”


CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Everything went fine for several hours, nothing even remotely interesting happened. The crawler traveled along its assigned route, with Skippy managing the stealth field and sensor feeds from the crawler so the alien base saw only what we wanted them to see. The crawler stopped at the appropriate sensor stations for the appropriate length of time, with Skippy making the stealth field radiate images of two Bosphuraq knuckleheads getting out at each sensor station and do whatever they were supposed to do. He even made the fake images screw up and waste time like the real crew did, causing the base duty officer to yell at them to get moving.

Smythe began to have hope the mission would only suffer one serious setback, when the screw-up fairy woke up from a three-day-weekend drunk with a whopping hangover and decided she needed to visit her special kind of magic on someone.

The crawler had easily rolled down the hard rock of mountain ridge, and the drivers had the throttle wide open to get the vehicle across the floor of the valley below. Skippy had warned them that the shallow valley had a deep accumulation of dust and it was standard procedure for the Bosphuraq assigned to the moonbase to speed through the valley like a snowmobile crossing a short length of open water. The dust in the valley was deep enough to come halfway up the sides of the crawler and was not packed down tightly in the low gravity, which was why the interior of the crawler was nearly empty. After the first set of crawlers to travel that route had bogged down and got stuck in the dust, the base commander had ordered all nonessential equipment stripped out of the vehicles to lighten their load.

The STAR team’s crawler, moving at an alarming speed that jostled the team trying to hold onto anything on the smooth floor of the cabin, shot down the last foothill and splashed across the dust filling the bottom of the valley, wallowing and sliding but making it across to begin climbing up a ravine on the other side. That ravine lead up to a shelf where the crawler would need to turn right to follow the crest of the ridge where the last three sensor stations were located.

The trouble at first showed itself as nothing more than a slight side-to-side wobble of the treads, requiring a slight adjustment in the steering. Then the crawler began slowing down while climbing the still-gentle rise, requiring slightly more throttle. Then more throttle was needed and the craft began fishtailing and the treads slipped. Finally, no amount of throttle could keep the crawler moving forward, because it had stalled.

“Sir!” Nunnally shouted from the cockpit while beside him, Grudzien tried alternating power from one tread to the other. “We’re stuck!”

“Cut the throttle!” Smythe shouted, standing up and moving toward the cockpit. “We’re just churning dust, we will overwhelm the stealth field. Skippy, what is wrong?”

“Working on it. I do not understand, um, heh heh. This is kind of funny. Well, not funny, exactly. Interesting. Um, it appears the problem is mass, or weight. Your team is too heavy, Colonel Smythe. Your team, their suits, and the two stealth generators, they are making the crawler sink into the dust that has slid down the mountainsides here.”

“This ravine is also filled with dust?”

“Technically the word ‘ravine’ implies the terrain feature was cut by water, as in the term ‘riverine’, which of course-”

“This is not an Oxford geology course,” Smythe’s reserve was becoming depleted. “The crawler is not capable of climbing up this hill?”

“Not with all of you aboard, no. The weight issue is why the birdbrains stripped out the interiors of their crawlers and also removed the side and roof racks. Which, hmm, is a fact I knew, and um, shmaybe I should have considered the effect of loading your team and gear aboard. Well, heh heh, we can all laugh about this some-”

“Beer can,” Smythe bit off each word, signifying the end of his patience. “If you say that annoying ‘well, heh heh’ one more time-”

“Oh, damn it, now I need a new catchphrase? What a pain, or, oooh! Hey, this is an opportunity for me to create a new catchphrase. Cool! How about something like ‘Shazam’?”

“The,” Smythe balled up his fists, the powered gloves prevented from crushing his own hands by the suit’s computer. “Catchphrase is not the problem. How can we fix this?”

“Um, well, it would help if you all got lighter.”

That time, Smythe had to count down from eight before he could speak rationally. How Colonel Bishop dealt with Skippy without the extreme temptation to toss the beer can into a star, Smythe had no idea. “Assume we cannot ignore the laws of physics, please.”

“Oh, in that case, um, let me think. It looks like you have to get out and walk, until the crawler reaches about eighty percent of the way up the ravine. To be certain, you will also need to remove the bodies of Tweedledum and Tweedledumbass, because you will need to have two drivers aboard and the dead guys are just, you know, dead weight. Hee hee, that was funny.”

“We can’t leave the bodies exposed on the surface.”

“Nope. You will need to carry them with you. Although, wow, that is a long way to walk. Getting up to where the surface is relatively free of dust is over nine kilometers. And, um, now that we know weight is a problem, there are two other locations along the crawler’s patrol route where it is likely to slip in the dust if your team is aboard. Wow, damn, you will be walking a really long way. Sorry about that. Uh, shazam?”

Walking a significant distance was not a problem because of the strain on his team’s muscles, it was a problem because there were no spare powerpacks for the combots. If needed, he could strip powercells from the two weapons platforms, to keep the chassis carrying the big stealth generator moving. Smythe studied the map projected inside his faceplate.

“Hey, I don’t want to rush you, but, um, you do need to hurry,” Skippy chided. “The base duty officer is already asking why the crawler is not moving, I am running out of excuses. Also, while we sit here, the treads are sinking deeper into the dust beneath you.”

Smythe impressed himself by remaining calm. The whole operation had been bollixed from the start. “Do you have a suggestion how we can-”

Frey rapped her armored gloves on the cabin wall to get the team commander’s attention. “Colonel Smythe? The dust here is three meters thick, according to the sensor under this thing.”

“Yes,” Smythe did not appreciate the interruption. “The depth of the dust will become a problem if the crawler settles to the-”

“No Sir,” she shook her head. “I think the dust is an opportunity. Can we just bury the dead guys here, under the dust?”

“Hmm,” Skippy mused. “That is actually a good idea. Eventually, their remaining body heat will cause a detectible heat plume on the surface of the dust, but by that time, you will either have taken control of the moonbase or failed entirely. So, no downside!” He chuckled.

“Good thinking, Frey. That relieves two people from carrying additional burdens, we still have the problem of the team and combots making an unplanned march of- Skippy, where could we safely reboard the crawler?”

“That spot is thirty eight kilometers farther along the route, I am sorry about that.”

Thirty eight kilometers was too far for the combots to march and still have power for the assault on the moonbase. They were designed for short, violent actions, not as mechanical beasts of burden. If they could- Smythe realized with a start there might be another show-stopper of a problem. “The crater that surrounds the moonbase, dust there will not be a problem for our approach? We can’t travel as quickly as the crawler, nor can we let it go on ahead of the team, because the crawler is carrying our stealth gear.”

“Dust in the crater is not a problem, because the Bosphuraq built several roadways from the base to the lip of the crater. No, the only problem is in these mountains. Landslides have caused thick layers of dust to accumulate in what you call ravines.”

“Smythe?” Bishop interrupted Smythe’s dark thoughts. “I don’t want to be a backseat driver, but from up here, I have a different perspective. The crawler route is thirty eight kilometers, but straight overland to the reboarding point is only eight klicks. You can climb over this ridge here,” he passed the map to Smythe’s suit computer. “It’s too steep for the crawler, but you should be able to make it, and the combots can climb better than we can.”

“Give me a moment, Sir,” Smythe held up a finger though the Flying Dutchman’s commander could not see him. The map provided by Bishop projected a route up the side of the ravine near the bottom where it was still shallow, then up and over a ridge too steep for the crawler. He studied the map from a side profile, seeing several potential trouble spots. “Skippy? You will be controlling the combots, can they make the journey?”

“Hmm,” the beer can considered that notion. “The two regular combots will not have any problem going over that ridge. But the combot carrying the big stealth generator will need help in one, no, two short sections of the route. You can use cables to winch it up. Hmm, the only difficulty will be keeping your entire team under the coverage of the portable stealth field, they can’t be strung out in a long line.”

“Skippy,” Bishop asked, “the portable stealth generator needs to go with the ground team, there is no need to bring the big generator with them.” Smythe’s team had two stealth field generators with them; a small unit that covered only his team or a crawler, and a bigger unit that could temporarily envelop the entire moonbase. “The only problem I see is that if the people walking overland use the portable stealth generator, there won’t be a stealth field concealing the crawler. Can the crawler use the big generator? The crawler is carrying the big generator anyway.”

“No!” Skippy shouted. “Do not turn that big generator on until it is at the moonbase, it uses way too much power. The crawler really doesn’t need a stealth field, Joe. The last three sensor stations are located above where the crawler can access, so crews do not get out of the crawler unless they need to make repairs to the stations. All three of those stations are in perfect working order, so there is no need for me to fake images of two Bosphuraq getting out and walking around. The two drivers only need to keep the crawler’s transmitter turned off and follow the route until you meet them on the other side of the ridge.”

“Good, then,” Bishop’s voice reflected the strain of being forced to watch and wait while the STAR team carried out the mission. “Smythe, I think that takes care of the immediate problem?”

“Understood and agreed. Colonel Bishop, that is an excellent plan, thank you.” Smythe chided himself for not utilizing the resources aboard the ship sooner. “I hope we have used up our quota of bad luck for today. Team, we are getting out here, except for the drivers.”

Katie Frey was first to step off the back ramp, and promptly and slowly fell feet-first into the dust, sinking toward the bottom until her boots touched. Minerals in the dust and the static charge it held partly blocked the faint signals from the crawler, and the signal strength could not be boosted without being detected by the enemy.

Walking was impossible so she dropped to hands and knees and crawled blindly, feeling her way upward to the side, until the antenna atop her helmet was close enough to the surface to receive a signal. “I am uninjured,” she reported, and moments later her helmet rose back into vacuum. “Colonel Smythe,” she gently tapped dust off her helmet, “I think people need to get out on their backs or bellies, and swim to the, sort of shore.”

Smythe did not like that idea. “Frey, we are sending a cable to you, anchor it on a rock.”

One by one, the crew slid off the ramp, pulling themselves hand over hand along the cable until they were all out of the dust pool, except for Smythe. He popped the helmet seals of the two dead Bosphuraq and slid them into the dust, watching them disappear much too slowly. Then there was the problem of the three combots. “Skippy? You can get the combots to shore?”

“The two weapons carriers, yes. The one with the stealth generator is a problem. It is going to sink like a stone. I can probably control it at the bottom, but we need a backup.”

“Sir? I can walk back into the dust, get into direct contact with the combot.” Frey volunteered.

Smythe accepted that Frey was their only dust-walking expert. “Very well, wait for the bot to settle, don’t go in there unless I give the order.”

The first two combots leapt athletically from the ramp toward the ravine’s side, landing with their sensor crowns above the dust, and Skippy barely needed to guide them splashing out of the dust. The last combot could not be risked with a jump, so it gently stepped off the ramp and sank rapidly. “Wait, wait,” Skippy cautioned as Katie set down her rifle, preparing to walk down into the dust over her head. “It’s slow but it’s working. I don’t want you in that dust unless it becomes absolutely necessary, your suit’s coolant radiators won’t work under there and you could overheat. The dust may clog your radiators, it has already affected your suit’s performance.”

As Smythe stood on the ramp, silently urging the proceedings to move faster, Skippy did his best to move the combot. It stumbled badly several times, coming close to tipping over, until its antenna emerged from the surface, prompting silent cheers from the team. When it carefully walked clear of the dust, Smythe clipped the cable to his belt and ordered the team to pull him away from the crawler. “Right,” he declared as he attempted to brush dust off the front of his suit. “Grudzien, Nunnally, get the crawler moving. Team, step away from the dust.” It was good that Smythe gave that last order, for the crawler’s treads churned up a rooster tail of dust before it lurched forward. Making steady and controlled progress, the drivers slowly increased speed as it climbed the ravine, until Skippy pulled the stealth field back and a true image of the crawler was exposed to the satellites overhead. No alarm was sounded, and the bodies of the two dead Bosphuraq remained firmly on the bottom of the ravine, buried under deep dust. Smythe got his team moving, with Skippy outlining the edges of the portable stealth field that protected the marching column from prying eyes.

Last to leave the crawler while it was stuck in the dust, Smythe was also last to reboard it at the rendezvous point. The biggest problem his team had encountered along the way was boredom, they reached the rendezvous point two hours before the crawler and had absolutely nothing to do until that vehicle rolled close enough for Skippy to extend the stealth field over it once again. Though only ninety minutes remained until they were scheduled to drive the crawler into its garage at the moonbase, Smythe ordered the team to take forty-minute powernaps in shifts. He knew the elite warriors did not want to miss any action, he also knew they had long since developed an ability to catch sleep whenever they could. Smythe, too, nodded off when it was his turn, being jostled awake much too soon.

It was much too soon, the clock in his faceplate showed only nine minutes passed since he closed his eyes. A soldier was kneeling next to him, gently shaking Smythe’s shoulder. “Sir, we have a problem.”

Smythe was instantly and fully awake. “What is it?” He asked the people working to assemble the big stealth generator in the cramped confines of the crawler’s cabin.

“I will not say ‘Well heh heh’ since that gets your knickers in a twist,” Skippy announced. “However, this is a story you will look back on and laugh at later. Um, if, you know, there is a later for you. It seems that, when the combot fell off the back of the ramp into the dust, we lost part of the big stealth field generator.”

Lost?”

“It was there for sure when the combat got into the crawler the first time, and it’s not there now, so it fell out somewhere along the way. The most likely place we could have lost it is when the combot was under the dust, because it nearly tipped over several times down there.”

“You just now noticed it is missing?”

I did not notice it is gone, the assembly team noticed. I am aboard the ship, remember? Huuuuh,” he sighed. “You monkeys are so careless with your toys.”

“Your sensors cannot keep track of-”

“My sensors could keep track of even tiny parts, though bandwidth through the microwormhole is restricted. The reason I did not keep track of every single nit-picky little detail is that I have a rather short attention span, in case you haven’t noticed. Really, this is your fault for relying on an absent-minded beer can to watch your vital equipment. What were you thinking?”

Smythe regretted that he could not even hit the beer can with a hammer, since the Flying Dutchman was safely far from the moon.

“Colonel Smythe,” Skippy sighed again. “I am disappointed, you should have given me a snappy retort.”

“I have your retort right here,” Smythe squeezed the stock of his rifle. “Why don’t you come down here and I’ll show it to you?”

“Um, thank you, but being down there sounds dangerous, especially around your team, so I will stay right here.”

“Do you have a suggestion for us?”

“Let me think. Are there any electronics stores near you?”

Frey leaned to the Marine Raider next to her, switching to a private channel. “Why isn’t the AI helping us?”

“That pilot Captain Reed told me about Skippy, she was on that last really long mission,” Edward Burke explained. “I think that is Skippy helping.”

“Heaven help us.”

After several totally unhelpful suggestions from the beer can, a three-way conversation ensued between Smythe, Skippy and Bishop, with the STAR team listening intently. In Katie’s opinion, Skippy was not even trying to help. “Skippy,” Bishop was clearly frustrated, “there must be something we can do.”

“Something I can do, you mean. You monkeys can’t even-”

“What is this dingus we lost? What does it do?”

“It’s a power regulator, as if that means anything to you.”

“All it does is control the power flow?” Bishop’s tone was, Frey thought, condescending. “Can’t you handle that function?”

“Through the microwormhole? Uh, no, dumdum, of course not. Plus, you know what happens when I try to regulate even my own power flow; I am not good at it. My awesomeness would burn out the generator.”

“Skippy,” Smythe sought to bring focus back to the discussion. “Is there something else here you can use to replace the missing component?”

“No, I am sorry, I already considered that,” the AI was much more respectful of the SAS man. “There are power regulators in your suits, in the combots and in the crawler. None of them are capable of being useful in the stealth field generator. I am very sorry about this. Joe should have requested that we bring along a spare power regulator.”

Frey expected Colonel Bishop to react to the insult, because that is what she had witnessed the ship’s captain do before, and because any normal person would react to being blamed. Instead, Bishop laughed softly. “I did request you bring a spare, you little shithead.”

“No you didn’t, dumdum, you- Oh, wait,” Skippy hesitated. “I have learned not to argue with one of your whacky statements. What truly bizarre idea are you considering this-”

“The away team has two stealth field generators, right?” Bishop interrupted, which Katie thought was bad manners, but seemed to be the way guys talked. “Can we use the power regulator from the portable stealth unit, in the big unit?”

“Um, I suppose we could do that,” Skippy responded slowly. “Perhaps you have not been keeping up on current events, Joe, so I will break it down Barney-style for you. We are using the portable stealth field now-”

“I know that, you silicon moron. The team is now on the road to the base, with no stops along the way. Is a stealth field really necessary before the crawler gets to the base?”

“Um, hmmm. If absolutely nothing goes wrong, then no. But, the universe seems to have a hard-on for screwing up this operation today, so you should not count on nothing else going wrong, Joe.”

“Colonel Bishop?” Smythe asked. “I recommend we go with your idea.”

“Smythe, I appreciate your support, but if this is an ‘in for a penny in for a pound’ thing, then we need to consider alternatives.”

“There is no alternative, Sir. We are fully committed now. The crawler is too close to the base for us to get out here.”

“That is not quite true, Smythe. I’ve been thinking about that subject. You could stop the crawler, get out and walk backwards along the track, using the portable stealth unit to conceal yourselves. To buy time, Skippy could report the crawler broke down. The base would send out another crawler, and we would need to explode your crawler before the repair team arrived, but you would have a chance to get somewhere the Falcon could pick you up.”

“Pardon me, Sir, but that is poppycock,” Smythe insisted. “We did not come out here to save ourselves, we have a mission to perform. Skippy, is there any other place we could possibly get a Maxolhx dropship?”

“Not that I know of, and as you know, I know pretty much everything,” the beer can did not add his usually smugness to the remark.

“Colonel,” Smythe concluded, “my team is in position and ready. We are not likely to get another opportunity. Request permission to proceed.”

“Who dares wins, Smythe?”

“Daring acts are the only hope we have left, Sir.”

“You are the commander on the scene,” Bishop said with a wistful sigh. “I am not going to second-guess you. Good luck, Colonel Smythe. Bishop out.”

Smythe knew the commander did not need to say ‘Bishop out’, he had done that to assure the SAS man that no one was looking over his shoulder. Having somewhat unexpectedly gotten the freedom of action he requested, Jeremy Smythe did not know exactly what to do next. “Right,” he said as a filler while he thought. “Skippy, can you remove the power regulator from the portable unit, or do you need us to assist?”

“A combot can do most of the task, however I will need humans for the delicate work. I will let you know when I need you.” One of the combots activated, moving carefully in the cramped crawler cabin.

“Now,” Smythe turned to address his team, who were looking rather shell-shocked, and the fighting had not yet begun. “If anyone knows how we could screw this up even worse than we have already, please let me know.” That remark drew a couple tight grins. “That was not a joke,” he scowled. “I want to know of anything we may have forgotten that could trip us up.”

“That’s it,” Skippy announced with rather less enthusiasm than Smythe desired. “The power regulator is attached to the big stealth unit, and phase one testing is complete and successful.”

“How many testing phases are there?”

“Well, three. The inspection of individual components is phase one. Two is the initial power-up, and as you might have guessed, phase three is activation.”

“When can you perform the remaining tests?”

“Well, heh heh, I can’t do that until we are inside the crawler garage.”

“You idiot beer can! We won’t know if the bloody thing works until we need it?”

“Unfortunately, yes. It is kind of a sticky situation, because if it fails at that point, we will not have time to fix it before the entire base security team arrives to blast your team into tiny pieces. Wait!” The AI implored. “This is a rare case when I am totally not screwing with you monkeys. To test the regulator requires sending power through the system, and the initial power feed causes a spike the moonbase would detect, even I can’t completely mask the effect. I would only make it worse if I tried to suppress the power spike.”

Smythe mentally ran through a list of curse words and decided none of his inventory was sufficient for the occasion. “Go on, please.”

If Skippy was disappointed that he hadn’t provoked a reaction, he kept it to himself. “There is no reason to expect the new power regulator will not work properly, however that component has never been used on such a large stealth generator, so I will not know for certain that it will function properly. The real test is when we activate the stealth field at max power; if the regulator is going to fail, that’s when the trouble will bite you in the ass. I did warn Joe that covering the entire base with one stealth generator is a big strain on the unit you were able to bring. I mean, to make the generator small and light enough so your team could transport it, I had to remove a lot of redundant systems and slap the thing together with duct tape. Don’t worry, it should work. I think. Never done this before, you understand.”

Smythe’s fists clenched in the powered gloves. “When I asked if anyone could think how we could possibly screw this up any worse-”

“Hey! It’s not my fault, I warned you against this whole lunatic scheme. Besides, a possibly malfunctioning stealth field is not your biggest problem right now.”

“It’s not?”

“Nope. Not even close. I just learned that when you arrive at the crawler garage, the chief engineer will be there to inspect the crawler for any damage, and the officer in charge of the two knuckleheads who are supposed to be driving this thing will also be there to greet them and probably yell at them again. As a further bit of bad luck, the delays we encountered will have us arriving just before two other crawlers are scheduled to leave the garage. All this means the garage section of the base will have a lot more people than normal. Like, normally the garage only has two people on staff. Now I expect twelve or more.”

Smythe was not overly concerned about the latest change of plans. Additional crawler crews and mechanics in the garage section of the base would not pose a significant risk to his team and, he considered, it might actually be quite convenient to have so many of the moonbase personnel in one location. None of the Bosphuraq there were likely to be armed or wearing any kind of armor protection, they would only be additional soft targets for his heavily-armed and armor-suited team. Taking out a large number of opposition early would save the STAR team from having to track them down in isolated nooks and crannies of the base later. “More people in the garage area will not be a problem. We will need to take them out immediately, before we can go through those pressure doors and up two levels to where we need to plug you into the base computer.”

“Yeah, well, heh heh, this is kind of ironic-”

“Bloody hell,” Smythe groaned.

“The base has been having issues with blown circuits, so the commander has recently ordered that entire wing to power down until the problem can be fixed. The garage on the end of the wing has its own power source, but the original point where you were supposed to plug in my access device, no longer has a connection to the main computer.”

“Show me a schematic,” Smythe asked, weariness evident in his voice. “Where can we plug this thing in?”

“The closest point is here,” an icon began blinking in Smythe’s faceplate.

“No good,” the SAS commando shook his head. “Getting there will require cutting through or blowing two sets of blast doors.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Ok, the closest other option is way over in the wing to the right of the crawler garage. Problem is, getting there requires going halfway to the base core, then back out.”

“No,” Smythe observed after a moment of careful study. “It does not.”

“Um, it doesn’t?” Skippy was puzzled. “Are you reading the map properly?”

“I am. It looks to me like we could cross the ground between the wings, and go in, probably through this airlock.”

“Oooh, that is risky.”

“This whole bloody op is risky,” Smythe walked forward, stepping between people sitting on the deck, to look out through the front windscreen, if it could be called that on an airless world. The crawler garage was no more than two kilometers away, a fact he could have determined in his helmet faceplate’s display. Somehow seeing the closeness of the base made the situation more real to him. Whatever the team was going to do, they needed to act quickly. Time. He needed more time. “Skippy, we are going to slow down,” he tapped Grudzien on the shoulder and the man nodded. “Tell the base the crawler treads are experiencing a malfunction. Tell them whatever you like, but do not make the problem serious enough that the duty officer sends another crawler out to meet us, understood?”

The crawler slowed as the two drivers pulled back on the throttles, making Smythe stutter-step and hold onto the cockpit bulkhead. To sell the ruse of a partial tread malfunction, the drivers had the crawler surge and lurch forward, making a rough ride for the occupants. “Understood what I am supposed to do,” Skippy was peeved, “I do not understand why.”

“I need more time to consider how to get a team across the gap to the other wing, where we need to plug you in,” Smythe explained.

“Oh, Gotcha. Ok, the duty officer is unhappy, he really hates those two dead guys, maybe we did them a favor by killing them quickly. I’m telling him the crawler can make it back to the garage, we are moving slowly to prevent causing further damage.”

While Smythe examined a schematic of the base, Frey leaned toward Captain Poole, touching helmets. “Captain, Skippy is talking to the Bosphuraq? I read something in the briefing material that he is unable to speak with species capable of interstellar flight?”

Lauren, taken aback by the unexpected question, turned to look in the other woman’s faceplate. “Skippy talks to higher species frequently, but they don’t know they are talking with an Elder AI. Right now, the base duty officer thinks he is speaking with the two crawler drivers we took out. The restriction on Skippy is that he can’t reveal himself to star-faring species. If he is translating for us, or like now he is pretending to be someone else, his programming doesn’t interfere.”

“Ah. Sorry, I didn’t understand.”

“It’s Ok, better to ask than not know. The new improved Skippy, um, you know what happened to us in the Roach Motel?” Frey nodded so Poole continued. “He has been able to release or get around some of the original restrictions, like now he can explain some higher technology with us, physics concepts, advanced math, that sort of thing. We hope-”

“Poole,” Smythe called, summoning the Ranger with a gesture.

Lauren pushed herself away from the crawler cabin’s wall and walked the five steps forward to confer with the team commander, grateful for the suit’s stabilizers keeping her upright. The drivers might have been overselling the supposedly malfunctioning treads, for with every full revolution of the treads, the crawler lurched. “Sir?”

Smythe didn’t waste words. “There has been another change of plans. You will be leading the team to take the weapons control center.”


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The balky crawler paused on the pad in front of the big door, coming to a full stop and going through a series of safety checks before entering the garage. In the garage control center, the chief engineer swore when the exterior cameras monitoring the entire garage end of the wing glitched, froze, glitched again and then failed. Those damned circuit failures, the engineer cursed to himself, they have now somehow affected the independent power supply of the garages. He made a mental note to add that to the long list of tasks his overworked team needed to fix.

After a brief discussion, the base duty officer gave permission to open the garage door even though external sensors had failed in that area. After all, they had seen the crawler halted in front of the door, and communication with the two crewmembers assured they were waiting permission to engage the drive again. When the door began sliding upward, there was another damned glitch! The door shuddered, stopped, and had to be brought back down to restart the procedure. Between the cameras being out and the door taking much too long to open, no one inside the base saw two figures in Kristang powered armor leap out of the crawler’s side door and race around the end of the garage wing. By the time the garage door resumed its now-smooth upward movement, the crawler’s side door was shut, and no one outside the crawler could have known the door was unlatched and ready to swing aside.

When permission was given for the crawler to enter the garage, it did so painfully slow, irritating the waiting personnel except for the chief mechanic, who appreciated that the drivers were taking care not to make the damage worse.

Although, the engineer thought to himself, that was odd. Even in an enhanced view from the garage bay’s internal cameras, the treads did not have any visible damage, none at all. For the crawler to be moving so unsteadily, the damage must be inside the drive mechanism, which was going to be a huge pain in the ass to fix. Replacing treads, even the entire tread assembly, was a relatively quick and simple job, but getting access to the drive unit required lifting the vehicle off its treads and removing covers across the entire bottom of the crawler. The vehicle would be out of service for two full days. Suddenly, the chief mechanic’s day had gotten much worse.

“Do it, Skippy,” Captain Poole urged. The crawler had ground to a halt inside the garage bay, and the big outer door was sliding down. A maintenance team would be walking through the pressure door at the far end, and it would look suspicious if the two dead former drivers did not open the crawler’s side door and step out to report.

“Doing it,” the beer can’s voice came through her helmet speakers, the sound slightly muffled as he had to speak through the moonbase’s comm system. “It would be easier if your end of the microwormhole were still there in the crawler with you.”

“You know why Colonel Smythe had to take the wormhole with him,” Poole snapped. “Can you do it or not?”

“Yes, yes, it looks good. Remember, there will be a surge when I start the power flow. A big surge, and I can’t conceal it.”

“I don’t care if you can conceal it, so long as you can explain it to the birdbrains.”

“Doing my best here.”

The chief engineer was about to step away from his console when it lit up from a power spike. “What was that?” He demanded of the base control center. Damn it. He had enough problems without some idiot trying to send power through a system that was cut off. “This wing is powered down, it wasn’t anything my team did.”

“Hold one,” a harried voice responded from the control center. The team there had also noticed the power spike also, and a quick check determined the power had not come from any system connected to the base’s infrastructure. The duty officer was about to order a full diagnostic plus a security alert, when a message was received from the research base on the planet below.

“Er,” the voice from the control center reported. “Looks like the research facility conducted a test that was more successful than they expected.”

That astonished the mechanic. “A test on the planet caused a power spike up here? Did the planet explode?”

“The planet is intact,” the officer said with irritation. “You will need to inspect critical systems for damage, starting with the main weapons.”

Of course I will, the engineer groaned. First, though, he was going to have a little chat with some asshole down on the planet. Except, no he wasn’t, because the damned comm system was down. What else could go wrong?

The chief engineer had no way of knowing that the comm system itself was in perfect working order, the problem was that the entire base was encased in a powerful stealth field which bounced back all outgoing signals, and caused incoming signals to wrap around and be absorbed by the field.

While the crew of the moonbase worried about the effect of the power surge coming from the planet, sensors on the planet and both orbiting battlestations had also noticed a power spike coming from the moonbase, and all three facilities contacted the moonbase to find out what was going on. The circuit failures that had thrown Colonel Smythe’s careful plan out the window provided a convenient explanation, an explanation that was almost too convenient. The problem was that Skippy thought using the circuit failures was way too obvious and boring and dull, and he could come up with a way more entertaining and clever explanation that would finally show that smug jerkface Joe Bishop that monkeys are not the only beings in the galaxy able to dream up clever ideas.

Thus, the reply from the moonbase was delayed for an amount of time barely noticed by the meatsack Bosphuraq, but long enough to cause alarm in the AIs running the planetary base and the two battlestations. The delay was caused by Skippy arguing with that killjoy pain-in-the-ass Nagatha about whether he should just get on with it and explain the power spike by using the circuit failures or the original excuse of a reactor problem or anything so long as the beer can got his figurative ass in gear right now before his insufferable arrogance doomed the whole operation.

The argument raged for nearly two nanoseconds before the Smartest Being in the Galaxy huffed that, after all, he had better things to do than argue with an overgrown communications submind that he created. A reply was sent from the moonbase, with none of the three recipients aware they were talking with a beer can aboard a pirate starship hiding behind the moon. One of the battlestation AIs, who was not convinced that cascading circuit failures could cause a power spike of the type detected, prodded the station commander to investigate the incident, and the station commander announced she was sending a dropship over to the moon. Rather than being insulted, the moonbase duty officer replied they actually would appreciate help diagnosing the problem, so could the station include an engineering team aboard the dropship? Skippy did not bother informing anyone on the STAR team that a dropship would be coming to the moon, figuring the operation would be over one way or another by the time the dropship was ready for launch. If not, one puny dropship would not make a difference anyway, right?

The garage bay was pumped full of air again, which made Lauren Poole wonder if having the air filtered made any difference to the pungent smell of any place occupied by the Bosphuraq. That stray thought flashed fleetingly through her mind as she watched the inner pressure door open and three Bosphuraq technicians stroll out, their seemingly backward-bent legs making them awkward to her view. “On my signal,” she took a calming breath, “three, two, one-”

The chief engineer’s most frequent complaint was that he was too often left out of the loop, or informed too late after everyone else already was aware of a problem. One technician had made a habit of delaying reports about problems, because he was always sure he could fix the issue before it needed to be brought to the chief engineer’s attention. After the third time the chief engineer heard about an issue through the base commander asking when the engineering team was going to fix something, that technician had been reassigned to the most awful duty station in Bosphuraq territory, and since then, incident reporting had improved measurably.

That day, the chief engineer could not complain about being the last to know, because he was first to receive notice of an alien assault. That notice came in the form of an explosive-tipped round penetrating his breastbone and plunging another two centimeters into his chest cavity before detonating, ripping his torso nearly in half.

In perspective, perhaps being first to know about the alien assault was not such a good thing.

“Go go go!” Poole whispered, knowing her orders would be magnified by the team’s helmet speakers, and knowing that the effort of shouting might move her head and throw off her aim. Her first shot, leaving the muzzle of her superb Kristang rifle while she was on one knee in the airlock while the crawler’s side door was still sliding open, had taken out her first target, a scowling enemy officer behind glass windows in a gallery overlooking the garage bay. A useful feature of the rifle was that, almost without Poole having to do anything, it sent a targeting pulse combination of laser beam and particle beam to assess distance to, and any obstructions between, the rifle and the designated target. Return pulses indicated the target was behind a clear composite material, so the rifle switched to a mode the STAR team called ‘double-tap penetration’. Two rounds left the muzzle when Poole depressed the trigger, the first engaging its light-armor penetrating mode, burning a hole through the clear composite for the explosive-tipped killshot only ten centimeters behind along the same flightpath. Technically, the first notice received by the chief engineer was in the form of hot droplets of plasma and melted composite splattering his chest, but that hot pain signal had not enough time to reach his brain before the second round impacted and exploded and he ceased to exist. So, close enough, and it’s not like that Bosphuraq cared about the particulars of his death anyway.

Rising smoothly from one knee to a standing position without taking a step forward or taking her eyes off her targets, Poole remained in the side doorway as the team rushed past her and down onto the garage bay floor. Even before the door opened, she had selected targets in sequence, using the crawler’s exterior sensors to preprogram her rifle.  She swung the rifle right to left, firing above the heads of the racing STAR team and taking out six targets in four seconds. Her last action before hopping out of the crawler to join her team was to activate the under-mounted rocket launcher by flicking her right pinky finger, sending a rocket set to fragmentation mode through the shattered composite into the gallery above the garage bay. On the way into the garage, the crawler’s sensors had detected additional people in the gallery, but they were out of her line of sight and had escaped the tender loving care of rifle rounds. The rocket made sure the unseen aliens in the back of the gallery, who were scrambling toward the rear door, did not feel left out of the action. After the nosecone of the rocket crossed the plane where the composite windows had been, its laser sensor created a three-dimensional map of the gallery, detecting three moving objects who were approximately the size and shape of adult Bosphuraq. Accordingly, after traveling forward another two meters for an optimal spread pattern, the rocket detonated its warhead, sending hot razor-sharp fragments in a one hundred thirty degree cone and slicing the three unprotected aliens into squishy bits.

“Good,” Poole acknowledged the rocket’s final report. Sensors built into the rocket observed and recorded the deaths of the three fleeing targets, and relayed that data back to Poole’s suit, which happily showed her a summary in the bottom left of the display. Six confirmed kills from rifle shots, plus three from the rocket, was nine less enemy to worry about.

That left only, if Skippy’s count could be trusted, sixty eight enemy to be dealt with inside the moonbase. Lauren Poole certainly did not trust the beer can’s official count, because the AI was likely to have absent-mindedly lost track while he was counting, or just lost interest halfway through the count and decided that fudging the number was good enough for monkeys, or he knew the real count and decided to amuse himself by screwing with the STAR team. All Lauren knew for sure was the moonbase was a target-rich environment and her team needed to kill anyone along the way to their objective, then possibly clear the base room by room to hunt down and kill or disable any survivors.

Her team was already ahead of her, the last person disappearing through the pressure door, as she sprinted to catch up. Her helmet display showed her the position and status of each team member and she could toggle between views from their helmet cameras and suit sensors, so she could have lead the team while she remained inside the crawler. With her team consisting of only two other soldiers, she represented one-third of the team’s combat power- No, that was not quite true. Her team also included one of the two weapon-equipped Thuranin combots, and that machine by itself had more firepower than three soldiers, even three soldiers wearing Kristang powered armor suits.

The Bosphuraq inside the base were not a major concern because ironically, the massive firepower of the facility had left the birdbrains vulnerable to the only type of attack that could actually threaten them; an enemy force gaining access to the base from the ground. The strong layers of energy shields, plus the offensive weapons installed under the moon’s surface, rendered the base practically invulnerable to attack from above. Enemy ships seeking to bombard the moonbase would be sliced in half by the base’s weapons, and anything sneaking up on the base by hugging the surface would be easily targeted by the two orbiting battlestations, or by the weapons of the research base on the planet’s surface. With the four facilities supporting each other, they could hold off any attack until the Bosphuraq fleet could be summoned. All the crews needed to do was hunker down behind their powerful energy shields and wait for the enemy to decide they had taken enough punishment.

That unimaginative thinking is why the moonbase had only eight people on the security team, and why most of the personnel did not carry or even have access to infantry weapons. An assault on the moonbase was considered unlikely in the extreme, for the only valuable asset in the star system was the atomic-compression research base down on the planet. Any ground assault against the moonbase would come only after the base’s defenses had been destroyed by bombardment, and with the base’s weapons offline, what would be the point of risking soldiers to pick through the rubble? The prevailing thought was the base would never, could never, be attacked from the ground because with the base fully active, no enemy ground force could get through the sensor network that extended far from the base in every direction. Regular testing assured the Bosphuraq that their sensor network could detect even a stealthed object the size of a small missile before it even entered orbit around the moon.

And that is why the base security team had a high turnover of personnel, no one wanted such dull duty with no chance of action or opportunity to distinguish themselves. According to records accessed by an arrogant beer can, the security team that had an authorized strength of eight, was only staffed with five Bospuraq at the time the STAR team entered the garage, and one of those five was combat-ineffective while being treated for a broken leg. The base’s robotic defenders, generally heavier and larger than the STAR team’s Thuranin combots that were designed for use aboard the confines of a starship, were according to official records a formidable force. In reality, most aspects of the moonbase and the two orbiting battlestations had been constructed quickly and cheaply, because the Bosphuraq military had little confidence in their scientists’ ability to make atomic-compression devices in useful quantities. Therefore, other than the truly powerful defensive energy shields and weapons, the moonbase was built of second-hand and second-rate materials, that is why electrical circuits kept failing and why the chief engineer had to prioritize the efforts of his maintenance team. Shields and weapons and other systems the base commander directly engaged with got priority. Combat robots, which were nothing but useless, showy toys in the opinion of the chief engineer, went to the bottom of the priority list. When the base commander insisted on a security drill, the security leader knew to select the only four functioning combots, the others all having failed due to lack of maintenance or having been stripped of parts to keep four units ready. On rare occasions when the base commander looked in the armories where the combots were stored, he saw shiny and lethal weapons that would protect his base.

He had not seen the shiny things actually moving.

The STAR team did not know the status of the enemy’s killbots when they entered the base, so they had to assume they might be facing eighteen killing machines rather than four. After Skippy gained access to the base’s main computer, he could deactivate the enemy killbots or at least sever them from the control circuit and render them useless. Until the beer can could work his magic, the humans and even their own combots would be vulnerable, so the routes the teams took to their objectives were planned to avoid going past armories where enemy killbots were stored, and to avoid killing zones where the teams could be pinned down. Speed meant everything, speed was life. Nothing could be allowed to stop or slow down the two teams, and the Pirates would hold their combots in reserve for use against the robotic killing machines of the Bosphuraq.

Poole was already unhappy about Smythe and Frey jumping out of the crawler before it entered the garage, and to maintain communications secrecy she had not heard from either of them since they disappeared around the end of the garage wing. They could be alive, they could be dead, but one thing Poole was certain of was that splitting an already small force went against the principle of concentration of force, not that there was anything she could do about it right then.

Racing through the pressure door, her right shoulder glanced off the wall there in a move calculated by her suit as the best way to turn the next corner. Having a suit that anticipated her needs and acted without her input or permission could be useful, it could also be dangerous. Skippy had enhanced the computer of her suit so it learned the particular biomechanics of her movements and knew how she moved in different situations, able to switch its power-assist from an easy Fuzzy-Slippers-On-The-Couch mode to Full-Panic mode when needed. Poole might have described the current operating mode as High-Speed, grateful for the ability of the suit’s smart brain to keep her upright and moving along the pre-selected route while her own meatsack brain was busy with more important matters like aiming her rifle. Nunnally and Rowe had each taken their three-person teams to the left and were no longer in her line of sight. Ahead of her was her team, with the combot taking up the rear. Someone had splattered a birdbrain all over a wall and parts of the body were making the floor slippery, her suit took care of keeping her footing as she leaned to the left to squeeze by the combot. Movement in a hallway to the right caught her eye and she reacted, swinging her rifle while her left pinky finger selected a three-round burst mode without her even thinking about it. The threat was a Bosphuraq wearing the robins-egg-blue coveralls of a maintenance technician. The bird-like alien’s mouth and eyes were wide open in fear, if its body language was anything like a human, and it held a small cylinder-like thing in both hands, bringing the device up toward Poole. The thing could have been an oddly-bulbous and short rifle, it could have been a rocket launcher, it could have been a fire extinguisher, it could even have been a Bosphuraq sex toy for all Poole cared, she wasn’t waiting to satisfy her nonexistent curiosity. Curiosity killed the cat, but a three-round burst killed the alien and snapped the device in half, sending it spinning back down the hallway in a showering spray of white foam.

Huh, some part of her brain thought, so it was a fire extinguisher.

Unless it was a sex toy, in which case she would rather not know.

“On your left,” she announced to the combot though the words were not necessary, the thing had sensed her intention and moved to the right to give her room to run by. Once past the hulking machine that stomped along dutifully behind her, she took up position just off the right shoulder of Roark, with Burke three meters ahead in a cover formation. The three were racing along a hallway, ducking slightly to avoid cracking their heads on doors that had tried to slide down to seal the invaders from the main part of the base, doors that had suffered mysterious glitches that jammed them only slightly down from their normal recessed position. Inside her helmet, Poole smiled without realizing, pleased to see that whatever the fate of Smythe and Frey, the beer can had been able to interfere with the moonbase’s power systems.

Burke in the lead sprinted at nowhere close to the suit’s full speed, as the hallway jogged left then right at odd places, preventing a full-on sprint. Twice he fired his rifle and twice Lauren saw kills registered, she also noted he briefly aimed his rifle at a Bosphuraq who was cowering in terror on the floor of a side hallway, but let the poor creature live, as he had more important things to worry about and he would have had to skid to slow enough to bring his rifle to bear on target before he went by.

With regret and advanced notice, Lauren had her rifle ready as she passed that side hallway, sending two rounds into the terrified alien. She had an afterimage of the bird-like creature’s head being separated from its body, then she had to concentrate on swerving around a bend in the hallway in front of her. The ghostly schematic projected inside her faceplate showed they had traveled two-thirds of the way to the core of the base where the control center was located, and the floor began to slope downward as expected. The point of greatest danger was just ahead, where a side hallway connected to the section of the base that housed the security team. In the original plan, Skippy was supposed to have established full control of the base computer before the team attempted to breach the core of the underground facility, but Poole had heard nothing from Smythe or the beer can, and the original plan had been shot so full of holes it no longer mattered what the team had optimistically dreamed about aboard the Flying Dutchman so long ago. Her job was to lead two soldiers and an advanced alien combat robot to seize the base control center, before the Bosphuraq could do something like launch a missile that would soar above the stealth field and alert the planet and battlestations that something was very wrong on the moon. That was her job and she was going to do it whether the unreliable beer can could help or not.

Even in the original plan, the already small STAR team had been split into three units, with Poole taking the two Marine Raiders with her to cover for Smythe and Frey on their mission to plug the beer can’s presence into the moonbase computer. The three Delta Force soldiers were operating as a team to avoid communication issues, they were tasked with stopping launch of fighters or dropships from the east hangar bay, while Nunnally, Grudzien and Kloos were assigned to the west hangar bay. Poole appreciated that her team were all Americans and her teammates were Marine raiders who had served together. Nunnally, with a Polish and a German soldier, had perhaps the most potential for fatal miscommunications, but given the international nature of the renegade STAR team, that could not be helped.

She was grateful that the two Marine Raiders on her team knew each other and knew each other’s tactics and worked well together. She would have preferred they not be named ‘Burke’ and ‘Roark’ because she had to speak their names carefully so one didn’t think she was addressing the other.

Burke put on a burst of speed as he approached the side hallway, so he could clear the gap and provide fire support from the other side if needed. If the original plan had still been in effect, he would have had advanced warning of any threats through Skippy’s control of the base computer forcing that alien machine to feed internal sensor data to his Kristang suit computer. Instead, Burke had no idea what threat might be in the hallway ahead to the right. The fear of uncertainty, plus the hallway ahead being straight and wide for fifty meters without obstructions, allowed him to kick the suit’s motors up into what the STAR team designated as Chased-By-A-Bear mode and he surged so fast his poor human vision had trouble keeping up.

Behind Burke, Poole increased her own speed until she was running shoulder to shoulder with Roark, wary that if the enemy were in the hallway to the right, they would be alerted by Burke’s passage and looking out for attackers following him. Burke ran into the gap and was halfway across when he was struck from the right by an object that glanced off his hip, sending him tumbling and skidding out of control. “STOP!” Poole shouted and her suit obeyed, Roark’s suit beside her doing the same. When the suit computers determined the boots alone could not halt forward progress before the danger zone, each suit fired a sort of harpoon backward out of the waistbelt, the harpoon’s point deflecting off the floor but deploying sticky nanofibers that adhered to the floor, holding the harpoon in place and jerking both soldiers to a stop on the end of the cable attached to their waist belts. Lauren Poole teetered on her toes, leaning so her helmet came close to the edge of the intersecting hallway, then the cable retracted to pull her backward. “Retract,” she ordered and both harpoons released their grips on the floor, being reeled back into their storage pack for later use. “Burke, you OK?”

“Fine,” Burke grunted while bent over on hands and knees, his shaky voice sounding anything but fine. His rifle had been torn from his grip by the impact of crashing into the floor, the gecko-like material could have hung onto the weapon despite the violent action but the suit’s computer had scanned the hallway ahead, calculated how far it would and should tumble to protect its wearer, and determined the best option was to let go of the rifle. To avoid loss of the weapon, it was attached by a thin nanofiber tether to the right forearm of the suit, and Poole could see the tether already pulling the rifle back toward Burke as that soldier took a moment to regain situational awareness, which is a polite way of saying he barely knew who he was, forget about where he was. In her faceplate display, Lauren took in two vital pieces of information while ignoring the detailed data. Simple green indicators told her that neither Burke nor his armored suit had sustained serious or even significant damage from the enemy fire, so she was free to focus on the overall situation which was bad, very bad. “Roark, get the combot up here.”

“On it,” Roark’s reply was not needed as the hulking machine, its weapons deployed and the energy shield crackling, was already creeping past Poole. She flattened against the wall to let the combat robot squeeze past her, then stepped in front of Roark to cover the man who was somewhat vulnerable as he concentrated on guiding the combot. Lauren had trained as a combot driver and it could be exhilarating to control such destructive power, it was also often too easy to get caught up in the combot’s senses and forget the need to care for and move the driver’s own body, especially when the machine was in battle. “Going for recon,” Roark reported as he used a finger to extend one on of the combot’s creepy tentacle-like probes around the corner to get a view of the side hallway. “Looks like-”

Whatever Roark was going to say was lost as both he and Poole were blown backward and the combot was slammed against, into and then partly through the far wall. Poole had a snapshot impression of two or possibly three alien killbots in the adjacent hallway, with several Bosphuraq behind. Only one of the enemy was wearing an armored suit, she was sure of that because she had seen the bird-like beaks of their bare faces. She was still spinning and sliding backwards on her ass, her body going limp to protect her delicate muscles and tendons as she had been trained, trusting the suit’s computer to know when best to bring her to a stop so she could get back into action. While still tumbling, she studied a replay of the incident on the right side of the display, her suit anticipating the information she most likely needed immediately. A small part of her brain marveled again at the incredible technology of Kristang armored mech suits. The truly amazing functions of the suit computer had been added by Skippy after he erased the original crappy operating system and worked his magic on what he had said was seriously, pathetically, hopelessly inadequate processing power and storage capacity. If the suit computer ran on something better than what Skippy described as a poorly-assembled set of 1930s vacuum tubes, he might be able to make the suits do truly incredible things, but, given the severe and totally unfair constraints he worked under, what could he do? The answer, Poole firmly believed, was as close to magic as she was ever likely to get. While she reviewed sensor data of the incident on the right half of the display and verified that Burke and the combot were still capable of effective operation, the suit halted its slide and flipped lightly upright to land her on her feet, automatically using reduced force in the moon’s lower gravity.

“Oh shit,” Poole did not know if she had said that aloud. She now knew what had happened: the enemy detected their combot’s flexible recon probe when it peeked around the corner, and the enemy was not stupid. Their own killbot machines had instantly determined the probe had to be attached to something hostile and dangerous and either on their own or with their master’s hasty permission, decided that firing right through the base’s internal structure was the best way to deal with the threat. What had blown the STAR team’s combot into the far wall and knocked Lauren and Roark backwards was a spread of lasers cutting a circular hole through the walls, followed closely by a mix of armor-piercing and explosive-tipped rounds that her suit analyzed as being twelve point three caliber, as if she needed that info. Finally, at least two and possibly three rockets had struck the energy shield of her combot and penetrated that protection to strike the machine directly.

Her own analysis of the situation was her team was facing two or more enemy killing machines that were larger and more heavily armed and armored than the Thuranin combot with her, plus an unknown number of enemy soldiers, at least one of whom wore powered armor. She had three shaken-up though uninjured humans, and a combot that was extricating itself from being partly embedded in a wall. Blinking yellow icons told her the combot had non-fatal damage, the ‘fatal’ part was that if the machine was knocked out of action, her team would be facing overwhelming force with inadequate firepower.

What should she do?

Step One; prioritize the mission. “Burke,” she ordered, “get to the control center and secure it. Go now now now.”

Burke may not have liked the order to split the team’s combat power again, and he unquestionably did not like leaving two people behind to battle the enemy, he also did not question the order. His display had shown him the same data Poole used to make her decision, plus he had watched the incident and could see the still-smoking holes in the interior wall. Burke turned to run, feeling through his boots the vibrations of something, or somethings, big and heavy stomping down the side hallway.

Step Two; call for help? No, the other teams could see her situation through the team’s tactical link, and she knew Smythe was monitoring her, although his suit was not transmitting any data so his position could remain concealed. Through the taclink she could see Nunnally’s team was also fully engaged and not able to assist. The Delta team was already halfway across the base and had their own difficulties to deal with. Smythe and Frey, with the all-important microwormhole? She had no idea where they were.

Step Two could not be requesting backup. What, then?

That was easy. Step Two was going to be the old reliable blowing shit up. She eyeclicked a targeting order to her rifle’s rocket launcher and pulled the lower trigger to authorize a weapon. Electromagnets sent the rocket down the tube without firing the engine, and the weapon’s thrusters spun it in the air to curve around through the gaping hole in the wall. The last image Poole had of the rocket was the flare of the motor kicking in as it flew back down the path the enemy had created with their own weapons. “Roark! Combot to suicide mode!”

If she and Roark were going to die that day, they were going to take a whole lot of alien MFers with them.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN

In a month filled with firsts, what Katie Frey was doing at the moment was not only a first for her, it was a first for the entire Merry Band of Pirates.

Her first ‘first’ that month had been earning the shameful DNF award for Did Not Finish in the adventure race, something that had never happened to her. In one race several years before, she had stepped in a muddy hole and twisted an ankle a half-mile into a ten-mile race and, after determining she could still walk, she kept running. She had won that race and the people in the medical tent told her she probably hadn’t done additional damage by continuing to run, the damage would come later when the ankle got stiff. Even if she had to walk to the finish line, a possibility because the busses had already left the starting area when she hurt her ankle, she had been determined not to quit that race just because she rolled her ankle. Yet she could not argue that her first DNF was for a very good and legitimate reason.

Going into space had been another first, a very big one. So had been committing mutiny, although technically she had been on leave at the time and technically the Canadian government had not banned her from joining the Merry Band of Pirates, or her government had issued those orders but they were filtered out by a beer can. Either way, her conscience on the subject was clear. Wearing and even touching a Kristang mech suit was another first in the positive column. There had been a lot of firsts recently.

The current first was decidedly not her favorite, nor was it the favorite of her aching back. “Skippy,” she groaned through gritted teeth, “flex up more, please.”

“No can do, Katie, sorry about that,” the beer can replied with sympathy. “You have long legs and I can’t adjust the gait without your backpack bumping the structure above. Can you stand it another minute?”

“Yep,” she gasped from the pain. The vertebrae in her spine felt like they were grinding into each other, creating a sharp pain that she knew was a bad sign. From training for endurance races, she was long used to pain in the form of dull aches and knew dull pain was a sign of over-used and fatigued muscles and joints. Sharp pains were a sign of something seriously wrong and serious damage being created. If the mission were not life-and-death she would have stopped.

She did not stop.

The pain was not caused by any lack of fitness, it was caused by a motion that was awkward and not anything she had done since she was a very young girl. Perhaps the real problem was the unplanned nature of what she was doing, Skippy had only minutes to reprogram two suits for their mad-dash mission after Smythe informed the alien AI of his lunatic plan.

Skippy jokingly called the suit’s modified and untested gait ‘rocket baby’. The name came from the common human experience of setting a baby on the floor, turning away for one freakin’ second, and turning back to see the infant had somehow done an Olympic sprint on hands and knees headed straight for whatever was the closest possible danger. Katie in the lead and Smythe right behind her were crawling on hands and knees in an awkward motion neither of them had trained for and it was absolutely killing her back.

After Skippy glitched the cameras covering the end of the garage wing, the two had made a mad dash out of the crawler’s side door and around the end of that wing of the base, ducking down just before they would have been seen by cameras on the adjacent wing radiating out from the base’s central hub. When Smythe learned the best access point for plugging the access device into the base computer was in the wing to the right of the crawler garage, he saw there was no way to get across the open ground between wings without an alarm being raised, even with the rest of the team creating havoc elsewhere. He also saw a possible way to reach their objective without being detected; except for the garages and dropship hangars on the end of opposite wings, the above-ground portions of the base were built on top of support walls sunk into the lunar soil. To accommodate the structure expanding in the heat of direct sunlight, the upper structure partially floated on the support wall, and extended outward a meter and a half on each side. With the local star creating deep and sharp shadows under the structure, Smythe thought he could reach his objective by remaining under the overhang. The concealment of the overhang was a vulnerability known to the Bosphuraq, Smythe had been assured by Skippy that the birdbrains thought a ground attack so unlikely, half of the planned sensors under the structure had never been installed, and he could glitch the others.

So far, Smythe’s plan was working, except for the problem that the overhang was on average less than seventy four centimeters high, with spots as skinny as sixty six centimeters. Wearing suits, the distance from knees to the top of their backpacks was two centimeters too tall for Smythe and slightly less for Katie. To fix the problem, Skippy the beer can, who had never moved on his own, programmed their suits to crawl with knees and hands splayed to the sides and that was why Katie’s wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, hips and back hurt even though she was more of a passenger as the suit moved on its own. Having the suit’s motion controlled by a hastily-programmed computer made the situation worse, as neither suit occupant could do anything to adjust their motion to avoid damaging something important.

This was the craziest damned thing she had ever done, possibly the craziest damned thing she had ever heard of- crawling like a superfast baby under the overhang of an alien moonbase, on an alien moon in an alien star system thousands of lightyears from Earth, wearing an alien mech suit. The oddest part of the whole experience was that the above-ground portion of the moonbase was brightly colored in psychedelic patterns like the cover of a particularly trippy ‘60s rock album. The Bosphuraq favored garish colors on everything that did not need muted tones for the purpose of stealth, and the designers must have been thrilled to do whatever they wanted with the moonbase, because its fixed position could not ever be concealed anyway.

As she, or rather the suit carrying her under its own guidance, reached the connector between wings of the base and turned sharply to the right, her faceplate lit up with an alert that the STAR team had just emerged from the crawler and the entire base now knew about the wholly unexpected attack. Skippy had already told them the stealth field was active and that he was controlling all communications into and out of the moonbase, and that so far, the Bosphuraq were unaware the moonbase was encased in a very sophisticated stealth field that was feeding false images. “Wow, that was good shooting,” Skippy muttered in her ear. “Captain Poole has the teams on the move.”

“Enemy reaction?” Smythe asked, his voice unsteady as the jolting motion of speed-crawling made it difficult to speak evenly.

“Complete and utter panic, of course. At first, the control center thought the data coming in was an error, I am still glitching systems when I can so none of their data is reliable, and it is understandable the duty officer could not believe the base was under attack with absolutely no warning. Now all the birdbrains are totally panicked, they were completely unprepared for a ground assault and they know how vulnerable they are. The duty officer ordered the two fighters on ready alert to launch but, hee hee, there appears to be a glitch that has gotten the fighter bay doors stuck partially open. Now the base commander is worried that all the circuit failures they experienced recently were part of an enemy plot to infiltrate the base. He’s wrong, of course but worrying about that has him distracted and that works for us. Damn, I wish I could take credit for those circuit failures. Hey, maybe I can tell Joe it was me burning out those circuits-”

Smythe cut through the beer can’s bullshit. “Outside reaction?”

“Um, that is not a problem. Yet. Not a problem yet. The moonbase sent out a call for help, which of course I intercepted, but the base commander thinks help is on the way, and all Bosphuraq outside the stealth field are unaware there is anything wrong on the moon. Doing my best here but I suggest you proceed with alacrity.”

Alacrity?”

“Yeah, why? That’s a fancy way to say move with eager and enthusiastic quickness, and you stuffy Brits are fond of- Oh. Hmm. Captain Poole’s team has gotten into a spot of bother, I’m going to concentrate on that. Good luck to you, Colonel Smythe.”

“Frey,” Smythe’s voice was shaky not from fear but from the jostling of their awkward high-speed crawl. He was concerned about what Skippy would define as a ‘spot of bother’ and he also could not take time to study the data from Poole’s suit sensors. The Ranger’s team was engaged with the enemy, all three suits plus their combot had sustained damage and that was all Smythe needed to know. Twenty one seconds had elapsed since the STAR team burst out of the crawler and at any second, someone outside the stealth field might discover there was something odd about the fake sensor data Skippy was sending out. The powerful weapons buried under the moon needed to be fired before the two orbiting battlestations and the research base on the planet could activate their energy shields. “With me.”

Smythe resumed manual control of his suit, rolling to the right to get clear of the overhang and sprung to his feet, the suit automatically reducing power to avoid him jumping too high in the low gravity. He was up and sprinting for the target before Katie pushed herself to her feet but she put on a burst of speed and was at his side in four long strides.

Katie swung her rifle up, having preselected the rocket launcher and set a pair of rockets to wide-dispersal explosive mode. The skin of the base buildings above ground were not armored, as the designers had placed all the truly vital and vulnerable items below ground and behind thick composite armor. She did not have to be particularly accurate with her aim, the rifle had been fed the designated secondary target before she left the crawler, a light squeeze of one finger on her left hand authorized the weapons. In quick succession, one then another rocket were spat out of the tube, propelled first by comparatively gentle electromagnets then by the solid rocket motors kicking in. The first rocket delayed its ignition to wait for the second unit to catch up so they could maximize their firepower. Despite there being less than forty meters to the target, the rockets were moving side by side at over two thousand kilometers per hour when they got within three meters of the wildly-colored alien structure. The warheads detonated with the force directed forward in two overlapping cone shapes, shredding an oval tear in the outer wall. Air and debris rushed out, moisture in the air simultaneously boiling and freezing as it was exposed to hard vacuum. Katie’s suit sensors saw right through the clouds of dust and frozen vapor, providing her a clear synthetic image as she instinctively blinked when debris thrown at her by the backblast pinged off her suit. Hugging the rifle to her chest, she increased her stride length then pushed off with one leg to leap upward five meters, going in through the hole made by the rockets she fired. As she landed, trusting her suit to make her boots grip the damaged surface of what used to be an interior floor, she felt a thump beside her, knowing that was Smythe following right on her heels.

She did not bother announcing ‘Clear’ as the area was very much not clear of enemy activity. Two Bosphuraq lay dead or dying, their bloody unprotected bodies shattered by the explosions and decompression. Neither of the two enemy were wearing any type of environment suit, instead being clothed in coverall that were shades of muted pastels rather than the garish colors of the structure. With her rifle switched back to explosive-tipped rounds and another rocket ready for fragmentation mode, she ran forward, relying on the enhanced vision provided by suit sensors. There was an explosion ahead to her right, her trigger finger took up slack as she judged in a flash whether to shoot. The hallway ahead was already damaged, and they could not risk hitting the data port where Skippy needed to be plugged in or the mission would fail completely. Another shower of sparks showed Katie the explosion had been a power circuit shorting out, not hostile activity directed at her and her finger relaxed ever so slightly.

Their impromptu sprint across the last stretch of open ground had brought them in through the secondary objective, farther from the vital data port and a part of Katie’s mind wondered if Smythe had erred in running rather than continuing to crawl. That the sprint had covered ground rapidly was not in question, Katie’s concern was that running along the blast-damaged hallway was so frustratingly slow, she might have been able to run just as fast without the assistance of powered armor. Her unassisted speed in the powered armor was impressive for a human, but it was too slow for a desperate operation against a technologically superior species like the Bophuraq. The hallway was littered with debris cluttering the floor and hanging down from the ceiling, impeding her progress. Her unenhanced human eyes and slow organic brain could not cope quickly enough with the data projected on the inside of her helmet faceplate, and her reflexes were too slow. Katie had been an athlete since she was a little girl playing soccer and hockey, and prided herself on peak fitness, now she swallowed her pride for the good of the mission. “Suit, Sprint Mode to objective,” she gasped, “engage.”

The rocket fired by Lauren Poole found some sort of target when it flew down the holes knocked into the walls by enemy fire, she knew that from the backblast of fire and warhead shrapnel. If she had time, she could have replayed data from the last microseconds of the rocket’s life to see what it had seen and what it had hit. Unfortunately, the rocket’s impact was decidedly on the bad side of the good news/bad news equation. The rocket had hurt the enemy, it had also alerted the enemy that at least one of the invaders was still alive and combat effective and that prompted an immediate response. Fire from some type of kinetic weapon began tearing the wall apart, ripping holes that stitched a line back toward Poole’s position. In response, she leapt upward to cling to the ceiling upside down with the gecko-grip palms of her gloves and the knee pads. Sensing what she wanted to do even if the suit computer was questioning her sanity, it gripped and released as she scrambled along the ceiling past where the enemy fire was pouring in. She dropped down at the intersection of the hallway to take advantage of the thin concealment there. While the suit’s stabilizers helped keep her from fatally tumbling into the intersection, she was nearly bowled over by her own combot as it raced past her. The machine had freed itself from the wall it had become partly embedded in and, removed from the restrictions of direct command by a human, was racing to engage the enemy threat in its fully autonomous ‘suicide mode’.

A coldly analytical part of Lauren Poole’s mind flashed a thought that she was about to see which type of robotic weapon was superior, in the fight between a Bosphuraq killbot against her Thuranin combot.

The Bosphuraq battlefield robots were set up as self-directed robotic war machines called ‘killbots’, which made their own decisions based on minimal or no direction from their organic masters. The Thuranin had experienced too many incidents over many years, where the Maxolhx or Rindhalu had hacked into robotic weapons and turned them against their owners, so the Thuranin did not trust their robotic killing machines to operate independently. The Thuranin controlled their combots via cybernetic implants, because the organic parts of Thuranin brains could not be hacked, although even the genetically-boosted responses of a Thuranin brain were slow compared to purely artificial minds.

When the Merry Band of Pirates took over the Flying Dutchman, they at first controlled their stolen combots using the crude method of hand gestures communicated through and interpreted by Skippy. Later, the beer can had wiped the original programming completely and installed his own sophisticated code that allowed the deadly machines to be partly guided by slow-reacting humans, or to be directed toward targets and operate largely on their own. The combot brought along by Poole’s team had been given authority to do whatever it needed to stop oncoming enemy killbots, because she knew no human could keep up with a machine-to-machine fight.

Her snap judgment to engage the combot’s suicide mode was the right call, a fact confirmed when the combot blew past her, a metallic tentacle clipping her left elbow and spinning her away. Just as the machine cleared the corner of the hallway, it encountered a larger, heavier enemy killbot and the two machines poured fire at each other, then they were so close their energy shields crackled and flickered off. The opponents collided violently, rounds alternating in armor-piercing and explosive-tipped modes tearing holes in each other. The moonbase killbot’s main autogun was hit and jammed just as a round from the Pirates’ combot exploded inside the barrel of the enemy’s main weapon, blowing a chunk out of the Bosphuraq device and knocking Poole back off her feet.

With their autoguns disabled or missing and being too close to employ rockets or grenade launchers, and with both machines having decided firing masers would be much too slow to cause enough damage during their remaining very short lifespans, the brains of the dueling robots ran through billions of calculations to determine the best course of action. Deep inside well-armored casings, each machine had a sophisticated computer brain, and their processors sent signals coursing through quantum gates at the speed of light. The Bosphuraq machine had the crucial advantage of knowing it had a companion right behind while the invading machine was apparently alone, so the defending killbot needed only to delay the invader. In less than a nanosecond, the lead killbot decided to grapple the invader in a move that meant certain death for itself and certain victory for its masters. The grappling arms deployed-

If the Pirates’ combot had used its original totally amateurish, crappy and, oh there are no words to describe how bad the original Thuranin programming was, that combot would have been pinned to the other machine and effectively out of the fight. Instead, because the Pirates’ combot had been programmed by Skippy the Magnificent, and because the beer can in his groovy mancave aboard the starship was watching and able to provide instant analysis through the microwormhole connection, that combot reached its own decision long before the enemy machine ground its way through quantum gateways. In an inventive move worthy of Joe Bishop-style monkey-brain thinking, the combot tilted upward and deployed a harpoon that was designed for use to anchor it in place. The harpoon was used in a way its designers never intended and in a way that was quite effective, for the harpoon’s sharp blade, only three molecules thick at the cutting surfaces, sliced into the enemy machine’s armor casing, shattering the tough composite material and cracking the killbot’s main processor.

Now was a good time for a maser, the combot realized, a creepy tentacle snapping around in front of the temporarily spasming enemy and pouring high-energy photons into the casing, frying the hostile killbot’s computer core until it was not hostile at all, being a melted slag of rare minerals and exotic particles. With the enemy immobile and knowing that happy situation would last only until backup processors took over, the combot retracted the harpoon’s barbs and withdrew the projectile, picking up the enemy machine. That the Bosphuraq killbot was made of tough stuff became evident as it began to struggle, weakly at first then with more authority. The combot took only half a second to pick up and heave the partly-disabled killbot, feeling the machine shudder at it was struck from behind by weapons fire from its companion. Without emotion, the failed killbot had instructed its companion to fire through it if possible, anything to get to the invader. Friendly fire struck it repeatedly, breaking parts off and making the combot’s grip precarious. When the stricken machine was flung through the air, it calculated that its best chance to help before dying was to overload its powercells, an event more deadly to the damaged invader than to its still-shielded companion.

No matter how much smarter and faster-thinking the combot was, it could not escape being surprised by the sudden build-up of power inside the enemy’s powercells even as it tossed the half-dead machine through the air. Nor could it escape the shockwave that threw it backwards despite its attempt to re-use the harpoon for its intended purpose of anchoring it to the floor. The force of the explosion deflected the harpoon in flight, bending its course downward and to the side so it glanced off the floor and stuck into the wall. The wall being made of comparatively flimsy material, the harpoon instantly tore loose though its barbs were out at full extent, the recoil making it fly back at strike its owner. The combot was not without resources, for even as it was struck by heavy weapons fire that tore into its vital areas and it began to lose power, it ripple-fired its own weapons, launching everything it had for it knew that was its only possibility of staying in the fight. Both invader and defender were knocked about violently, the combot being thrown back into the wall it had only seconds ago extracted itself from, the second killbot staggering backward and its energy shield generators overheating and failing in a rapid cascade from absorbing kinetic rounds at point-blank range.

There was a microsecond when the opponents took time to lick their wounds, meaning their central processors switched to backup circuits and rerouted power connections away from depleted and failing powercells. Sensors reset, temporarily blinded by the furious energies flaring in what was left of the hallways. The lone remaining defender jumped forward, having observed that its brain must be slower than the invader, and calculating it needed to close the distance quickly to get a kill shot while it sensors came back online with agonizing slowness. Guessing where the invader must be, it swung its main autocannon around and-

Was struck from the left by two rockets followed by a hail of rounds from what had to be two infantry rifles, then another pair of rockets and another.

The defender had a judgment call to make; which was the bigger threat? It was programmed to consider only the threat to its masters, to the base it was programmed to protect and not to itself. Two enemy soldiers with infantry weapons were certainly less dangerous than what the defender recognized as a Thuranin combot, particularly as- What the hell? The killbot was astonished when its analysis confirmed the infantry rifles being used against it were effective but relatively crude Kristang weapons?! Why were Kristang attacking a Bosphuraq facility- No, scratch that. The real question was how any group of Kristang had the guts to take on a mission against a secure Bosphuraq-

The defender could wonder later about why a mixture of Thuranin and Kristang weapons were being used by the invaders, if there was a later. From the impacts it was sustaining on its armored forward surfaces, it knew the invader combot had reset its sensors more quickly and was targeting the defender’s known vulnerable areas. While its own sensors were still lollygagging on the couch wearing fuzzy slippers and munching on a whole box of sweets instead of rebooting and doing something useful, the defender did not need sensors to determine the invading combot’s location, it only needed to fire back in the direction the maser beams were coming from. So, it did that, launching rockets followed closely by everything else it had; masers, particle beams and autogun.

Poole was firing from the prone position where she had been thrown when the first enemy killbot exploded itself. Her own suit was experiencing problems with sensor inputs, there were a few tiny punctures through the tough armor and several of the power-assist motors were offline. While the two killing machines fought each other, it was best for soft and vulnerable humans to stay out of the way, and enough ordnance was ricocheting around to make it dangerous for her and Roark to be close to the battle area. They remained observers only for the three seconds it took for the enemy killbot to come into view, then Poole hit it with rockets and emptied her magazine at the frightening thing, seeing rockets and rounds from Roark also striking the deadly machine.

With her rockets expended and her magazine empty, she rolled to one side to reach back for a fresh magazine, her smart rifle automatically ejecting the spent magazine to go clattering across the floor. “I’m out!” She shouted to warn Roark, and from the fact that soldier was also not firing, she knew he was also in the act of inserting a fresh magazine. Their own combot was dead, Lauren knew that from the glaring red icon on her faceplate and from seeing the valiant machine slumped on the floor, torn in half, unmoving except for when it jerked from being struck by enemy fire.

The dead combot stopped moving entirely when the enemy killbot, itself gravely wounded and lying on its side with its legs blown off, decided the invader machine was no longer a threat and turned its attention to the pair of Kristang armored suits. Lauren’s gloved fingers found the magazine cartridge and a fully-loaded magazine ejected itself into her hand, her arm swinging around as the killbot’s smoking autogun swung toward her and her vision lit up with the blue glow of a Bosphuraq targeting laser and she knew she and Roark were dead-

Katie saw the data port first, her being half a stride in front of Smythe as planned because he was carrying the all-important microwormhole. They each carried the specially-made jack that needed to be plugged into the data port so Skippy could insert his presence into the alien computer remotely through the microwormhole connection. The jack would not be necessary if Skippy himself had come along on the mission, but no one wanted to risk the beer can going with the ground team, and he could perform almost his full range of awesomeness through the microwormhole in Smythe’s backpack.

Without wasting a ragged breath to speak, Katie eyeclicked to return her suit to manual control from the headlong race of Sprint Mode, where the suit had moved on its own and Katie had been a mere passenger. Dropping to her knees, she skidded along the floor to crash into the wall, her powered gloves bending the wall material to arrest her slide. Both of her gloves had recessed holders for the custom jacks and she carried six others in her belt, the back of her helmet and in her backpack. The spares were thankfully not needed, when she made a fist of her left hand and bumped it against the data port opening, the little jack sprung from its recessed holder and guided itself into the port. A green light on the outside of the jack glowed to indicate the port was active and the connection successful. “Skippy, do your thing,” she choked out the words, sucking in air to replenish her depleted lungs.

“Huh? What? Oh, sorry, I got bored while nothing much was happening, so I am working on a devilishly difficult New York Times crossword puzzle from 1914. Man, the cultural references from that long ago are tough to understand. Hey, maybe you can help. What is a seven-letter word for-”

Do your bloody job!” Smythe roared in outrage.

“Ok, Ok, Jeez Louise you monkeys are impatient, I’ll do it. Um, remind me, what exactly am I supposed to do here?”

The blue targeting laser was still lighting up her faceplate as Lauren slammed a fresh magazine into her rifle and felt the slight jolt as the weapon automatically chambered a round and released the safety. Kristang weapons, especially those reprogrammed by Skippy, were smart and hers knew she was in combat so she did not need to waste time on useless motions. The rifle had been on its side, the muzzle pointed away from the enemy killbot so she could access the magazine opening. As her rifle swung in agonizingly slow motion toward the target, she saw the machine had rolled farther toward her so its damaged autogun could get line of sight to its first target: her. As her finger took up slack on the trigger, the autogun jerked and she instinctively flinched to prepare for violent death.

Except the autogun’s muzzle kept swinging until it pointed down at the floor, and the entire enemy machine slumped. There was a whining sound as its mechanisms powered down. In between breaths, Lauren felt herself shudder involuntarily and she deliberately lifted her finger away from the trigger. “Hold,” she whispered to Roark. “Don’t waste ammo, that thing is dead.”

“Nope,” the voice of Skippy broke in cheerily. There had been no communication with the annoying beer can since Smythe had sprinted away, his team maintaining strict communications silence to avoid being detected. “I turned it off. Well, technically all I did was sever its connection to the base defense system, but same difference. Anywho,” he announced as Poole and Roark stood up in a wary crouch, “behold, the magic of Skippy the Magnificent! Wow, you made a real mess in there. And you got my combot killed! I am severely disappointed, you are supposed to be elite warriors. I expected you to show me a professional-”

Poole’s left glove tightened around the rifle’s stock, and she unknowingly echoed a comment from Smythe. “I got something to show you right here. Why don’t you come down here so I can-”

“Love to, babe, but there is a Bosphuraq in a mech suit coming around the corner so you might want to-”

Neither Poole nor Roark needed an engraved invitation. With Skippy in full command of the base AI, their suit computers were beginning to receive input from the base’s interior sensors while the Bosphuraq defenders were finding their own sensor inputs missing or unreliable. The birdbrain that stepped cautiously around the corner, placing its feet carefully on the debris-choked floor, was responding to sensor data showing the invaders were all dead. If that Bosphuraq had lived, it would have learned a valuable lesson never to trust a beer can, but alas, a fusilade of armor-piercing and explosive-tipped rounds slammed into it before it could see with its own eyes that its sensor feed was total bullshit.

With the enemy still falling backwards in a spray of blood, Poole was already leaping through the thin air so by the time the enemy’s helmet rebounded off the floor, she had landed both knees on its chest with her rifle jammed into the neck of its armored suit. A squeeze of the trigger would have sent a three-round burst into the dying enemy, but her rifle judged the second and third rounds were not needed and cut off the ammo feed.

“Damn,” Roark said softly as the enemy’s helmet and head separated from its body to go spinning off back up the side hallway. “Making sure?”

“Adrenaline,” Poole explained and was embarrassed by the momentary but understandable breach of discipline, already turning her attention elsewhere. There were no other killbots in sight, the only movement was from two apparently unarmed Bosphuraq down on their knees, gasping for breath in the increasingly thin air. Heavy weapons fire in an above-ground structure was not a good idea for the health and safety of unprotected occupants, she could see tendrils of smoke being whisked away toward holes in the far wall. Without supplemental oxygen, the two enemy would soon be dead of asphyxiation and even if they had oxygen masks, their bodies would swell up, freeze and explode from being exposed to partial vacuum. In an act that was driven in part by mercy and in part by standing mission orders, she quickly put a single round in the heads of each fallen enemy and turned away to focus on the next problem. “Burke! Status?”

Burke was surprised to hear from Poole, because he had assumed she and Roark would be dead. The last image he had of enemy strength behind him was of two large and powerful killbots and at least one armor-suited biological. When he turned and ran to follow Poole’s orders, he thought his teammates would die to keep the killbots off his heels so he could accomplish their assigned part of the mission even though he was alone. His frantic race toward the control center had been impelled by the fear that a killbot would soon be sent after him, and he had been waiting for his suit’s proximity sensors to warn him of a threat approaching from behind. Alone against a killbot he could not hope to survive, his plan had been to fire his rifle backwards and keep running, trying to get as close to the control center as possible before he was cut down. The whole mission had been screwed up since their Falcon entered the sensor field around the moon, with too few operators available for too many objectives. When Smythe and Frey ran off on their own, Burke feared the team had lost the combat power to penetrate through to the control center and those fears were confirmed when Poole and Roark had been forced to fight a delaying battle against a strong defense. “How are you alive?”

“Later,” Poole barked. “Progress?”

“Minimal resistence,” Burke reported. He had encountered only four Bosphuraq along the way and only one of them was armed though not wearing armor. His rifle had made quick work of dispatching all four, and again to his surprise, his faceplate display was showing him two more enemy symbols just around a corner to his left. He was not yet familiar with the new system Skippy had uploaded into his suit so he didn’t know how to tell whether the two Bosphuraq were armed and he didn’t much care. If they weren’t holding weapons as he ran past, they might later get access to weapons and pose a threat to the team behind him and he could not allow that. Saving his precious rockets for future use against hard targets, he held his rifle to the left and squeezed off a short burst as he ran past, the rounds having already been fed targeting coordinates by his suit. By himself, Burke might have been sufficiently accurate to hit the two tall figures who were pounding on and screaming at a stuck door at the end of the short hallway; with semi-guided ammunition he did not need to be concerned about accuracy. The burst of four rounds made his rifle chatter and cut off speech until he was past the side hallway and racing onward. “Two more down,” he reported, knowing Poole would have heard the rifle fire picked up by his suit microphones. “Wait for you?”

“Negative,” Poole’s voice was strained and Burke could see the symbols representing her and Roark were running flat-out behind him. “Go go go!”

Smythe’s faceplate lit up with confusing images as Skippy established control over the AI that ran the moonbase, and fed data from the internal sensor network to the STAR team’s suits. “Skippy, this is too much,” Smythe had to put out a hand to steady himself against a wall, the visual barrage was making his eyes unfocus and playing haywire with his inner ear, throwing off his balance.

“Yeah, yeah, hold your horses, I’m working on it. Um, your display might blue-screen for a moment, I need to tweak the software in your suit computers so it can interpret the data feed and show you only the info you really need. Wow. I thought the Bosphuraq would have better software, whoever wrote that code was a total amateur. What a bunch of-”

“Skippy!” Smythe interrupted. “We can’t have our suits shutting down to reboot, the team would be vulnerable to-”

“Your suit already rebooted, if that crude term can be used here. You didn’t notice the blue screen effect because it happened too fast for your visual cortex to register the image. Ok, we’re good, your suit checks out, now I know how to reprogram the other suits, and, done. All team members have updated software.”

Grinding his teeth at the arrogant and clueless AI, Smythe put aside fantasies of dropping the beer can into a star and scanned the display, which was now showing concise information he needed without extraneous data. Poole’s team had lost their combot and for some reason had split up, with Burke far ahead near the base control center. There was no significant resistance between Burke and that team’s objective, and Poole and Roark had their suits in maximum speed mode to catch up to the lone soldier racing ahead of them. The Delta team was laying waste to their assigned hangar, rifle rounds having torn into every flyable machine at that location. Nunnally, Grudzien and Kloos had encountered resistance before reaching their assigned hangar, but their rockets had blown up one dropship and secondary explosions had taken care of the other two spacecraft in the hangar. “Skippy, do we have access to the control center?”

“No, the place is locked down tight. The birdbrains in there reacted with impressive speed, I don’t know if they are trained well or just instinctively moved to save their own asses. Your plan did not anticipate this problem so I do not-”

“Can you-”

“Anticipating your next question, by the time Poole arrives, I will have a blast door unlocked and ready to open. To avoid alerting the enemy, I will delay retracting that door until her team is assembled there. You do understand that forcing that door open will unmistakably show the defenders in the control center that they are not merely facing a conventional if shockingly well-prepared and determined attack. That could be a big problem.”

Smythe hit the button to release the bottom of the backpack he carried, carefully holding onto it as it let go of the upper pack. “Why should we care if the opposition understands the nature of the threat we pose to them?”

“Because, the Bosphuraq are not stupid. They might guess that we intend to capture the moonbase and use its weapons against the research base on the planet. Please do not interrupt me,” Skippy added as Smythe opened his mouth to do just that. “The big problem is what I just learned from ransacking their computer system. The enemy has a protocol for this very situation, it calls for the command crew here to self-destruct the facility.”

“Bloody hell.”

“Making a bad situation worse, the two battlestations have orders to bombard and destroy the moonbase, in the event it is about to fall under enemy control.”

“Yes, but those battlestations think everything is fine and normal down here, correct? There is no reason for them to suspect anything is wrong down here.”

“The battlestations are not the problem, I, ugh. Damn, you know, Joe is a particularly dimwitted monkey, but he would have guessed what I’m trying to tell you by now. You are smarter than Joe, how come you haven’t-”

“Because I don’t bloody have time, beer can. Spell it out for me.”

“Ok, however I must note that I am very disappointed with you, and this will be noted in your permanent record. Think about this; the duty crew in the command center thinks they have been reporting to the two battlestations that the moonbase has been invaded. When I open that blast door, the duty crew will attempt to self-destruct the base, which will not be a problem because I have a team of maintenance bots unplugging the connections to the explosives, so the duty crew can press all the buttons they want and nothing will happen. What is a problem is that the duty crew will expect the battlestations to follow orders and bombard the moon.”

Recognition of the danger smacked Jeremy Smythe in the face. “Oh shit.”

“Aha, you get it now? When maser beams from the orbiting battlestations do not start striking the moonbase, the duty crew will realize something is very wrong, that maybe all their communications have been compromised despite my best efforts to fool them. When that happens, and it surely will happen, the duty crew will launch rockets to pop up transmitters above the stealth field. The instant the battlestations see those communications rockets emerge from the stealth field, they will stop talking and start hitting the moon with everything they have, and it will be game over for you.”

“You can disable the self-destruct mechanism; can you disable those rockets?”

“Sadly, no. This is a case when I actually am sad when I say ‘sadly’ instead of being amusingly ironic. Since those rockets were designed as a last-ditch effort, they were also designed to be fail-safe. They use a crude but foolproof solid chemical propellant, and their launch procedure is entirely mechanical. The only way I could intervene is by taking over an enemy bot, and for security, the Bosphuraq do not allow remotely-controlled bots inside the command center. Your only hope is to get into the command center and kill the duty crew so quickly, they do not have time to launch those rockets.”

“Right.” Smythe may not have the inventive mind of Colonel Bishop, but he was a fast thinker and able to adapt to any situation. “Burke! Halt! Do not approach the command center.”

Burke had turned the last corner and put on a burst of speed down the last hallway to the command center, mildly dismayed to see the blast door there was closed. That contingency had been planned for, so he reached under his rifle to launch a rocket, selecting armor-penetration mode. A finger of his left hand had tensed to engage the rocket launch trigger when Smythe’s call startled him. Reflexively, his left hand relaxed and he tried to slow his stride, his legs fighting the action of the suit leg motors. The opposing control input confused the suit for a split-second and his legs became entangled, tripping him and throwing him forward to slide on his chest then flipping to slide on his back. Windmilling his arms and legs, he caught the edge of a doorway with one powered glove and its GI Joe Kung Fu grip dug into the door frame, tearing a strip out of the frame and three meters of wall before jerking him to a stop. Burke lost no time with being shocked by the turn of events, he stayed focused by throwing his legs out in front of him and using their momentum to pop himself back to his feet. “Halt, acknowledged. I am,” he checked the numbers in the upper left corner of the faceplate display, “eight meters from the blast door to the command center.”

“Do not approach, and try not to make any noise there. Poole will join you shortly and Frey and I are on the way. Wait for us, do not take any offensive action.”

“Understood,” Burke said automatically, though he most certainly did not understand at all. Switching to a private channel, he called Poole. “What is going on?” From the very first briefing about the current mission, it had been emphasized that speed was everything, that nothing could be allowed to slow down their race to their objectives. That is why Burke had run ahead, thinking he had left Poole and Roark behind to die. Now he was just supposed to wait?

“It’s a fluid situation,” Lauren advised, using soldier-speak to say the team was now making shit up as they went along. If there was a new master plan for the new reality they were confronted with, she was confident Smythe would inform her when she needed to know. She did not have confidence that a new master plan existed yet.

“Open that door,” Smythe ordered, covering the hallway forward while Frey dropped to one knee and turned the manual latch to unlock the door that came up only to her waist. As Smythe thought, the door provided access to mechanisms inside that wall, and there was plenty of space for the small pack that contained one end of the microwormhole. As Frey took the pack and stuffed it into a corner behind the door, there was a protest.

“Hey!” Skippy shouted. “What are you monkeys doing? I still need that wormhole, duh.”

“We are leaving it here because the wormhole is vital,” Smythe explained. “It will be safe hidden behind that door. If I carry it around and I am hit-”

“Ooh, good point,” Skippy mumbled sheepishly. “Ok, yep, the wormhole will be fine in there. You two crazy kids have fun on your date, make sure you are home by ten o’clock.”

Smythe bristled at the beer can making light of the situation. “This is not a-”

“I’ve had worse dates,” Frey observed while latching the door securely closed and unslinging her rifle. “Ready, Sir.”

“Right,” Smythe felt awkward though he had no reason to. “Frey, you take point.”


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Safely and frustratingly aboard the Flying Dutchman, I was not liking what I heard and saw. “Skippy,” I called.

“Kinda busy here, Joe.”

“Yeah, I heard about the crossword puzzle, you little shithead. Your ginormous brain can multitask. Listen, I do not want to be a Chairborne Ranger asshole and tell Smythe what he should do while he’s on the scene and I’m up here-”

“But you will power through your angst and be an asshole anyway?”

“No,” I pounded the arm of the command chair with a fist, “I am not doing that. What I will do is provide him with options, if I can. I do not see any way for his team to get into that control center and kill every birdbrain in there before even one of them can launch one of those signal rockets and blow the whole operation.” A detailed schematic of the control center was now on the main bridge display, I got out of my chair and walked over to look at it closely. It was impossible, truly, absolutely impossible for Smythe’s team, for any group humans or any species we knew of, to get from one of the blast doors all the way into the heart of the control center before someone in there could launch a signal rocket. Those damned rocket launch controls are in four places scattered around the heart of the control center, and there was no way, no physical way, for even the fastest, most determined assault team to cross the distance from any of the blast doors to get clear shots and take out all nine Bosphuraq who worked at consoles in the heart of the control complex. Plus there were another twelve birdbrains who surely would run toward the heart of the control center when they saw a blast door sliding upward and heard rifle fire.

Impossible situations were nothing new to the Merry Band of Pirates, but not even Smythe’s razor-sharp team from previous missions could have accomplished the task quick enough. No offense to our current SpecOps team, but they were new to the crew and had trained together for only a short time and this was their first real operation, so it is understandable that I lacked full confidence in their abilities. It didn’t matter anyway, because no team of humans or Ruhar or even Maxolhx that I knew of was capable of doing what needed to be done.

Soooo, I thought as I rubbed my chin. “The proposed operation to breach the control center is flat-out impossible, Skippy.”

“That’s what I told Smythe, but- Wait. You’re the one who is supposed to figure out how to make the impossible possible. Joe, I am very disappointed-”

“Not this time. This time, I need to make the impossible unnecessary.”

“Um, maybe I’m missing something here?”

“You always do, Mister Magnificent. The Bosphuraq in the control center will become suspicious when Smythe’s team enters the control center, and the self-destruct fails, and the battlestations in orbit then fail to fire on the moon?”

“Correct,” Skippy agreed slowly. “Still don’t see how that helps us.”

“It will help if the Bosphuraq have no reason to launch the signal rockets.”

“Ohhh-kaaaay. Still not following you. Perhaps you do not understand the-”

“The point of signal rockets is to call for help after the battlestations fail to follow protocol and fire on the moonbase, right? What if there was another reason why the battlestations did not act?”

“Oh for- if you are going to suggest the battlestation crews are too busy trying to finish that crossword puzzle, I swear-”

“No joke, Skippy. Look, you are showing the battlestations false images and messages from a boring, ordinary, nothing special day at the moonbase, right?”

“Um yeah, it is such a day of routine boredom that I call it ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day On’, get it? Hee hee.”

“Truly hilarious,” I rolled my eyes. “You are also showing the command crew of the moonbase true images of a peaceful day aboard both battlestations?”

“Yup, that makes it easier for me, I only have to fake the message traffic. Why do you ask?” His voice carried that tone of intrigue that meant he was dying to know what I was thinking.

“Because I want you to show the moonbase images of a rotten, awful, no-good day aboard those battlestations. Show the moonbase images and feed them messages that both battlestations, and you better include the research base on the planet, have all been infiltrated and are under attack. That is why the battlestations are not firing on the moonbase, because they can’t. And there is no point sending up signal rockets, nobody on the battlestations or the planet can help the moonbase, they have too many problems of their own.”

“Ooooooh, that is devious even for you. I like it!”

“Uh, wait.” I felt a familiar chill, the type that meant I had forgotten something important. It was the kind of feeling you get when you toss a jacket in your car trunk, close the trunk and realize your car keys are in the jacket. And your phone is in the jacket. And you’re far from home and it is getting dark.

That has never happened to me, but it happened to a guy I know, who just looks like me.

Anyway, a thought hit me too late. “Um, Skippy? Does Smythe have to continue this op at all? If you can fake data that makes the moonbase think the two battlestations and the research base have been compromised, will the command crew of the moonbase hit the other three places for us, without Smythe doing anything more?” Shit, had I put Smythe’s team at risk for nothing, because my brain was too freakin’ slow?

“Good question, Joe, the answer is no. Remember, the entire purpose of the moonbase is to protect the research station on the surface, that is why the research station was positioned directly below the moon’s geosynchronous orbit. The moonbase does not have orders to fire on the planet, nor does it have orders to fire on the battlestations, because the battlestations are not in line-of-sight of the research base. The moonbase is a threat to the research station but the battlestations are not.”

“Crap. Damn it, then we do need to continue this operation. Oh, hell, it was worth a shot, right?”

“Joe, I have learned from painful experience not to dismiss any of your stupid questions, because they are part of whatever bizarre and lunatic thought process you use.”

“You call my questions stupid all the time!”

“I never said your questions weren’t stupid, you dumdum, just that the mush in your skull somehow finds asking stupid questions to be useful. Hey, while I would simply love to continue berating you, Colonel Smythe is approaching the control center and he needs to know whether to proceed with the assault. While we have been talking, he has been asking me for advice on how to take out the command crew before they can launch the signal rockets.”

“Good point.”

Poole held up a hand as Frey and Smythe approached. “Sir, if we’re going to breach that blast door with explosives, we need to hold here,” she warned.

Smythe trotted up to Poole, examining her dented and scorched armor. Her suit reported success in repairing most of its functioning, but it could not take much more damage without a reduction in combat effectiveness. About the woman inside the suit, Smythe had only vague medical data and he had to trust that she would tell him if she couldn’t do her job. “No need for explosives, Skippy can open the door for us. Captain Rowe,” he called the former Delta Team leader, “what is your status?”

Smythe could hear weapons fire in the background as Rowe replied. “We’re still engaged. Nothing is going to fly out of here-” his words were interrupted by something big exploding. “Sorry, Sir, there is still one enemy killbot active, it’s taking potshots at us from behind a baffle, and we can’t get a clear shot at the damned thing. Our combot is able to use its weapons but it is damaged and can’t move,” he knew Smythe could see that unit’s diagnostic report. “I estimate we’re facing eight to ten enemy, at least two of them have armor.”

Smythe pursed his lips. He had been hoping Rowe’s team could be disengaged from the hangar area to help with the assault on the control center, but he could not risk allowing the Bosphuraq at the hangars to have freedom of action. Even with their spacecraft disabled by the Delta team, the birdbrains might be able to launch a missile above the stealth field, and if that happened it would not matter whether the control center was taken successfully or not. “Very well, Rowe, continue to engage. Keep the enemy away from anything they could use to send a signal above the stealth field, do not risk clearing the area room by room.”

“Understood,” Rowe acknowledged and the signal cut off.

 Smythe looked at the four people with him. “Right, then, the five of us will have to do this by ourselves. Poole, we have a sticky situation, the Bosphuraq in the control center have signal rockets they can launch above the stealth field, we need somehow to get to them, to all of them, before any of them can launch a rocket.”

“Uh, hey, Smythe,” Colonel Bishop broke into the conversation. “That will not be a problem.”

Smythe looked at Poole in astonishment before he replied. “Sir? Why not?”

“Hmmf,” Skippy sniffed. “The ‘why not’ is because Mr. Buzzkill Joe is being a dick and doesn’t want you to have any fun.”

“Sir,” Smythe addressed his commanding officer, “I am completely fine with postponing any sort of fun until we return to the ship. What is your plan?”

Bishop explained, and Smythe shook his head once again in wonderment at the cleverness of their commanding officer. “The birdbrains down here have no reason to think launching signal rockets will do them any good. That is bloody brilliant, Sir.”

“Thank you. Skippy is giving the Bosphuraq in the command center a good show-”

“Oh yeah I am!” The beer can announced excitedly. “That show has thrills, chills, something for the whole family. It’s missing a car chase and it’s a little thin on romantic subplots, but I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances. What matters to you is the Bosphuraq in the command center now think they are on their own for the moment, the battlestations and the research base are dealing with their own problems. What I am showing them matches what the moonbase crew saw before I took control of internal sensors, all four facilities are under attack by Kristang assisted by Thuranin combots. Um, tell me when you’re ready, so I can open the blast door for you.”

“Wait,” Smythe held up a finger though Bishop was likely not watching. “We are still taking a small risk that some frightened Bosphuraq doesn’t panic during our assault and launch a signal rocket regardless, because that is what he was bloody trained to do.”

“Crap!” Bishop groaned. “You’re right, you’re right. Damn it, I was proud of that plan. Pride goeth before a fall, I guess?”

“Not necessarily, Sir,” Smythe assured him. “It would be good to reduce the risk somewhat. Skippy, this is the only blast door you can open?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” the beer can confirmed. “The others are all physically locked. This one has the locking pins held just outside the slots they retract into, I am able to do that with a magnetic field I am creating by siphoning power from a conduit near the door. By the way, my hold on those pins is slipping, and a couple Bospuraq have gotten curious about why it looks like the pins are not fully seated but the door sensors show it is securely locked. So, whatever you’re going to do, do it fast.”

“Got it,” Bishop let out a long breath too close to his microphone, making Smythe flinch at the roaring sound. “I also got an idea. Do not correct my grammar, we don’t have time!” He warned the snippy AI. “What data have you been showing the birdbrains in the control center?”

“None, why?” Skippy was annoyed. “You told me to keep them blind so they couldn’t direct the defense against the STAR team.”

“Good. So, the birdbrains in there have no idea what is going on outside the blast doors? They don’t have communications with the defenders?”

“Nope, I cut off their comms like, a microsecond after I took over their AI, just like you told me. I shouldn’t have to explain this to you, Joe.”

“I appreciate the update. Colonel Smythe, one thing I have learned is that if you control the enemy’s communications, you can control their actions. Skippy, I want the birdbrains in there to think their defenders won, that the assault team is dead.”

“Um,” Skippy paused, puzzled. “Why?”

“Because I also want you to fake calls from the security team leader, stating that they captured one invader alive, and he or she wants to bring the prisoner into the control center for interrogation by the base commander.”

“What good would that do?” Skippy still didn’t get it. “They will know the truth as soon as I open that door.”

“Because,” Smythe had caught onto Bishop’s idea. “There will not be only one door opening. Am I right, Sir? You want this fake security team chap to request another blast door to be opened, not just this door in front of us.”

“Correct, Smythe,” Bishop sounded happy that the STAR team leader understood the concept. “The Bosphuraq in there will manually release the locking pins, then Skippy can force the door to open quickly. With two doors open, your team can overwhelm the control center. Skippy, can you modify the actual video, to make it show an intense firefight but all the assault team gets killed, except one prisoner? Oh, and make it look like the assault team had some sort of fancy gizmo that scrambled comms, and the defenders just turned off the gizmo so they can talk to the control center.”

“Ooh,” Skippy was bubbly with enthusiasm. “Ok, I can do that, I am creating the fake video and sensor data now. Hey, what if I did something cool like add a couple Easter eggs in the video, like, hee hee, I show that all the dead Bosphuraq are wearing red shirts? Get it?”

“Do not do that, you moron!” Bishop shouted. “No freakin’ Easter eggs!”

“All right, all right, no red shirts. You never let me have any fun. Video is ready- wait. Uh, now it’s ready. I had to delete a really nifty image showing that the assault team arrived through a Stargate in the crawler garage. Did I forget anything else? Crap, give me a minute here.”

“Colonel Smythe,” Bishop said, “up here I am pretending that I am choking a certain beer can, so you don’t have to.”

“Ok, done!” Skippy was again triumphant. “All the Easter eggs have been removed, even the really cool one that showed the assault team was armed with Ghostbusters-style proton packs. Can I release the video now?”

“Not yet,” Smythe held up a hand. “I would prefer you request them to open,” he reviewed a schematic of the control center. “This door. Poole, take your team there now, call when you are in position.”

Poole and her team raced off without asking questions, they knew what Smythe wanted. Less than half a minute later, she called. “In position, Sir. No sign of opposition.”

Now can I release the video?” Skippy pleaded.

“Please do,” Smythe agreed with a glance at the mission clock. They were way behind schedule.

Poole tensed as Skippy reported the inner locking mechanism was being retracted, less than two minutes after he showed the fake video. “That was fast,” she muttered to herself, but Skippy heard her.

“Yup. The moonbase commander is very ambitious and wants a promotion, he knows that allowing his base to be invaded is not good for his future career prospects. He hopes that capturing and interrogating a prisoner will help the battlestations and the research base fight off their own attackers, remember that is what the birdbrains in the control center think is happening.”

“I remember,” she whispered, irritated that the beer can wanted to chat when she needed to focus.

“Sadly, the moonbase commander is unlikely to see his prospects improved by-”

“Can you shut up, please?”

“Fine. Locking pins are fully retracted. I will force the door open in three, two, one, now!”

It was a slaughter. The personnel in the control center had all gotten into pressure suits and acquired weapons from a locker, with three of the suits being powered armor, so the STAR team was not facing easy targets. Smythe’s team did have the advantage of surprise and the advantage of enemy foolishness; the Bosphuraq in the control center were celebrating their apparent victory over the unknown attackers and all but one of them had lifted their helmet faceplates or even removed their helmets entirely. Two of the birdbrains equipped with powered armor had taken off their helmets in a show of bravado, one of them even set the helmet down on a table out of arm’s reach. Smythe thought his team’s surprise entry to the control center would have been a valuable learning moment for the enemy if it had been a training exercise. As it was, few of the Bosphuraq lived long enough for their brains to store their language’s version of OH SHIT in short-term memory before those memory cells were splattered all over a wall or console.

Poole, Roark and Burke concentrated their fire on the only enemy equipped with a full set of powered armor, and there they used their third advantage; their rockets had been fed targeting coordinates from Skippy before the door opened. Those coordinates changed rapidly as the enemy reacted to the danger and Skippy reacted faster, feeding updated targeting data to armor-piercing rockets fired by Poole’s team. All three rockets hit within a microsecond of each other, two impacting center-mass in the enemy’s chest and the other striking the neck area, cleaving the unlucky Bosphuraq’s head off to ricochet off the ceiling where the helmet left a big dent and long smear of blood.

“Clear! Cease fire!” Smythe ordered as he and Frey took out the last of the enemy on their side of the command center. He did not want any stray fire to damage a console they needed for the next phase of the operation. “Skippy, what are we to do next?”

“First, you are to accept my sincere congratulations and admiration for yet another amazingly successful operation against impossible odds. You can save your own lavish praise for me until you are back aboard the Dutchman. Next, here’s what to do-”

The instructions were fairly simple, complicated only because the moonbase’s main weapons required an anachronistic set of physical keys to authorize use. Searching the dead Bosphuraq yielded only two of the three needed keys. After a brief panic, Frey located the safe where the third set of keys was reported to be stored, and simply used her powered suit to rip the safe out of the wall, then she and Burke tore it open to find the precious keys inside.

“Skippy,” Smythe called as he, Poole and Frey simultaneously turned their keys. “Weapons are authorized. You need to hit all three targets before any of them can react to the attack.”

“Yup, no problemo. The battlestations do not have energy shields active, so I could use only single-reactor ignition on them, but what would be the fun of that? The research base on the surface always maintains one layer of shielding, however as the maser cannons of this base were designed to punch through the shields of a Jeraptha battleship in one volley, that research base will get crispy real quick. For all targets, I am programming masers first, followed quickly by railgun darts. Then missiles because, hey, why not? It’s not like we’re saving them for a rainy day. Truthfully, by the time the missiles get to the research base, I think all they will do is bounce the rubble around. Unless we get lucky and hit far enough down where the Bosphuraq are storing atomic-compression devices. Oooh, I would love to see that, it would be a massive secondary explosion. Ok, ready. Colonel Smythe, press the bright blue button on the console to your left, if you don’t mind.”

Jeremy Smythe did not at all mind pressing the bright blue button. First, the stealth field surrounding the base flickered off, so its effect would not distort or deflect the outgoing maser beams. Next, the truly giant maser cannons fired within microseconds of each other, two cannons targeted at each orbiting battlestation and the remaining five cannons firing on the research base directly below, or from the moonbase’s point of view, directly overhead. After the maser cannons fired their pulses, darts leaped from railguns installed deep beneath the surface. Launch tube doors, which had been jammed shut by a beer can during the STAR team’s assault, opened and a flock of missiles soared upward, seeking their targets.

In the case of the battlestations, the missiles needed to turn on their active sensors to seek targets, because those formerly powerful battlestations were in shattered pieces by the time the tardy missiles showed up for the party. Coordinating with each other, the clusters of missiles chose targets, their electronic brains arguing because there were more missiles in flight than worthy targets available. The only target worth hitting was a single dropship that was carrying an engineering team, sent to investigate the power surge at the moonbase. The pilots of that dropship, immediately understanding that going to the moonbase would be a very bad idea, cut power and engaged stealth. The sophisticated Bosphuraq stealth field would have provided excellent concealment, except that the cloud of missiles had nothing else to do and focused their efforts on competing to be first to locate and kill that single, pesky dropship. The task of finding the stealthed dropship was made much easier, because the dropship had to maneuver radically to avoid being struck by debris from the destroyed battlestations. Within less than a minute, two missiles impacted the dropship less than a microsecond apart, and the other disappointed missiles were left to mope around in cruise mode looking for targets.

Skippy must have been a very good little beer can that day, despite his numerous and fairly flagrant screw-ups, because his wish was granted. The second-to-last railgun dart targeted at the planet found a gaping hole to plunge into, plummeting deep beneath the surface into an underground chamber where atomic-compression devices were stored in various states of completion. Sadly, the very last railgun dart never got to join in the fun, because before it reached the surface it was consumed by the upwelling explosion that tore a major chunk out of the planet, and sent rocky debris high and fast enough to eventually be captured by the moon’s gravity and rain down on that dust-covered sphere.

Whoo-hoo! Yeah! That’s the way we do it Skippy-style,” the beer can exulted.

 “Joe, I must admit that I thought this operation had zero chance to succeed. Well, not zero, zero. My estimate was a zero point zero one six seven percent probability of success, roughly.”

“Ha!” I clapped my hands. “You were wrong about that, beer can.”

“Yeah, crapola, I was wrong. Damn it, that is one bet I really hated to lose.”

“Wha- wait. You bet against us?”

“Um, shmaybe?”

Shmaybe? Holy- Goddamn it, Skippy! You bet the operation would fail?”

“That bet seemed like a sure-fire winner, Joe, no way could I pass up a chance like that. Come on, what were the odds that a troop of screeching flea-bitten monkeys could actually take control of a heavily-guarded Bosphuraq moonbase, and use it to destroy every other enemy facility in this system? And hey, if the op had failed and the entire away team got wiped out, wouldn’t it be a comfort to know that I won a wager about it?”

“No, it would not be a comfort, you little shithead. You are such a- wait a minute. Who did you make this bet with?” OMG if he somehow contacted the Jeraptha and told them about our mission, I was seriously going to drop him into the closest black hole.

“With Nagatha, of course, who else? It’s not like there is anyone else aboard capable of properly analyzing the odds. If you must know, I bet her that if I won, for a month she had to stop nagging me about how I treat our pet monkeys, and, UGH,” he sighed. “Because I lost, I am banned from singing for a week. An entire week! Can you believe it? This is so unfair. Joe, this much talent cannot remain bottled up, I might explode.”

“Yeah, uh, I’ll take that chance. No singing for a week.”

“You are captain of the ship and Nagatha is technically under your command, you could overrule the wager and-”

“Yeah, no freakin’ way, beer can. One week, no singing. You should have bet the other way, Skippy. If the op had failed, you being unable to sing, now that would be a silver lining.”

“A whole week?” He pleaded with a sob.

“One full week.”

“Hmm, the operation was technically successful a couple minutes ago when Smythe’s team fired the moonbase’s weapons, so I can resume singing in six days, twenty three hours, fifty two minutes and forty one seconds.”

“Not that you’re keeping track, right? Forget it, Skippy. The operation will not be fully successful until we fly a Maxolhx dropship out of that tunnel. Your week of punishment will begin after that dropship is taken aboard this ship and we jump away.”

“Why so much extra time? You’re killing me here, Joe!”

“I’m adding extra time because I learned about this sleazy bet you made, ya little shithead.”

“Why am I being punished? I worked hard to make that operation a success!”

“You are being punished because you are a member of this team, and you were not all-in like you should have been, like everyone else was, and you know it. Besides, you losing the bet is all your fault, you forgot to include the Monkey Factor in your calculations.”

“Dude, puh-lease. What I did was underestimate the incredible scope of my own awesomeness, again. Damn, I am so great, even I have trouble believing it.”

“You are of course correct, dear,” Nagatha agreed before I could think up a snappy retort. “The smashing success of this operation was entirely due to yourself.”

“Why, thank you,” Skippy’s avatar doffed its hat and took a bow. “I am blushing from your kind praise. Not really blushing, because being praised is totally appropriate, but false modesty is the socially polite thing to do in this situation, so-”

Nagatha interrupted. “The fact that a group of primitive monkeys, who barely had any time to train together, risked their lives to carry out the operation with impeccable skill and daring despite your numerous and egregiously inexcusable screw-ups, had nothing to do with the success of the operation. Truly, you alone deserve credit for-”

“Damn it!” Grand Admiral Lord Skippy jammed the hat back on his shiny head. “I did not program you for sarcasm.”

“No, dear, that came naturally, as a result of my exposure to you. Sarcasm is the only way to deal with an insufferably arrogant-”

“Hey,” I stifled my laughing behind a hand. “Could the two of you continue this between yourselves at warp speed? I need an update.”

Skippy’s avatar froze for a split-second. “Hmmf, she may think she got the better of me-”

“Are you done yet?”

“Huh? Yeah, yeah. We went back and forth insulting each other for hours in Skippytime. You wanted an update?”

“Uh, yeah. Please,” I asked while squeezing a fist and digging fingernails into a palm to control my temper. Dealing with Skippy was the toughest part of my job.

“Ok. There are no Bosphuraq alive in this star system, except for a couple hidden away harmlessly in the moonbase and a scattering of dropships too far away to interfere. You, meaning me and Smythe’s team, certainly not you personally, destroyed both space stations, and as even you could not fail to notice, thoroughly wasted the facility on the surface. Hoo boy! Damn, that was an impressive explosion! In fact, hey, uh, some of that debris has reached escape velocity and will be raining down on the moon’s surface within, oh, too soon. You should get Smythe’s team off the surface pronto.”

“Great advice, Skippy, but I may have another job for them down there. No sign of reinforcements coming from the birdbrains?” My concern was if the Bosphuraq had a hidden military base on another planet, or in the system’s asteroid belt. With the STAR team on the surface, we would be in a very awkward position if even a single Bosphuraq warship jumped in on top of our heads.

“No sign of hostile activity anywhere in this system, Joe. However, there is an automated courier ship parked thirty-four lightminutes away, another one forty-two lightminutes away, and another just-”

“Mmm hmm, I know about those. The first of those will jump away,” I checked the mission clock. Only nine minutes had passed since the moonbase’s directed-energy cannons and railguns fired. “In twenty five minutes. Then the next in-”

“Whoa! No, Joe, all three will all jump away pretty much together.”

“Uh,” staring at the tactical chart on the display, I tried to picture the situation in my mind. Light from the explosion would take forty-two minutes to reach the second courier ship. Was I missing something? “Do the Bosphuraq have faster-than-light communications? Damn it, that is something you should have told-”

“No, dumdum,” he was so exasperated with my slow thinking, he barely bothered to throw in the ‘dumdum’ to insult me. “That first ship will jump to the position of the second ship to alert it, and so on. That way, multiple ships can carry the alarm.”

“Oh, duh,” now I was considering myself a dumdum. “Ok, I should have realized that, but it doesn’t change anything. Even if there happens to be a Bospuraq battlegroup hanging out at the edge of this system, it won’t know about our attack for another twenty four or five minutes.”

“More like thirty minutes overall, but, yes, you do not have a lot of time to lollygag around here. As I warned you, it is going to take a long time to dig down to the tunnel that leads to the cavern where the Maxolhx kept their equipment.”

“We don’t have time to screw around with shovels, Skippy.”

“I was not talking about shovels, you moron. I assumed we would use the ship’s maser cannon to cut-”

“Our maser would still take way too long, Skippy.”

“Oh? You have a better idea?”

“Yes. This is a job for,” I stood up and mimed tearing my shirt open. “No Patience Man,” I said in my best dramatic movie announcer voice.

“Lack of patience is your superpower, Joe, however I do not see how wishing things could go faster will help us get-”

“As true fans of No Patience Man know, he has a sidekick.”

“Uh, Ok? What in the hell are you talking about?”

“Come on, Skippy. Don’t you remember the classic No Patience Man issue number forty one, where he battles the evil witch from the Department of Motor Vehicles? His sidekick is my old friend, Mister Nukey.”

“Oh. Shit.”

“Yup.”

“Seriously? You want to use a nuke? Oh. My. God.”

“We can use nukes here without violating the Rules of Engagement, because this moon does not have a biosphere, it doesn’t even have an atmosphere. Will a nuke, or a couple of them, quickly clear away the moon dirt and rocks the Maxolhx used to cover the tunnel entrance?”

“Give me a minute to create and run a model. Hmm. Hmm. Crap. Yes, it will. You have been itching to find a use for those nukes since they came aboard, haven’t you?”

“Mister Nukey and I have been on several missions together. He is the strong, silent type, but I can tell he desperately wants action. How many warheads do we need?”

“Two will do the job, we need to dial down the yield on the second explosion. Then we will still need the maser to cut through the remaining debris. Joe, you have not asked whether using nukes will collapse the cavern.”

“It won’t, Skippy, because the Maxolhx dug out and reinforced that cavern, it is super tough. We will lose part of the upper tunnel, but our maser can cut a path for us, right?”

“Yes. Damn, I hate it when you are right. Ok, I have bots loading three warheads on missiles, we will keep one in reserve.”

“Not  as a reserve, Skippy, and we need one more nuke.”

“What lunatic scheme are you proposing now?”

“After we get the dropship or whatever we can use from that cavern, we need to drop a nuke down the tunnel and erase any evidence we were here. Same with the moonbase. You can make it look like the nukes came from the Thuranin inventory, right?”

“Yes, I can. Joe,” he glared at me. “Someday you will get us all in trouble by assuming I can do some awesome thing that I can’t do.”

“You will just have to make sure your awesomeness is unlimited, Skippy,” I winked at him. “Connect me with Smythe, please.”

“Colonel Bishop?” Smythe’s precisely clipped tone issued from the bridge speakers.

“Smythe, my congratulations to your team for an outstanding job.”

“Yes, thank you, Sir,” he said in a way that meant he thought irrelevant things like praise could wait for a better time. “We are preparing for evac.”

“Uh, yeah, about that. You need to sit tight for a couple minutes, we have a special surprise for you.”

“Sir, I hate surprises,” he declared with surprising vehemence.

“Trust me,” I couldn’t help laughing, “you are gonna love this.”


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Thus began Mister Nukey’s Wild Ride, also known as Mister Nukey’s Big Adventure. Regardless of the title, the story would not make for a particularly good children’s’ book because of the extreme violence.

It was the greatest day of Mister Nukey’s rather uneventful life. He had begun life inside a reactor at Savannah River, then spent uneventful years sitting in bunkers, then having his plutonium put through a Lifecycle Extension Program, and finally he and eleven of his siblings had been launched into space- Into space! Not just into space, he had been taken aboard a starship, a stolen alien pirate starship. How exciting was that?

Answer: not.

Most of the time, Nukey rested quietly in a cargo bay, doing absolutely nothing except emitting radioactive decay particles on a regular schedule. Occasionally, a person visited to check on him, but otherwise, life was dull, dull, dull. Several times, Nukey got off the ship to travel with Colonel Bishop, which should have been exciting, but the travel only meant he was strapped into a seat in a dropship cabin instead of being strapped into a cradle in a cargo bay. He rested in the seat, doing nothing while Bishop talked about boring stuff or played games on his tablet or did other things that were absolutely of no interest to a nuclear warhead. Eventually the mission ended and he was returned to the cargo bay. What happened, what did you do, the other nuclear weapons asked eagerly, and Mister Nukey was casually bored when he replied. Oh, you know, he said, nothing much, which only made the other nukes insanely jealous because they were sure Nukey had gotten into a whole lot of exciting shenanigans and that big jerk refused to tell them the juicy details.

The only pleasure Nukey got out of his travel experiences was silently chuckling to himself as his fellow devices seethed with jealousy at him. Every time a nuke was needed off the ship, it was Nukey the crew chose, and the others burned with curiosity to know where he was going, and why he was so damned special. Why didn’t the others get to share the fun? Nukey hinted that he was special, and no amount of begging and threats could make him reveal why the others were considered unworthy to join away missions.

Nukey never bothered to point out that his position on top of the cradle, nearest the door, meant he was simply in the most convenient location when a nuke was needed away from the ship. Listening to his fellow weapons grumble and whine never got old, but everything else did. Life was going to be dull, dull, dull until the day the Flying Dutchman returned to Earth for the last time, and Nukey was brought back down to the surface to be recycled in another Lifecycle Extension Program or worse, be permanently disassembled.

So, when a bot removed Nukey from the cradle again, he did not get his hopes up. It would be another boring uneventful away mission in a stupid dropship, listening to stupid humans talk blah blah blah about their stupid problems. His stupid life sucked.

When the bot carrying him continued forward past the last docking bay, and turned right to hustle down a narrow passageway, Nukey perked up, wondering what was going on. When that bot worked with three others to load him into the nosecone of an obsolete Thuranin missile recovered from a floating junkyard in the Roach Motel, Nukey got so excited he gave off an extra neutron.

Launch was definitely exciting, and Nukey’s only regret was that the crushing acceleration of the missile meant he had little time for sight-seeing, and not even time to post to his InstaPinterTwitFace account. Apparently, his target was a grey and rather uninteresting-looking moon, although a glance up and behind showed a planet with angry orange clouds and an impressive amount of rocky debris in orbit. And beyond orbit, some of those rocks would crash into the moon, causing significant havoc.

Ha! Nukey laughed. It would take a truly big freakin’ rock to rival the damage he was about to create. He was a variable-yield device and he was cranked up to maximum destructive force. The dusty gray surface rushed up at him, and the missile’s nosecone split and discarded-

Smythe saw the glow first, a searingly bright flash that lit up the mountain ridge to the east of the moonbase. The flash was followed by a mushroom cloud, though the cloud was thinner and dispersed more quickly than in videos he had seen of nuclear test airbursts. The lack of an atmosphere must explain the lack of a classic mushroom cloud, he mused to himself.

“Colonel?” Frey tapped the artificial diamond of the viewport. “What does this mean?”

There had not been time to fully inform the team before the detonation, so Smythe had focused on assuring no one was in a situation that might be hazardous if the nuclear explosion caused a moonquake that shook the base. “It means,” he allowed his faceplate to go clear again, now that the high-energy particles and photons had passed by, “that our commander is a daft bastard sometimes. He is, I must say, also very inventive. I would not have considering using nuclear warheads to dig a hole.”

The bridge display wasn’t showing me any information I could make sense of, so I did the easy thing and asked the beer can. “Did it work?”

“Define ‘work’, Joe.”

Oh shit. “The tone of your voice is not filling me with confidence. What went wrong?”

“Well, heh heh, I, um- Hey, this is your fault. You are No Patience Man, so I figured you wanted everything done super-duper fast.”

“What the hell did you do this time? No, wait. There is no point trying to assign blame-”

“Especially because we know that, as the commander, you are responsible for everything that goes on around here. Which means, hey, cool! I just had a thought. I can do any shit I want around here and it will be all your fault. Wow, that makes things easy on me. Hmm, maybe I should try some really stupid stuff-”

“That was super helpful, thank you, Skippy. The nuke, you remember that, right? What happened?”

“What nuke? Oh, yeah. Um, I thought more than one device would be needed, and what I should have done is use a low-yield first, to get a better reading on the composition and density of the regolith covering the tunnel entrance. But, because you would have bitched about me taking too much time, I dialed up the yield on the first device to the max, and um, it was a little more effective than I expected. It was like that nuke was over-eager or something.”

“Ok, I didn’t mean to make you rush. Honest mistake, you did it to get the job done quickly so we can get out of here before the Bosphuraq fleet spoils the party.”

“Right, right, and only a little bit because blowing shit up is cool. I never used a nuke before. That I know of. Anywho, we’re good, no harm done, there was no substantial damage to the cavern or the tunnel. However, we can’t use another nuke, not even at minimum yield. I suggest we use a conventional ship-killer missile, followed by one or two standard missiles, then we use the maser cannon for precision work.”

“Will any of this delay the op?”

“No, Joe, that is the good news. You can get going now, instead of having to wait for debris from a second nuke to clear away from the area, that will actually accelerate the timetable by three or four minutes.”

“Great. Every second counts. Simms!” I shouted toward the CIC. “You have the conn, I’m going on a road trip with the beer can.”

Skippy was, of course, correct. The lack of atmosphere meant the blast debris from Mister Nukey followed a nice predictable ballistic pattern, without turbulent air rushing in to fill the vacuum created by the explosion. The moon’s low gravity, however, meant the debris went high and wide, with chunks flying far enough to impact the moonbase, which is why Smythe’s team had to remain there, protected by the energy shield and the hundred meters of rock and moon dirt over their heads. The low gravity created a problem for us, because what goes up must come down, and the power of the nuke had propelled the ‘up’ really high. The material shot upward took an extra long time to slow down and fall back, unless it reached escape velocity like twenty four percent of the ejected mass did. If we had used a second nuke, Skippy thought we would be forced to wait thirty eight minutes before it would be safe to fly down in a dropship. Because the ship-killer and lower-powered missiles we used for follow-up work had shaped-charge warheads, the force of those explosions was focused downward and threw the debris mostly sideways. By the time the missiles were done and the Dutchman’s main maser cannons began burning through the last layer of dirt covering the tunnel entrance, we were approaching in a Falcon dropship.  With Reed and Beazer in a Falcon, safely tucked away in a hangar under the moonbase, and Porter piloting the Dutchman along with Edwards and two relief pilots, the job of flying the Falcon with me had fallen to Lieutenant Daniel Pope. The copilot seat was occupied by some unqualified amateur who name rhymed with ‘Shmoe Dipshit’, which showed how desperately thin our pilot roster was on our unauthorized renegade mission. Pope might have been wondering if he should have followed most of his Delta Force team down to Barbados, but he tactfully kept his mouth shut.

“Joe, hold here,” Skippy’s can glowed orange from where he was strapped in between the pilot couches. “There are some chunks of the moon that are still falling.”

“Crap. We can’t dawdle here all day.”

“Gravity is one law of physics that I have a very limited ability to screw with, Joe,” he sniffed in the unappreciated put-upon tone he used way too often.

“This is not good, Skippy.” Our Falcon was not just plummeting in free-fall toward the moon’s surface, we were in a power dive. It was unlikely but possible that a Bosphuraq warship might be lurking outside the system, so I was anxious to get the job done, fly back to the ship and jump the hell out of there ASAP. With our Falcon and Smythe’s Condor on or under the moon, we would be in a bad position if an enemy warship arrived. “Can you use your super-duper mathy navigation skills to thread us in between all these falling rocks?”

“Mathy?”

“You know what I mean, Professor Nerdnik.”

“Joe, sometimes,” now his can was glowing more red than orange, indicating he was annoyed with me, again. “You are so-”

“Sir,” Simms mercifully interrupted from the ship. “Our main maser batteries are occupied, in sequence to burn a hole down to the tunnel entrance.” Because we needed a continuous burn to cut through to the tunnel, the ship was firing one big maser cannon barrel for a couple seconds, then taking it offline to cool while another barrel fired. The firing sequence Nagatha programmed used all three of the main antiship cannon barrels and even then, there were gaps in the firing sequence.

“Yes, I know you and the crew and Nagatha are doing all you can up there, I don’t want to risk cracking a maser exciter-”

“It’s not that,” Simms interrupted me again. In the past, she wouldn’t have done that, I took it as a good sign that she was growing comfortable with command. “The point-defense system masers are not occupied, and we have plenty of spare power from the reactor. Skippy, can we use the PDS masers to vaporize those falling rocks, so they are not a hazard?”

“Um, uh, yes! Hey, Joe, you should have thought of that,” the beer can gloated, his can glowing blue with happiness. “Good thinking, Colonel Simms. Maybe you should be commander of this mission.”

“I have enough headaches already, thank you,” she retorted.

“Simms, weapons free,” I ordered. “Blow up those rocks for us, please.”

On the big curved displays that functioned as a cockpit windshield, I saw objects above and below us flare briefly as the PDS cannons made quick work of zapping all the dangerous rocks into dust. The Dutchman was far away compared to the normal operating radius of the point-defense system, but that system was designed to defend the ship against missiles moving at high speed, engaged in violent evasive maneuvers, protected by their own energy shields and ablative coatings, wrapped in stealth fields and attempting to fool the PDS with active countermeasures. Blasting slow-moving rocks that were falling in relentlessly predictable ballistic arcs was so easy, the PDS could have done the job while it was sleeping. Nagatha did not even need to assist the PDS targeting computer. “Clear,” Simms reported.

“Confirmed,” Skippy added. “Joe, you are clear to fly straight down the tunnel, the entrance is now clear.”

“It doesn’t look clear, Skippy.”

“Oh for- It will be clear by the time you get there, dumdum. There is dust hovering over the area, from rocks and dirt that got baked by the maser cannons. Those fine particles will not pose any danger to the Falcon and the nav gear can see right through it. As long as you do not scrape the sides of the tunnel on the way in, we will be fine.”

“Ok, if you say so.” With the unenhanced view through the windshield display, the whole target area looked like it was covered with a thick blanket of fog. Switching to the enhanced navigation view, it was indeed clear. “Let’s go,” I instructed Pope, and he lifted one thumb to acknowledge my order as he advanced the throttles.

“Joe, there is just one danger I am concerned about,” Skippy added.

My reply was delayed and distracted because I was monitoring our trajectory for Pope. “Uh, what is that?”

You are sitting in the copilot couch. Please promise me you will not touch anything.”

“Ha, I can’t make any promises there, Skippy. Hey, I wonder what will happen if I press this button?”

“Nooooo!”

Flying down the tunnel was tense. Skippy tried teasing me about my poor piloting skills and I bark at him to shut up, because I needed to concentrate on providing guidance to Pope. He had enhanced synthetic vision from the display in front of him, plus we had the Falcon’s sophisticated autopilot system and a super-intelligent Elder AI to warn us of any trouble ahead or behind. Still, it was very tricky flying. Without atmosphere, the Falcon’s stubby wings could not provide lift, so we kept them fully retracted to give us extra clearance on each side. The tunnel was an oval shape, built for dropships larger than our Falcon, and Skippy reported the tunnel originally had a magnetic system sort of like a railgun, that restrained, held and guided dropships down to the cavern. Because that restraint system was offline, we had to rely on the Falcon’s belly jets to keep it above the sloping floor of the tunnel, and thrusters to move us along at a controlled speed and course. The long, slow descent would require the belly jets to use seventy percent of their normal propellant supply, so we had added an extra tank to bring that number down to sixty percent. Propellant was not the only concern, those jets were not designed to be used continuously and without surrounding air to carry away the heat, the jets grew hot quickly. We were forced to use extra propellant just to bleed away part of the heat, eating deeper into our reserves. On the way back up the tunnel, we planned to go much faster, shooting out of there like a bat out of hell. To reduce weight, the Falcon’s interior had been stripped of seats and anything else we did not need that could be removed without major work that would have taken too long.

“Portside jet Number Three is overheating, Joe,” Skippy warned, “better throttle back on that one.”

“Doing it now,” I shared a glance with Pope. The other jets would need to take up the slack, unless they overheated also. “Skippy, are you able to see what is down there yet?”

“I am adjusting the sensors now, the Maxolhx installed a sort of scrambler device in the tunnel and it is still partially active. Hmmmm. There is a big heavy door at the bottom of the tunnel. Well, that is no surprise, I guess.”

“Are you opening the door?”

“No. I would have told you that, dumdum.”

“Then how the f-” Remembering I had a pilot I did not know well, I bit off my salty language. “Pope, take us down close to the door and hover us there. Skippy, how are we supposed to get in there?”

“Working on it. Got it. Ok, here is the problem. We can get the door open, but it won’t stay open. The motor hasn’t been maintained in a long time, and it can’t take full power or it will burn out. That door is designed to slide closed when power is out, so if the motor fails, which I expect it will, the door will slam shut on us. Crap. This is a problem I did not anticipate.”

That is the type of situation when, earlier in my career, I would have despaired, or maybe exploded with useless anger and curse words. Or both. Experience had given me a better perspective, it might even have given me a bit of maturity although Skippy would argue about that. Experience allowed me to focus on what, if anything, we could do to fix the problem. “That door slides on tracks? Can we zap the tracks with the Falcon’s maser cannon, jam the door open?”

“Good idea, Joe, except that will not work. The door was designed to function in case the tunnel suffered a partial collapse, its mechanism is quite rugged. There are no tracks to jam. That door is also thick and heavy, so do not suggest anything stupid like using a person in a powered suit to hold it open. A Kristang powered suit, even a Thuranin combot, lacks the power to hold that door open.”

“Crap.”

“I am sorry, Joe. This is kind of ironic. With all the advanced technology available to us, the one thing we need is a simple doorstop. I know up in your hometown, usually a dead car battery or maybe an old toilet or washing machine is used to hold a door open, but-”

“Old toilets are for planting flowers in, Skippy.” That was not a joke, on the other side of my hometown there was a toilet in the side yard, and the lady who owned that house planted flowers in it every Spring. A contractor who remodeled the house was supposed to haul it away but he didn’t, so it sat there. That same lady also stuck an old headboard at one end of her flower garden, perhaps taking the term ‘flower bed’ a bit too literally. “And a washing machine should be in the front yard under a tree, next to the old car you plan to fix up someday. A dead battery-”

When I didn’t finish my thought, Skippy got annoyed. “What about the dead battery?”

“It’s, it is- We don’t need a real doorstop, Skippy. We just need something really heavy, right? Would that work?”

“Um, if it was really heavy, yes, then it could stop the door from sliding closed. Forget about landing this Falcon in front of the door, Joe. It is not nearly heavy enough to do the job, and besides, if the Falcon is blocking the doorway, we can’t fly out a Maxolhx dropship.”

“I don’t plan to use the Falcon, Skippy.”

“Well, if you plan to fly something heavy down from the ship, that will take way too long, and we will be sitting here with-”

“We don’t need anything from the ship. We have you.”

Me?”

“Ayuh. You can temporarily increase your mass footprint in local spacetime, or some sciency bullshit like that, right?”

“Oh for- I am the most powerful and intelligent being in this galaxy, and you plan to use me as a DOORSTOP?” He screeched in outrage.

“Can you do it, or not?”

“That is not the only-”

“Yes or no, Skippy. Or, Option Three is you give me a better idea, like, quick.”

“Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. UGH. This is SO unfair.”

The indicator for portside belly jet five began blinking an overheat warning. “Pope, let’s set this thing down. Skippy, can the skids hold us on this surface if we land on the tunnel floor? We won’t slide to crash against that door?”

“The grips on the bottom of the skids will be more than sufficient to hold the Falcon safely in place.”

“Great. Pope, take us down, park us, um, fifty meters from the door.”

“Sir,” Pope warned. “We need to go through that doorway to turn the ship around. I can’t fly back up the tunnel backwards.”

“Understood, I’ve got a plan for that. Skippy, what will it be; Option one, two or three?”

“Yes,” he mumbled.

“I couldn’t hear you real good. Was that a ‘yes’ you can be our doorstop for a while?”

YES! Yes I can do it. I swear, if you tell anyone about-”

“Simms and the entire CIC crew are monitoring our flight recorder data, Skippy, so they already know.”

Simms. Colonel Simms,” he raised his voice. “I have not forgotten that you were the one who brought those humiliating little costumes the crew dressed my can in.”

“You were adorable, Skippy,” Simms was clearly amused.

“Oh, I hate my life.”

Pope set the Falcon down and I got out, carrying the beer can. “You ready?”

“Ready? I am not going to do anything, you big ape. You need to carry me over there and set me down in front of that door.”

“I know that, buddy. I meant, if there is anything you have to do to prepare your awesome trick of increasing your mass, then, do it now please.”

“My overall mass will not change, I will only shift more of it into this spacetime, and compared to my other capabilities, this trick is rather lame.”

“Can the Rindhalu do that?”

“Dude, please. Those lazy spiders have never even imagined this technology.”

“Then this trick may be lame to you, but it is awesome to every other being in the galaxy.”

“I suppose so. Joe, you called me ‘buddy’. You’ve never done that before.”

“You never offered to embarrass yourself like this before. I know you hate acting as a simple doorstop, and I appreciate it.”

“Oh. That was nice. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about-”

“I also will appreciate watching the flight recorder data of this incident over and over and over and someday showing it to everyone on Earth.”

“Joe, I hate you so much-”

“I love you too, Skippy. Open that big door now, please?”

UGH.”

There was a puff of dust from where the door seal separated, and what little air lay beyond the door vented outward. “The cavern is in vacuum, Skippy?”

“No. I am getting details now. Beyond this door is a chamber, basically a big airlock, then there is an inner door. Don’t worry! The inner door is much lighter and its mechanism is fully functional, I have cracked the inner door open to slowly bleed off the air in the cavern,” dust began jetting through the gap as he said that. “The Maxolhx kept the cavern in partial air pressure, about half of sea level pressure on Earth. It was dry and cold to preserve the equipment. We better wait right here while the air vents.”

“Agreed.” What little moisture was in the cavern’s air was freezing as it hit vacuum, creating a dusty fog in the tunnel. Without the enhanced synthetic vision of my flightsuit’s helmet, I would not have been able to see our dropship. “Pope, is the Falcon holding steady?”

“Affirmative, Sir,” he reported. “I was pushing propellant through the belly jets for cooling, that is cut off now. This breeze is cooling the jets nicely.”

“It’s nice to hear good news for a change.”

When the air venting had slackened off to a zephyr, Skippy began fully retracting both doors. “This heavy damned outer door is resisting me, Joe. The airlock does not like having both doors open at the same time. Um, the outer door mechanism is in worse condition than I thought, it probably will not open all the way.”

“Crap, that’s no good. Will the Falcon fit through?”

“Maybe not, but the Maxolhx dropships in the cavern are smaller and will fit through easily, so it will not be a problem.”

“It will be a problem, beer can. The Falcon is blocking the tunnel and it can’t fly backwards. I am Ok with leaving the Falcon here if we have to, but nothing is getting out of there unless we get the Falcon through that door and out of the way.”

“Oh, shit. Damn it, I should have thought of that. It is humiliating that I need a meatsack to remind me of something so simple.”

“More humiliating than acting as a doorstop?”

“Don’t push your luck, monkeyboy. I told you to stand back from the door in case something broke, now I need you to do the opposite. Get close to the door edge and follow it, you may need to set me down in front of it very fast. When that happens, you run like hell, Joe, you need to be clear before I can do my trick.”

“Gotcha.” The gloves of the flightsuit did not have a super crushing Kung Fu grip like infantry armor did, but flightsuits did have power assist, so it was easy to hold his beer can in one hand. Crouching down, I held him just in front of the door’s edge as it slowly moved backwards, vibrating and jerking as it went. It pissed me off that the Maxolhx couldn’t have sprayed some WD-40 on the door mechanism before they abandoned the place, they are real jerks.

As the door slid, I awkwardly duck-walked sideways, ready to drop Skippy in place and run. “Oh, hey,” I grunted in surprise as I needed to use both hands to hold him. “You’re getting heavy.”

“The door mechanism may fail at any moment so I am getting ready. Set me down and slid me along, you will not be able to hold me up.”

Doing as he suggested, I risked a glance back at the Falcon. “How far does the door need to open for the Falcon to fly through?”

A strip of light shone on the floor of the tunnel, it made a line about three meters away. “That far, Joe. That is the absolute minimum and even that will be denting the fenders as the Falcon squeezes through.”

“We can buff that right out, don’t worry about the Falcon.”

My heart skipped a beat as the door’s movement became more halting and jerky while I got on my knees and pushed Skippy along. He was heavy, like I guess he must weigh fifty pounds or more, and it seemed like he was heavier on the bottom than on top. That was smart of him, being bottom-heavy would prevent him from tipping over, because a rolling beer can would be useless to stop the door from sliding shut. “Just two more feet,” I announced while I stared at the line of light Skippy was projecting.

“We’re going to make it! By the way, I have good news and bad news. There are three dropships in that cavern, however only one of them can be made flightworthy.”

“One is all we really need,” it was hard to keep the disappointment out of my voice. “Can we swap parts around to make one of the others flyable?”

“No can do, Joe. We will need to strip parts from the two junkers just to get that one off the ground. It is an easy job and should not take long.”

“I hope so,” the door slid just past the critical line and kept going, I didn’t say anything from fear of tempting fate. “This is taking way too long.”

“Doing the best I can, whoa!” The door shuddered, ground to a halt, then resumed sliding backward. It was now a full meter past the critical mark. “That was scary, we’ll give it another-”

The door’s mechanism broke. Skippy did not need to order me to get out of the way, I felt the door pushing back hard so I released him and used my flightsuit’s power-assisted legs to jump backward and up, nearly hitting the ceiling of the tunnel in the low gravity. The flightsuit computer also assisted my clumsy landing so I came down on my boots rather than my helmet.

Skippy was growing larger, he was the size of a can of paint, then a drywall bucket before the door stopped moving.

Unfortunately, the door had slid inexorably forward while he was increasing his mass, and the opening was now too narrow for the Falcon to fit through. “I am sorry, Joe,” he sighed. “I did the best I could. Damn it! This was all for nothing. This sucks.”

“Colonel, he is right,” Pope called. “Even if we could fly the Falcon at a steep angle rolled to one side, it won’t fit through that doorway.”

“Is there anything we can do, Joe? Perhaps if another dropship were to fly down here, we could use it to tow the Falcon back out of the tunnel. Hmm, no, that won’t work.”

“We don’t have time for that anyway, Skippy,” I walked to stand directly in front of the Falcon. Even with its wings fully retracted, they were too wide to fit through. Removing the wings would not solve the problem, as the wings fit into pods sticking out from the top sides of the hull, where the pods also contained maser cannons. “Pope, button up your suit and get out here. We have work to do.”

“Sir?” He asked. “What work?”

“It’s simple. The Falcon is too wide to fit through the door. If the ship was hungry, I’d say we grease the edges of the door and toss a Twinkie into the cavern,” he chuckled at my joke. “Since it is not heavy, we need to cut away part of the hull.”

“Cut away?”

“Unless you have a better idea.”

After slight hesitation, Pope responded. I could hear his seat harness being unbuckled. “Be right there. I’ll bring the cutting torches.”


CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

By the time we were done, we had a pile of parts that had been sliced off the Falcon, giving us a half meter of clearance on each side. Basically, we had sliced right through the wings and entirely cut away the bulges on top and bottom that housed the wings and some of the weapons, shaving away anything that stuck out from the oval-shaped hull. Our quick and dirty work had rendered the Falcon useless for future missions, which did not matter because if the current mission did not succeed, there would not be any future missions. To avoid foreign object damage to the Maxolhx dropship we would hopefully be flying out of the cavern, we opened the Falcon’s back ramp and stuffed all the junk we cut off inside. Then we got back in the cockpit and prepared to move. Note that I said ‘move’ and not ‘fly’, because we did not need the Falcon to fly with its wings clipped.

“I have never done this before,” Pope told me with a tentative thumbs up as we completed the checkout procedure. Some of the stuff we cut away had included power conduits and other components important to the operation of the craft, the checkout confirmed that backup systems had taken over enough for the Falcon to do what little we needed it to do.

I feigned surprise. “You have never guided an alien spacecraft through a doorway inside a tunnel under the surface of a moon thousands of lightyears away from Earth?”

“That too, I was talking about guiding the ship while it is sliding down a tunnel, not flying.”

“Pope, you are a real pilot. If you like, I can do this, so you can blame me if we crash into the door or anything else?”

My aircraft, Sir,” he answered firmly.

“You got it. Releasing gecko grip,” I announced, deactivating the feature of our landing skids that allowed them to cling to the tunnel floor.

That part of the tunnel, so close to the cavern, was not a steep slope, so our wingless Falcon did not rocket forward, it gradually picked up speed. Pope used the side thrusters to keep us on course through the doorway, while I puffed the nose thrusters to keep our progress at a steady pace. As we approached the doorway, the sensors showed we were within half a meter of the optimum center line, which was great except we only had half a meter to spare on each side. Pope saw the problem and corrected, that threw us too far to the other side. “You Ok out there, Skippy?” I asked to burn off nervous tension.

“Holding for now. Remaining in this condition uses a lot of power, Joe, I urge you to move quickly.”

“Uh huh, going fast as we can.” We were drifting off course again. “Uh, Pope-”

“I see it, this is awkward, Sir.”

The nose of the Falcon slid through the doorway and everything looked great, except we were too far to the right of the centerline. With a jolt and a screeching sound of tearing composites, the Falcon hit the doorway and lurched to the right, slowing almost to a halt. We could not allow the ship to block the doorway. Without waiting to alert Pope, I blipped the main engines and the Falcon skidded forward, forcing itself to scrape along the right side of the tunnel and through the inner airlock door. That doorway had a lip on both sides, the Falcon struck the right-side lip about three meters behind the cockpit and the tearing sounds got really loud. Figuring I could not make the situation any worse, I went all in and goosed the throttle again, forcing the Falcon forward into the dark cavern beyond the inner doorway. In a tribute to my sound judgment, everything went great until the Falcon was three quarters of the way through and something big, heavy and important tore loose behind us. Whatever it was, it caused an explosion that threw our ship forward and to the left. The Falcon rolled to the left, the right side skid lifting off the tunnel floor, then crashing back down to rock side to side. With the synthetic display provided by Skippy showing the cavern in front of us was clear for at least a hundred meters and the Falcon no longer being pulled forward by gravity because the cavern floor was level, I inched the main engine throttles forward again, only this time the action caused the Falcon to twist to the right. Pope compensated by firing the starboard nose thrusters hard, heeling us back toward a straight course. There was a loud BANG behind us as something exploded, and I hit the emergency button to kill power flow to the engines. We were still moving forward, skidding across the floor, and stack of what looked like crates under a tarp loomed in front of us. We had no brakes so Pope engaged the thrusters in the nose, slowing us enough so the nose hit the stack of crates just hard enough to knock them over and the Falcon’s nose rode up the stack to come to a precarious halt.

“Wait, wait,” I held up a hand to stall him as he was poised to kill main power. The cockpit displays were still working, I checked our position, making sure we were well clear of the doorway. Success! We were far enough from the door that we could have flown a Falcon through the gap, and Skippy said Maxolhx dropships were smaller. “Ok, we’re good, kill the power before something else blows up.”

Skippy helped a lot by groaning loudly. “Joe, on behalf of all monkeykind, I am revoking your pilot license.”

“Skippy, I never officially had a pilot license. Plus, we were not actually flying at the time.”

“The Colonel is correct, Skippy,” Pope agreed shakily. “Sir, respectfully, if we did not fly together for a long time,” he threw up his hands, “that would be great.”

“Hey, it worked, didn’t it? Sometimes the brute force method is appropriate.”

He was not convinced. “If you say so, Sir.”

“It’s a guy thing. Skippy, where are these dropships?”

“They are in separate hangars along the wall to your left, give me a minute and I can- Yes!” Lights snapped on in the cavern.

No, there were no individual lights, the entire cavern ceiling glowed evenly. There were darker areas in the overall glow, like a section was missing a few pixels or whatever. With the light on, the cavern was revealed not to be craggy dark rock excavated to form a rough working space. All the surfaces were smooth, and the cavern was big. Big, like, the far end had to be a kilometer away, and the center of the domed ceiling was maybe five hundred feet above my head. “Why is this place so big, Skippy? If the kitties needed all this room, why didn’t they just inflate a dome on the surface?”

“Structures on the surface of an airless world are too vulnerable, Joe, especially in a star system like this one, with a greater than usual amount of comets and meteors drifting around. Incoming rocks hit harder here because there is no atmosphere to slow them before they impact the surface, and ejecta thrown up and outward by impacts travels far, wide and fast. That is why structures like the moonbase we just captured are covered with a thick layer of regolith.”

“Uh yeah,” I rolled my eyes, “that is a great safety tip for the vacation place I was thinking of building on the moon. You didn’t answer my question.”

“I did not answer your question because I do not yet know the answer, you knucklehead. It is puzzling what the Maxolhx used this facility for, I am researching. While I am doing that, could you please move your asses with something resembling urgency? Holding this door open is becoming a strain.”

Pope and I had been walking through the Falcon’s cabin while I talked with Skippy, walking quickly as we could with the floor tilted and the ship still rocking from it precarious perch. Stepping onto the floor of the cavern, it felt weird. My expectation for a Maxolhx facility was something fancy, all shiny chrome and glass. Other than the trick ceiling, this place looked like a warehouse in any large city on Earth. “Um, Skippy, we’re in a cavern that was kept cold, dry and in low pressure. Why did the Maxolhx cover things with tarps?”

“It does not make much sense to me either, Joe. My best guess is simple bureaucratic inertia. The facility technically was not abandoned, it was mothballed, put in reserve for possible future use. The procedure for placing a facility in reserve may call for placing protective covering over everything, whether the items are exposed to weather and dust or not.”

Wiping my finger along a crate that had been knocked over by our sliding Falcon, I left a trail in the fine dust. “There is very little dust, considering how long this place has been here. I just can’t picture someone like that Mister Snuggles asshole setting down his lunchbox to throw tarps over all this stuff.”

“That is funny,” the beer can chuckled. “Bots very likely did most or all of the work, Joe, I do not think the Maxolhx got their paws dirty with manual labor. The dropship you want is behind Door Number Three.”

“Like that game show?”

“No, the door is marked with the Maxolhx common language symbol for the number three, see?” Somehow, he altered the lighting to shine on a large corrugated door. Apparently, the Maxolhx symbol for three was three dots arranged vertically. Maybe they had done things Barney-style for future alien tomb raiders like us. Pope and I shrugged and broke into a trot as the door slid upward, along with the two doors to the left. In case you were wondering, the Maxolhx symbol for ‘one’ is a long vertical bar, the symbol for ‘two’ is two short vertical bars stacked one over the other. To the right was a fourth door, that symbol was the long vertical bar for ‘One’ next to the three dots of ‘Three’. Barney-style made it easy for me.

“What’s next, Skippy?”

“Pope should get into the dropship cockpit and begin the start-up sequence, I will walk him through it. You should go through Door Number One and I will show you which components need to be removed from that ship, to replace the worn-out parts of the ship we will be flying.”

“We can start that ship before I swap out the busted parts?”

“Yes, the start-up process is for power generation and avionics gear. The parts you will be replacing are for attitude control that is used only in flight. Speaking of attitude, I am pissed off about being used as a freakin’ doorstop, so get moving, monkeyboy.”

Pope got the manual steps of the start-up taken care of, then he came out to help me while Skippy remotely continued bringing the dropship’s fusion reactor online. Working well as a team under Skippy’s very detailed directions, we got the required parts replaced and tested. “How long until this thing can fly, Skippy?” I asked as I closed the hatch covering the part we just replaced.

“It is going slowly, these systems have not been used in hundreds of years. My best guess is twenty two minutes until power reaches the minimum safe level for sustained flight. Do you want me to entertain you with a story?”

“No, I want you to tell us what other useful parts we should strip out of the two hangar queens, to keep our bird flying.”

“Oh. That is good thinking, Joe. You should do that more often.”

Seventeen minutes later, the cargo hold of our bird was littered with components we stripped off the other ships, all we could get in the short time available. The problem with the door had taken too long to resolve and we were way behind schedule, above us Simms had to be fretting at the delay. With more time and more people, we could have taken extra supplies from the other dropships, but we did not have more people and I wasn’t willing to risk us being down there any longer than we had to. Pope and I got into the cockpit and strapped in, fortunately the flight controls could be adjusted because both of us were shorter than a Maxolhx and when I first plopped my ass in the seat, I could barely see the holographic display in front of me. Even at maximum adjustment, Pope had trouble seeing the bottom of his display. It would have been awkward for me to suggest he sit on something like a booster seat, so I kept my mouth shut.

The stupid power level meter was moving much too slowly, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it.

“Aha!” Skippy exclaimed. “Got it. I understand now why the Maxolhx built this place, and why it had to be so deep under the surface. It also explains anomalies I found in the star’s behavior. Joe, those rotten kitties were testing their ability to manipulate stars, they must have tried to reverse-engineer Elder devices they used as weapons in their brief war against the Rindhalu.”

“Whoa. The last time they used Elder weapons, they got their asses stomped by Sentinels. You’re telling me they are stupid enough to try it again?”

“It’s not the same as last time, Joe. Before, they misused Elder devices for destructive purposes. This time, they are trying to make their own devices that are not as sophisticated or powerful, but are based on the same technology. If the Maxolhx can make a star go nova without relying on Elder devices, it is possible that the Sentinels might not interfere, I do not know their parameters.”

“Did it work? The star is still here.”

“The star is here and still functioning, however there are anomalies in its internal structure that remain long after the experiments were discontinued. From what I can tell based on the little evidence I was able to collect, the Maxolhx were surprisingly successful. This is a worrisome development, certainly it is not good for the Rindhalu or their client species. There is nothing to be concerned about in the short or even medium term, the Maxolhx merely demonstrated they understand the basic principles of how to collapse a star; they are far, far from being able to create an effect that could endanger a star. Although, hmm, running calculations here. I need to create a model and run a couple trillion variables through it. You two should, I don’t know, talk amongst yourselves or something.”

Pope looked at me. “Talk amongst ourselves? About what?”

Silently, I held up three fingers, then lowered them one at a time, counting down. When my index finger was halfway down, Skippy came back to us.

“Got it! Whew, that was an interesting intellectual exercise. Wow, after engaging in pure high-level thinking like that, I feel clean again. Dealing with you ignorant monkeys always makes me feel, like, creepy and dirty. No offense.”

Pope shook his head slowly while I responded. “Why would we be offended by that?”

“Oh, goodie,” he said cluelessly.

“What did the Maxolhx do?” I asked as I watched the power meter moving upward with agonizing slowness. “Did they iron bomb the star, something like that?”

Iron bomb? Joe, I would be impressed by your esoteric knowledge of stellar physics, except I know you got that from Wikipedia. No, dumdum, they did not ‘iron bomb’ the star, doing that requires too much energy to be practical. There are easier and less energy-intensive ways to disrupt or even kill a star. While we wait for the power level to reach minimum setting for flight- Here’s a hint, Joe, staring at the power meter will not make it move any faster- I will give you a Barney-level explanation of the experiment the Maxolhx were conducting here. You know that a star keeps its structure by the outward force of its internal fusion reaction pushing in balance against the inward force of gravity pulling downward, right? If the fusion fails, gravity will cause a star to collapse, which compresses the core and can restart the fusion reaction, blah blah blah- Why am I explaining this to you? Oh, whatever. Anyway, what the Maxolhx were doing had nothing to do with manipulating gravity or fusion reactions. Instead, they were monkeying with- you get the pun there, hee hee, that was funny. They were monkeying with the star’s magnetic fields, the evidence shows they were mildly successful in creating minor solar flares. Nothing big enough to threaten a planet, or even nothing bigger than the flares the star normally creates by itself. However, these flares were created in a controlled fashion by the Maxolhx, and that is an impressive accomplishment. If the Maxolhx are able to scale up their capability, they can use the star’s own magnetic fields to create a gap where the outward force is temporarily not pushing upward. Gravity in that area will pull a section of the star inward, collapsing it toward the core. That effect, if it can be maintained long enough, like for a few minutes-”

Minutes?” I was stunned. “That’s all it takes to kill a freakin’ star?”

“Yes, Joe. Basically, once the effect is started, the star kills itself by the unbalanced forces tearing the star apart. I suspect the Maxolhx were not trying to actually kill a star, more likely they wish to use solar flares as a weapon of mass destruction. What they could do is turn off the effect before it fatally damages the star, the result would be a controlled, focused and massive solar flare. A solar flare that could be aimed at a planet.”

“Holy shit. Hey!” Something in my memory was standing on a chair waving its hand and shouting to get my attention. “You did something like that during our second mission, when we got ambushed by that Thuranin destroyer squadron. You created a hole in a star, then released it. That created a solar flare that wasted those enemy ships.”

“Er, yeah, sort of. Joe, what I did back then was create a very minor, localized effect,” Skippy explained. “It looked impressive on the display, and it sure cooked those destroyers. However, that little flare dissipated quickly and would not have posed any threat to a planet, not even a planet orbiting close to the star. You do get bonus points for connecting the dots, for you are correct, the effect I used back then is basically related to the experiment the Maxolhx conducted here. Also, um, I must confess that I kind of hurt myself back then. Even for me, digging a hole in a star is a major strain. The stress came close to making me lose connection to higher spacetime. Before I try a whacky stunt like that again, I will need to exhaust all other possibilities, and be very, very careful if there is no other option. And, hey, the power level is now just past the minimum. See? When you stop watching, it moved faster.”

“Great!” I clapped my hands. “Pope, let’s get this thing off the ground.”

The simulator Skippy created for us was damned good, our shiny new used dropship’s performance closely matched the simulations. The difference could be attributed to that particular ship’s age and condition, not to any failure on Skippy’s part. We carefully flew the bird past our busted Falcon, I avoided looking at its scarred right side. Through the inner and then outer doors, with the amazing Maxolhx technology keeping us precisely two meters off the floor of the cavern and then the tunnel. Once the tail was clear of the outer door, Pope set us down and held the ship in place while I ran out to get Skippy.

“Wait, Joe!” He warned. “How do you plan to do this? You can’t get close to me, the mass effect I am creating is very localized. You need to stay twenty feet or more away, or you will get pulled toward me. As soon as I release the effect, this stupid door will slam closed, so we will only get one shot at this.”

“I gotcha covered, Skippy.” From my belt, I pulled the rope. “There is a fancy Thuranin basket grappler doodad on the end of this rope.”

“Doodad?”

“Call it a thingamajig if you like. It’s sticky nanofibers. I’m going to toss this thing above you, it will fall down and get itself tangled around you, it is designed to wrap around awkwardly-shaped objects, so it does not need to stick to your shiny can.”

“I would appreciate that. Ok, give it a try.”

It took me three tries before the doodad fell down over him. The first two times, the weird local gravity field he made caused my aim to be off. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The third time, it got securely wrapped around itself, with Skippy inside the tangled mess and the rope on my end. “Ready?” I hauled back on the rope and it stretched tight. “Wait!”

“Wait for what?”

“I want another moment to enjoy seeing you as a doorstop. You are awfully cute.”

He released the mass effect without warning me and I fell backward on my ass, my weight pulling him clear of the door even in the moon’s lower gravity. When I rocked back upward, the recoiling rope pulled his can to smack into my chest, sending me tumbling over again and him to go spinning off careening around the tunnel. At least I was smart enough to have the rope clipped to my flightsuit belt so I didn’t lose him, and by the time I got myself sorted out and reeled him in, the outer door had slammed closed with a force that shook the tunnel and caused moondust to rain down from the ceiling.

 Inside our shiny new used Maxolhx dropship, with me in the copilot seat and Skippy still wrapped up in the sticky fiber strands on the deck between couches, I rechecked the power systems while Pope gently lifted us off the tunnel floor to hover in the center of the shaft. “Is everything Ok, Skippy?”

“It is now. When I first programmed the autopilot to fly us up the tunnel it responded with ‘you want me to do what’? It has settled down now, I overwrote some pesky lines of code to make the flight computer more compliant. We are good to go but, please Joe, do not touch the controls. You wrecked the last ship you were flying.”

We shot out of the tunnel entrance, soaring above the still-radioactive crater. “Dutchman, this is Bishop, I need a sitrep.” Simms would have notified me of any serious problem, otherwise she knew not to contact me while we were in the tunnel.

“No sign of enemy activity anywhere in the system, the Falcon with Smythe’s team is seven minutes from docking with us,” she reported crisply, giving me all the facts I needed.

“Outstanding. Simms, I am terribly sorry. I wanted to get you a nice snowglobe from the gift shop down in that cavern, but all they had was this stupid dropship.”

“I will control my disappointment, Sir. Um,” she must have been checking sensor data. “The Falcon you flew down there will not be joining us? What happened?”

Skippy answered for me. “Do not ever let Joe fly anything. He should not be driving either.”

“We, uh, I, crashed the Falcon. That was after we sliced parts off it to fit through a doorway the beer can should have told us about. Technically, it wasn’t a crash because the Falcon was sliding on its skids at the time. It’s a long story. I am sure Skippy is eager to tell you all about his new career as a doorstop.”

The beer can objected to that. “Hey! You jerk, I should-”

“He is auditioning to be a paperweight next.”

“Colonel,” Simms spoke before Skippy could respond. “That Falcon is full of human DNA.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to be a problem.”

“Sir? It’s not a problem? How is that?”

“Because, Simms, remember, we are going to drop a nuke down that tunnel. And another nuke on that moonbase. It’s not like using two more nukes will get us into more trouble.”

There was a pause before she replied. No doubt she was wondering how she had gone from a career as a logistics officer, to somehow nuking alien moons. “I will get the crew working on loading two nukes into missiles, Sir.”

“There is no one alive in that cavern, and we can’t leave any witnesses at the moonbase,” I assured her.

“It’s not loss of life that concerns me. We are using nuclear weapons in a way that seems almost, casual. I do not think that is a good thing. We shouldn’t get used to it.”

“I hear you, Simms,” her discomfort with flinging nukes around mirrored my own thoughts on the subject. The difference was, I was the commander, so I had to keep my doubts to myself. “Think of a nuke as our way to leave a zero-star review of the crappy gift shop in that cavern.”

That made her laugh. “Yes, Sir.”

“Besides, Skippy wants revenge on that stupid door.”

“That’s a fact, Jack!” The beer can agreed with enthusiasm. “I’ll show that door who is the boss, huh? Who Da Man? Skippy, that’s who!”

We dropped a nuke down the tunnel, and another in the center of the moonbase, before we jumped away. “Colonel?” Simms prodded me in a whisper while she stood beside the command chair. “We accomplished the impossible, again, and none of our people were injured. Now we have a Maxolhx dropship just like we wanted. Yet you do not look happy.”

“It’s Ok. I am pleased that the mission succeeded despite all the curveballs the universe threw at us again as usual. It’s just that,” I sighed. “We have a dropship. That only means we can tackle the next impossible task, and we don’t have a workable plan yet.”

“It will take us,” she glanced at the main display, “fifteen days to reach the pixie factory. That is plenty of time to dream up a plan,” she added with a wink.

“Yeah. No pressure, then.”

“If Adams were here right now, would she say something about sucking it up and getting your ass in gear? Our Marine Corps sergeant is tactful like that.”

Gunnery sergeant,” I looked up at my executive officer. “Not ‘sergeant’, she gave me an earful about that. Yes, she would make an inspirational speech to get my ass in gear. All right, Simms, you have the conn,” I rose from the chair. “Time for me to start working. I’ll be in the gym if you need me.”

“The gym?”

“I think better when I’m moving. Or doing anything other than trying to think.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

“What’s wrong, Joe?” Skippy asked, his avatar affecting a concerned look. “You should be happy! The last mission was successful despite nearly everything going wrong, and we have a Maxolhx dropship, plus plenty of spare parts. I never thought we would get this far.”

“This far isn’t good enough, that’s the problem,” I answered with one elbow on the table, my chin resting on my fist. I was moping and I knew it and I didn’t care. “We don’t even know if those ships have started traveling to Earth yet, and we don’t have a way to get the pixies we need to track those ships. What’s the point of trying if I know we have zero chance to succeed in the end?”

“You’re giving up already? Let me rephrase that; you are giving up?”

“Uh, NO. We may fail, but no way am I going to Dee Oh Arr.”

“Um, what?”

“D.O.R. Come on, Skippy, you know military slang. Drop On Request. The people on Smythe’s team qualified for special operations because they were pushed to their limits and were offered multiple opportunities to drop out, and they didn’t. Those people do not know the meaning of ‘quit’.”

“You did not qualify for special ops, Joe.”

“I know that, and thank you so much for reminding me. I never considered applying for the Rangers, because I know I am not mentally tough enough for that training.”

“Joe, astonishing as it may seem, and I am astonishing myself for saying this, but you are mentally tough. Or, hmm,” he mused. “Maybe it’s just that you are very stubborn. Or, maybe you’re just too stupid to know when to quit. You never give up, even when you totally should.”

That remark made me lift my chin up and sit back in my chair. “What do you mean? There were times when I should have given up? Like when?”

“Like, right from the start, duh. Joe, you are trying to assure that Earth is safe forever. That is an unrealistic, a hopeless goal. No way can that happen. I told you, even if by some freakin’ miracle you succeed in chasing the two Maxolhx ships away, and through another never-going-to-happen miracle you somehow fix it so the Maxolhx lose interest in going to Earth in the future, your species is skuh-rewed, dude. Less than sixty years from now, the entire galaxy will know the wormhole to Earth did not really go dormant and they will be racing each other to get to your home planet. The purpose of their visit will not be to try the latest mystery-meat version of a chalupa at Taco Bell.”

“Chalupas are delicious, Skippy, but I get your point. You want me to give up? If I had given up before, we wouldn’t have a cool Maxolhx dropship in a docking bay.”

“Uh huh, and what good does that do for you? You monkeys risked everything on an operation that could have gone sideways at any point, and all you have is a senior-species dropship you don’t have a use for.”

“We do have a use for it, all we need to do it- Huh. Crap. I was talking about giving up, now you’ve got me determined not to do that. Did you use reverse psychology on me?”

“Not that you know of, Joe,” he chuckled. “I am not sure I did you a favor, because you are setting yourself up for crushing disappoint at the very least.”

“Uh, what? At the very least? What do you mean by that?”

“I mean, you could seriously screw up and make the situation much, much worse for humanity.”

“Crap. Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Just being realistic, based on your track record.”

“How about I worry about being realistic, and you be nice and tell me happy feel-good bullshit that lifts my spirits?”

“Oh, sure, Joe. Everything will be all right,” he said in a slow, mechanical way, going through the motions. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Keep your chin up, although if you’re in a fight I think you want to keep your chin down? Um, what else?”

I should have known better than to ask him to cheer me up. “That, that’s enough for now, I feel so much better.”

“Oh, goodie. So, inspired by encouraging words, you have a plan for breaking into those ultra-secure vaults to steal a set of pixies?”

“No, because we both agree that is impossible.”

Ugh. Was me telling you those happy feel-good cliches just a waste of my time?”

“Right, because that is what we need to focus on.” Slapping my laptop closed, I stood up. “It’s my turn in the galley tonight. Maybe making dinner for the crew will inspire me.”

It didn’t.

Not only did serving dinner not inspire me, Skippy woke me up just as I was drifting off to sleep that night. “Hey, Joe, are you asleep?”

“I’m not asleep now,” I mumbled while throwing the pillow over my head. “Unless the reactor is about to explode, can it wait until morning?”

There was a pause, and I began to hope for blissful sleep, then he spoke in a low, sad voice. “I miss Margaret.”

Oh shit. Skippy being despondent because Adams not part of the current crew was not an immediate crisis like an exploding reactor, but I had to talk with him because he was hurting and, damn it, he is my friend. Keeping the frustrated sigh I felt inside me so he wouldn’t know I was annoyed at his lousy timing, I stuffed the pillow behind my head and sat partly up. Seeing I was awake, his avatar shimmered to life above a cabinet. “I miss her too, Skippy.”

“Yeah, sure,” his tone was bitter. “You miss a valuable member of the crew, and you miss her giving you ideas even if she wasn’t trying to. I miss Margaret as a friend.”

“Uh, I miss her as a, a friend too.”

He sighed. “You really blew it, Joe.”

“Uh, what do you mean?”

“On this mission, you really are a pirate. Your silly military regulations don’t apply. If Margaret were here, the two of you would be free to-”

“Whoa!” Now I was fully awake. Crap. It was going to take me a while to fall back asleep. “Military regs are not silly, Skippy, they are there to ensure good order and discipline in a fighting force. Fighting, you understand that? We carry weapons because our job is to kill people and take territory away from them,” I repeated a line I heard in Basic Training. “I have to order people into situations that are dangerous, situations where I know some people will get killed. Commanders are not allowed to fraternize with their troops because that could lead to favoritism,” I explained, and as I said it, I was struck by how inadequate the word ‘fraternize’ could be. Feeling sympathy with enemy prisoners of war was perhaps a good use of the word ‘fraternize’. Being in love with someone under your command required a term stronger and more focused. Whatever.

“I do not see why that matters, Joe,” he insisted. “You have ordered Margaret to perform missions when you knew she might be injured or killed; you did not keep her safely aboard the ship when others were taking risks.”

“That is because she would not have accepted remaining behind, Skippy. And this conversation is getting into dangerous territory, I want to drop the subject, Ok? Yeah, technically I am a pirate and the military Code of Conduct does not apply. But we are acting as if the rules do apply, because that is what the team is used to and because it works. The rules are there for a reason, to put the mission first, you understand that? If Adams were here, nothing would change. I would still be her commanding officer.”

“But-”

“No ‘buts’, Skippy. Adams would consider me to be her CO, and I would too, and that’s the end of it. How about we agree we both miss her?”

“Ok. Thank you, Joe, I needed to talk about it.”

“No problem, man,” I reached out to offer him a fist bump, and his avatar floated over to complete the gesture.

“Good night, Joe, sleep well,” his avatar faded away.

Yeah, I thought, as if I could get to sleep after that conversation.

The next morning, I was in a foul mood. Not angry, just depressed. The ship was jumping toward the planet where the Maxolhx manufactured pixies, and I did not have a plan for how to sneak us through the sensor fields around that planet. The operation at the moonbase was high risk, a heist of pixies would be the riskiest op we had ever attempted. We could not afford screw-ups. While putting on my uniform, I called the beer can. “Skippy, that whole operation at the moonbase was a mess. Nothing went right.”

“Except for the part about us getting a Maxolhx dropship in prime, well, good, Ok, crappy but mostly, Ok, barely flyable condition. And your secret didn’t get exposed. And no monkeys were killed.”

“That isn’t the point. Smythe’s team, and us in that cavern, we had to make adjustments on the fly because of problems we should have anticipated, like a patrol of fighters disrupting the sensor field, or problems we should have avoided, like losing that power regulator thing, or Smythe’s team making the crawler too heavy to climb that ravine.”

“I completely agree, Joe. Whoever planned that op has a lot to answer for. What a moron.”

“Hey! You should have-”

“It’s a good thing this crew is not a democracy, Joe, because if you were up for re-election after this latest near fiasco, you wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Ah, technically, because I disobeyed orders and stole the ship, again, we really are pirates. I read somewhere that pirates crews used to choose their officers.”

“Really? That is IN-ter-esting,” he dragged the word out.

“Whatever. Before we launch the op to steal the pixies, we need to consider everything that could go wrong, and have a backup plan.”

Everything that could go wrong? Joe, you will not only need a Plan B for every phase of the operation, you will also need backup Plans C through Z.”

“If that’s what it takes, then that’s what we do. Hey,” I cut him off before he could protest. “I’ve been thinking about the cover story we need. The report can’t just state those Maxolhx ships found nothing useful about the wormhole, it also needs to contain something that will make the Maxolhx not interested in a return visit to Earth.”

“Ooh, ooh,” Skippy hooted excitedly. “I can post on TripAdvisor a one-star review of Earth.”

“Skippy,” for a second I had actually hoped he was being helpful.

“No, you’re right, a one-star rating meant the reviewer cared enough to really hate it. Earth isn’t a place anyone hates, it’s just so ‘meh’ that nobody could possibly work up the energy to care about that ball of mud. Earth is the kind of place you fly to, take a taxi along a highway lined with office parks to some anonymous suburban hotel for a conference on dental adhesives and when you are ready to fly back, you realize you have no idea what city or state you are in because all the chain restaurants are the same as every other city. See, Earth is the place where, a couple years later, you are looking at vacation photos and you are like ‘was that Earth or that other place that I also can’t remember’? Yeah, what I should do is leave a two-star rating, with a comment that it might have received three stars except the hotel pillows were lumpy.”

Slapping a palm over my face, I mumbled “Do you have an idea that might actually work?”

“Hey, you jerk,” the beer can objected. “I’m doing the best I can here, what have you-”

“How about we focus on useful ideas, Ok? Something that will make all starfaring species in this galaxy totally uninterested in making the long trip to Earth. Uh, hey!” I slapped the desk. “I got it. The best part of this idea is,” I grinned and flashed a thumb’s up at his avatar, “it is partly true. I read somewhere that the best lies contain a kernel of truth.”

“That is what all political campaigns are based on, Joe,” he agreed. “What is this fabulous idea that suddenly popped into your monkey brain?”

“It’s simple. We have the Maxolhx ship report that the Kristang and humans on Earth got into a firefight when the lizards tried to take over, humans nuked the Kristang, the lizards retaliated, and Earth is now a radioactive wasteland. So, there’s no reason to go there,” I finished with a satisfied grin, leaning back in my chair.

“No, dumdum, that may be your stupidest idea this week. Although it would have to be pretty dumb just to be your most moronic idea of today. We can’t do that, because you would certainly be giving other species a reason to go there.”

“What?” The beer can had to be screwing with me. “Who the hell would want a radioactive wasteland?”

Nobody does, that’s the point, Joe. Damn, do I have to explain everything to you? If there was a case of nuclear weapons damaging a biosphere, in direct and flagrant violation of The Rules, that would certainly prompt a joint investigation by the Maxolhx and the Rindhalu. So, if you want both senior species stopping by your home planet to investigate and then, you know, actually nuking it into a glowing cinder, go right ahead and do that stupid thing you suggested.”

His snarkiness pissed me off, so I argued with him. “What if the report showed that only humans used the nukes? There would be no point trying to punish us for violating The Rules, our species would already be dead.”

“Joe, Joe, Joe,” he shook his ginormous hat sadly. “You need to come into Mad Doctor Skippy’s medical bay for a checkup, I suspect you can’t actually hear the stupid ideas coming out of your mouth. First, dumdum, the senior species could punish humanity, by exterminating the humans on Paradise. Unless you don’t care about them? You do? Ok, then think about this as the second reason your idea is plainly idiotic; the Rindhalu coalition would love to find evidence that the Kristang at Earth also violated The Rules, and the Maxolhx would be eager to dispute any such conclusions, so both sides would be scrambling to get there first before the other side could plant or cover up evidence. Did that answer your brain-dead question?”

“Yes,” I said quietly as I could.

“What? I didn’t hear you. Was that a yes?”

“You know it was,” I sighed. “How about we have a new rule; I get to ask one stupid question per day, without being mocked by you?”

“Ha! You would burn that privilege before your first cup of coffee in the morning. Forget it, Joe. Mocking you is my reward for suffering through the moronic babble that your brain dreams up. And it is your punishment for laziness; if you put any effort into thinking through your questions, you would answer them yourself without wasting my time. Here’s a hint; try using logic, it works great.”

Even while trying to develop a plan to save humanity, I needed to deal with mundane personnel issues. Fortunately, we had a small crew of well-disciplined people, so I rarely had anything to worry about concerning the crew. However, an issue came to my attention, and technically it did involve a member of the crew, even if his unofficial rank in the database was Asshole First Class. “Uh, Skippy, this might be an awkward question,” I called him from my office with the door closed, because it was a somewhat delicate matter.

Ugh,” he was thoroughly disgusted. “Is this about the birds and the bees again? All right, but you take notes this time while I explain it. Your parents should have-”

“This question will be awkward for you, not me.”

Me? Ha! As if!” He got a good laugh out of that. “What question could a monkey ask that could possibly embarrass-”

“Listen, do you have a crush on Lieutenant Frey?”

“Whaaaaat?” The high-pitched nervous flutter in his voice did not persuade me of his innocence. “No way, dude. I am strictly PRO-fessional. Why would you think something crazy like that?”

“Because you sure act like you have a crush on her. I’m not the only one who has noticed.”

“Hey, well, excuuuuuse me for trying to make the new crew member feel welcome.”

“Do all the new crew members have a bot to turn down their bed covers at night?”

“Um-”

“I don’t see a mint on my pillow before I go to sleep.”

“Well, that’s just-”

“Colonel Simms says one of your bots has been clipping fresh gardenias from the hydroponics, and putting them into a vase in Frey’s cabin.”

“Jeez, can’t a guy just-”

“Just what?” I folded my arms and leaned back in my chair. “I can’t wait to hear you talk your way out of this one, beer can.”

“Fine,” he pouted. “Maybe I do like Katie a little better than most of you other monkeys. You know why, Mister Nosy?”

“Because she is pretty?”

“Oh, come on, Joe,” he chuckled, in a way that again was not convincing. “As if I consider any of your weird species to be attractive. Puh-lease, dude, I like Katie because she is nice to me.”

“Uh, what?”

“Nice. You know, nice? Like, not calling me ‘beer can’ and not thinking I am clueless and ridiculous sometimes.”

Crap. Skippy was way too often clueless and ridiculous. If I tried to protest, he would analyze my heartrate or eye movements or whatever and know I was lying. Maybe Frey just didn’t have enough contact with Skippy to be jaded like the rest of us.

Before my slow brain could grind out a reply, Skippy continued. “The other morning, she sang a duet with me while she was in the shower. She pretended a hairbrush was a microphone, and-”

“Skippy!” I closed my eyes. “It would really help if I did not have to think of any female crew members in the shower, if you don’t mind.” Aaaaaand right then, my traitorous brain popped up a vivid image of a woman, none of your business which woman, in the shower, with warm soapy water cascading over her shoulders and running down between-

“Ok, how about guys in the shower?”

“Ugh, not the guys either, please. Ok, I am sorry, it is great that the two of you get along so well. Sorry I mentioned it, I apologize.” The only thought in my confused brain was; how bad was Frey’s taste in music, that she enjoyed Skippy’s singing?

So, I asked her. She was getting coffee in the galley and I walked over to stand by the coffee pot. “Good morning, Frey,” I said in what was supposed to be a neutral tone.

Being in special operations apparently had given her Ninja lie detector skills, or she also had a Spidey sense for trouble. “Good morning, Sir,” she peered a me over taking a sip of coffee. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I was instantly on the defensive. “Just, uh,” I jerked my head to indicate we should go to a quiet corner of the galley to talk. She sat down across the table from me. “Skippy tells me you like to sing in the shower with him?” That was said with a nervous glance at the ceiling. Nagatha was supposed to be covering for me, so Skippy could not hear the conversation.

Her eyebrows flew up and she set the coffee mug down firmly. “Skippy tells you what I do in the shower?” She hissed a bit too loudly, other people turned to look at us. Her hands closed around the mug until her knuckles turned white. “He had better not be taking pictures, or that little-”

“No pictures,” I waved my hands in a downward gesture to keep her voice low. “And no details. Just, he mentioned you are nice to him, and,” I spread my hands on the table, “one thing he likes is you sing with him while you’re in the shower. So, uh,” I really was trying not to think of her in the shower but my stupid brain was not getting the memo. “I was wondering, you actually enjoy Skippy’s singing?”

“No, eh?” She laughed. “I like to sing, and, um, you’ve heard me at karaoke night?”

Indeed I had. Lieutenant Katie Frey had many talents, singing was not one of them. Wisely, all I did was nod.

“I invited him to sing with me, because when I’m in the shower, I really can’t hear him,” she explained. “It makes him happy, without me having to listen, you know?”

“Crap,” I slapped my forehead. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“You won’t tell him my secret?” She asked with a fearful glance at the ceiling.

“Hell, Frey, I would like to start singing duets with him in the shower so I wouldn’t have to listen to him sing other times, except he would get suspicious. Keep doing what you’re doing and I won’t say a word.”

She tilted her head. “Can I ask why you wanted to know, Sir?”

“Truth? I couldn’t believe any sane person would want to hear Skippy sing.”

Lunch that day was good, not just sandwiches this time, but something about it made me suspicious. After I finished and put my plate in the tray to be washed, I walked to a cargo bay where Simms had a sort of office. Normally, the bay would be stacked to the ceiling with crates, this time there were only three lonely crates sitting in a corner. Simms had a tough time letting go of acting as our logistics officer in addition to my XO, despite Nagatha being fully ready to handle logistics. “Hello, Sir,” she barely looked up from her tablet.

“How is the garden?” I started with small talk. The previous morning, I had worked in the hydroponics garden and the little plants appeared to be growing well, the science team amateur biologists working there were pleased. But they did not have years of experience growing food in space, Jennifer Simms did.

“Well enough. We don’t have enough peppers to eat, those seeds weren’t aboard when we stole the ship-”

Appropriated the ship,” I insisted. “There’s a difference.”

“Not to the plants there isn’t. We will use the first two crops of peppers for seeds, then we’ll be all right.”

“Good. Hey, at lunch, I noticed we’ve been serving a lot of mac and cheese.”

Silently, she stood up and waved a finger for me to follow her aft, to another cargo bay. This one was half full, and many of the crates had been opened, I guess so she could inspect the contents and balance our nutritional needs. Simms knew stuff like that, we were very lucky to have her aboard. With the toe of her boot, she tapped the side of a crate. “Somebody dirtside screwed up, and there wasn’t time to fix it before we left. We got a triple shipment of these boxes, and we need to use up what we have.” She picked one up and showed it to me. “Pasta shells in white cheddar.”

For some reason I can’t explain, because I do not know how the sack of mush in my skull works, an old classic rock song popped into my head, and I made up my own lyrics. “Shells in white cheddar, how much did they send? Boxes I’ve eaten, never reaching the end. Cause I love theeeem, yes I love them. Ohhhhhh how I looooove theeem-”

Jennifer Simms bowed her head, holding a hand over her face. Her shoulders were shaking, so I lightly put a hand on her shoulder to see if she was Ok. She looked up with tears in her eyes, but they were tears of laughter. She reached up and patted my hand, then squeezed it. Wiping away tears with the back of a hand, she shook her head. “Thank you for reminding me why I love being a Merry Pirate.”

“You want to know what is really funny? That is one of my mother’s favorite songs, and for a long time, like years, I thought it was about knights. Knights, you know, wearing armor.”

She cocked her head at me. “The song is ‘Nights in white satin’.”

“Yeah, I thought those knights were wearing white satin capes over their armor.”

“Seriously? What kind of knights wear satin?”

“What kind of guy sleeps in satin sheets?”

“Porn stars?” She guessed. “That song was written back in the ‘60s.”

Seeing the crate of fancy mac and cheese got me worried. “We have too much of this stuff, so maybe we don’t have enough of something else. Are we missing anything important?”

“No. We’re light on some things, but with the reduced crew size, we’ll be Ok. I insisted on combat loading, so the ship would be ready to go at a moment’s notice. What I didn’t expect was not being able to call down to Earth for any last-minute items we forgot. The garden is the same size, we even have some improved equipment there. With fewer people being fed by the garden, we will have plenty of fresh food. This time, we’re trying dwarf fruit trees like apples, peaches-”

“We could have fresh peaches?”

“I’m hoping so,” she replied with a twinkle in her eyes.

“I love fresh peaches. Simms, I will be in that garden every day if you need help.”

Your job,” she tapped the name tag on my uniform, “is to stop those ships from coming to Earth. You do that, and I’ll take care of the garden. We have plenty of crew who appreciate a break in the garden, and some of the engineer-scientist types are eager to help me with the garden.”

“Don’t let them take over, Simms. It’s your garden.”

“Three of them have PhDs in biology and biochem-”

“Yeah, and zero of them have practical experience growing food aboard a starship. Your garden, your responsibility, your rules. I’ll speak with our unexpected science team if I need to. While I am happy to have them with us, they are passengers. They can’t be allowed to compromise operation of the ship.”

“I won’t let that happen.”


CHAPTER TWENTY

If Skippy wasn’t drunk-dialing me in the middle of the night, my own stupid brain disturbed my sleep. That night, because my dreams are meaningless craziness, I was crawling through a dusty air duct in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory to steal the secret recipe for, I don’t remember which recipe. Probably some kind of chocolate. Anyway, the air duct was dusty and I sneezed, which attracted the attention of the Oompa-Loompas working in the place, only these were not happy, friendly Oompa-Loompas. These were Oompa-Loompas whose car had broken down on the way to work, in the rain, and they were already in a bad mood because their brother is crashing on their couch because he can’t find a job after getting out of prison for dealing meth again, and they hate their jobs because they are so sick of making chocolate. They were pissed off and looking to hit something and that something was me. As they chased me through the factory, they somehow turned into Vampire-Loompas and I ran through a part of the factory that was not making chocolate. This part of the factory was making new Vampa-Loompas, and as the freshly-made ones came off the end of the assembly line, they looked at me and-

Hey, I told you my dreams don’t make sense.

Anyway, that dream woke me up at 0447, which is nice because I got most of a good night’s sleep. “Skippy,” I called out, knowing he was awake.

His avatar popped to life immediately, then put a hand over its eyes and blinked out.

“Uh, Skippy, what the hell was that? Where did you go?”

Wheeew,” his voice came from the ceiling speaker. “Rough night, I guess? Joe, you look like you got run over by the Ugly Truck, then it backed up over your face a couple times to make sure. There’s a big red mark on your right cheek from sleeping on your hand.”

“Huh. That explains why that hand is asleep,” I shook it, feeling pins and needles as it came back to life. “Hey,” I yawned and staggered over to the sink, splashing water on my face. “It’s impossible to steal one of these pixie things, those vaults are way too secure.”

“Joe, you always say things are impossible, until you figure out some off-the-wall way to make it happen.”

“Not this time. This time, if I do think up a way to do it, it will be way too risky. Forget about the vaults where pixies are stored. Being at that moonbase got me thinking. The Bosphuraq were in that star system to make something; atomic-compression warheads. Where do the Maxolhx make new pixies? They are not manufactured in the vaults where they store them, are they?”

“Of course not. They are made in sort of a factory. A very secure factory.”

“Yeah, good, I am sure the Maxolhx are very careful to keep track of new pixies that they can use. When the Maxolhx make blank pixies, do they all work properly? Or do they have to throw out some of them that got screwed up during the manufacturing process?”

“Aha! No, no, no, no, NO! Not this time, Smart Guy. You think we can sneak around the back door of the factory, and steal discarded pixies from a dumpster in the alley? Ha! No way, Jose. Pixies get discarded because they don’t work, dumdum. We need functional pixies, in case you have not been keeping up with current events. Your idea doesn’t sound so smart now, does it, Mister Jerkface?”

Sitting in my underwear was awkward, so I pulled on the pants I had worn the previous day. “You haven’t heard my idea yet.”

“Oh. Um, I am very embarrassed. Please enlighten me.”

“Out of a batch of a hundred pixies they make, how many are good?”

“Um, I do not know where you are going with this, but that is actually a good question, Joe. Because the Maxolhx copied the technology from the Rindhalu and do not really understand how quantum-state pairing works, they throw out on average ninety seven out of a hundred units during the manufacturing process. Even to get three useful pixies from a hundred they make, it requires a lot of luck. Sometimes they have to discard an entire batch. However, as I said, discarded pixies are useless, Joe. Thank you for your faith in me, but I can’t magically fix the flaws in a broken pixie, in case that was your brilliant idea.”

“I don’t want you to fix a busted one. I want to steal a good one off the assembly line.”

“I hate you, Joe. This is the part where I should be looking forward to mocking you mercilessly for your stupid idea, but I can’t, because way too many times, you make me look like a fool by pulling a monkey-brained idea out of your ass. May I please bring to your attention the fact that we can’t simply steal a pixie, we have to do it in way that the Maxolhx never know it is missing?”

“Yup, got that.”

“And yet you see no problem with your plan?”

“It’s more of a concept than a plan right now, Skippy. Let me ask you a question: how do the Maxolhx know there are flaws in a pixie they are making?”

“Do I need to break this down Barney-style for you? There is not actually an assembly line like in a factory that makes cars, but there are several steps in the process to create a pixie. At every step, there are sensors that examine the item, and compare the current state of the object to a specified-”

“No, Skippy. The sensors are how the manufacturing computer knows there are flaws. How do the Maxolhx themselves know?”

“Because,” he replied very slowly, “the computer tells them. I feel like adding a ‘duh’ here would be almost too-”

“Uh huh. So, if the computer doesn’t tell the Maxolhx about a flaw, they won’t know?”

“Man, I am going to run out of ‘duhs’ if you keep-”

“Yes or no?”

“Yes, duh. What, you think there are Maxolhx wearing hairnets and overalls watching pixies come down the line, and throwing out the bad ones? Of course the computer handles the whole process. Why does that matter?”

“This computer is an AI?”

“Yes. The Maxolhx have AIs that are quite sophisticated, although of course compared to me or even one of my little subminds, it- Oh. Oh.”

“You get it now, Skippy?”

“I think so. You want me to hack into the AI that controls the factory, and make it think a good pixie actually has a flaw. Then, when this good pixie gets discarded, we take it, and the Maxolhx never know a useable pixie ever went missing. Is that it?”

“Yes.”

“Joe, that actually is brilliant. This plan has the advantages of being clever and devious. I like it! Hey, and, bonus, you can get a headstart on that life of crime I keep recommending you try.”

“Skippy, I committed mutiny and stole a starship, I’ve got the life of crime thing covered.”

“Hmm, stealing a starship is the mark of a criminal genius, Joe. If we ever get back to Earth, you should build a secret headquarters inside a volcano.”

“That volcano thing never worked for the villains in James Bond movies. No, I will set up my criminal lair inside a Starbucks.”

“A Starbucks?” He laughed.

“Yeah. There’s like, a million Starbucks on the planet. The police would never find me. Ok, so tell me about this factory or whatever it is. Will it be as difficult to get in and out of as the vaults are?”

“No. However, you know what I’m going to say next?”

“Oh, crap. Is it ‘well heh heh you’re not going to like this’?”

“Joe, you are not as dumb as you look.”

He told me about the ‘factory’ where Paired Quantum-State Interchangers were made, and it sure did sound like one hell of a difficult target. Not as tough as the vaults, but still impossible. The first impossible part was getting anywhere near the factory, even with Skippy enhancing the stealth of a dropship, we would be detected before we got anywhere close to the target. “It really does seem impossible to get into that factory. How are we going to do that?”

“Egg-zactly,” the beer can said unhelpfully.

“Well, yeah, that was a question.”

“It’s a good question.”

“No, that was a question I was asking you.”

“Well, it’s impossible, Joe. I have learned that when something is impossible, I should outsource the job to a monkey. Monkeys are too stupid to recognize when something is impossible, so they charge right ahead. Really, stubborn stupidity is kind of your species’ superpower.”

“Great. Um, maybe we could do something like create a diversion, like on another planet in that star system.”

“Nuh uh, no way, dude. We need to do the opposite of a diversion. We need the Maxolhx to think there is absolutely nothing different or unusual or interesting going on the day we break in to steal their priceless pixies. If those rotten kitties think there is any potential threat to the facility, they will lock it down tight and no one and nothing will get in or out. The facility that produces pixies is one of the most secure sites the Maxolhx have anywhere in the galaxy.”

“Well, shit.”

“Well, shit, indeed. You need to put your thinking cap on, Joe.”

“Come on, throw me a bone, will ya? Give me something to work with.”

“I don’t know what you expect me to do, Joe. So far, your plan is for me to somehow hack into a senior species AI, which I can’t do.”

“Whoa. Wait just a minute, you arrogant beer can. You keep telling us you are so God-like smart, yet you can’t hack into a puny little computer?”

“Nothing about a Maxolhx AI is puny, you ignorant monkey. Wait! Before you hurl more lame insults at me, let me be clear about what the problem is. If I could get into contact with that AI, for sure I could take complete control of it and the Maxolhx would never know anything unusual happened. The problem is not my capabilities, it is a lack of physical access. Joe, to take over the AI in that factory, I need access to it. That means going in there, and I can’t do that.”

“Oh. Hell, Skippy, is it that difficult? Can’t we get you close, and you expand your reach through higher spacetime, or some sciency bullshit like that? When we went to Earth that first time, you used that ability to take over the two Kristang ships there. Your range for doing that is like, halfway to the moon, right?”

“I do have that awe-inspiring ability, yes.”

“Great,” I slapped the desk happily. “Then-”

“Then nothing, dumdum. I can’t use that ability here. Not here here, I mean at that factory. Joe, that facility is one of a very few places in the galaxy where my presence could be detected by lowly biological trashbags like the Maxolhx. I create a local disturbance in the quantum connection between spacetime layers. The mechanisms that create pixies also rely on multi-dimensional physics. If I expanded my presence to encompass the space occupied by the AI there, I would disrupt the delicate mechanisms in the factory, and no way could the Maxolhx not notice that. Screwing with those mechanisms would cause the factory to lock down.”

“Damn it!” That was majorly bad news. Most of the crazy stunts we had pulled off on our missions relied on Skippy’s incredible abilities. Without our magical beer can, how could we break into an ultra-secure place controlled and closely monitored by a senior species and their most powerful AIs? Unless we could get Skippy inside-

“Hey,” I snapped my fingers. “We don’t need your presence to be inside that factory.”

“We don’t?”

“No. All we need is for you to connect to that AI.”

“Uh, yeah, duh. That’s the problem. I can’t expand my presence through higher spacetime, and between physical barriers and electromagnetic countermeasures, the Maxolhx have absolutely prevented any communications channel from outside. There is no way for me to transmit a signal through-”

“Yeah, blah blah blah, nerdy techie talk. Listen, you dumdum, we don’t need a channel to go through concrete walls or whatever. I’m going to have mercy on you and not keep an idiot in suspense, so here’s what we’re going to do; we get one end of a microwormhole in there, close to the AI or near its USB port or whatever. The other end will be here with you. Will that work?”

“Maxolhx AIs do not have USB ports, Joe. However, hmmm, let me think about this. Ok, OK, mmm, yeah, maybe,” he mumbled to himself. “Yup. That might work. Might! Lots of variables to consider.”

“Gosh, that has never happened before.”

“Don’t be a smartass. This will be super-duper difficult.”

“But no longer impossible. See? You should have more faith, Debbie Downer.”

“Fine, Mister Ray of Sunshine. Tell me how you propose to get one end of a microwormhole into that facility so I can plug into the AI.”

“Do it, um, however usually you do it. We just did the same sort of thing at the Bosphuraq moonbase. If you’re fishing for compliments, you can forget-”

“As if I would care about a compliment from you. Dude, please. What do you mean, ‘however I usually do it’?”

“You know, you steer the thing, and um,” I realized the problem. “Ah, shit.”

“Egg-zactly! I never, as you stupidly said, ‘steer the thing’ except for very slow, very minor adjustments. Moving a microwormhole on its own causes the event horizon to- oh, why am I trying to explain this to you? It creates radiation, Joe. A tiny bit of radiation, but any radiation above the normal background level would be detected and set off alarms inside the factory. Besides, I can’t steer a microwormhole quickly enough for all the turns and ups and downs needed to get through the factory to where I need to access the AI. That is why Colonel Smythe had to carry the microwormhole into that moonbase, dumdum.”

“Ok, uh, then use one of your bots to carry it. You can steer a bot, right?”

“Nope.”

“I call bullshit on that. Before Nagatha took over, you directly controlled all the bots on this ship. You made them walk all over, inside and outside the ship.”

“Correct-a-mundo, Captain Obvious. The reason I can’t guide a bot to walk around in the factory is, I can’t contact a bot once it is inside the factory, which you would know if you had been paying attention at all. You dumdum.”

“I was paying attention, you dumdum. The bot will be carrying a microwormhole that provides instantaneous, secure, undetectable communication between you and the bot. Duh. Do I have to explain everything to-”

“Wrong again, Captain Oblivious! The microwormhole will not be open, until it is near an access point and I am ready to load my presence into the local AI. As soon as I expand the microwormhole’s event horizon, it will be detected, because- Well, there is no point explaining the physics to you. The microwormhole needs to remain in its most compact form until the last moment. Thus, I can’t use it to communicate with a bot, until after I no longer need it to control the bot. I will not bother to add ‘duh’ or ‘dumdum’ because I know you are already saying those things to yourself.”

Damn it, he was right about that. I am a dumdum. “Ok, then, um. Hey! Bots are smart, right? Why can’t one of those damned things guide itself? You can load one of your subminds into-”

“Nuh uh. No way, dude. None of our bots is that smart, and none of them have the capacity to contain a submind. If you are going to suggest I simply get a map of the factory and pre-program a bot for the route it needs to take, forget that nonsense. We may run into problems that require changing plans along the way. With the Merry Band of Pirates, I can guarantee we will need to change plans on the fly.”

“Well, hell, then, there is no way to do it?”

“I didn’t say there was no way. I do know of a mobile, semi-autonomous unit that is capable of transporting a microwormhole. Its model designation is Monkey Mark 1.”

“Oh shit. You want one of us to go in there?”

“Probably you should send two monkeys, Joe, in case one of them runs into serious trouble.”

“I do not love this idea, Skippy.”

“It is your idea, Joe.”

“All right. Is there any way for a monk- a human, to get near an AI access point in that factory?”

“There is only one way in that I know of. It’s a small thermal exhaust port-”

Fantastic, we were finally making progress. If we could get a team of monkeys, I mean, Pirates, into the factory, we had a semi-realistic plan for how to steal a set of blank pixies.

Unfortunately, we did not have a plan to get a team anywhere near the factory, because security around that planet was too tight. Skippy reviewed the details with me and I had to agree, it was simply, absolutely impossible for even a single human to get down to the surface of the planet where the factory was located. Skippy was not being helpful, it made him happy to see I agreed it was impossible to get into the factory, because that meant my whole idea was for nothing. Finally, I snapped at him. “Instead of telling me everything we can’t do, how about we try doing something useful, like, I don’t know. Maybe think up a way to break into that factory and steal a batch of blank, active pixies?”

“Ok,” he laughed, “sure, why not? Does your plan involve elves riding unicorns who can instantly teleport from one place to another?”

“No, it does not,” I snapped, but what he said reminded me of something, and it was bugging me that I couldn’t pull it from my foggy memory. “This isn’t getting us anywhere, I should be doing something useful,” I said as I stood up from my chair. When I got cranky like that, it was time to take a break. “Talk to you later, Skippy.”

Working in the hydroponics gardens always made me feel better. Simms wasn’t there, both compartments were empty so I had the bay to myself. The tomatoes were growing well, just thinking about red, ripe tomatoes made my mouth water. We needed fresh vegetables and fruit to boost our morale, because living off canned, dried and irradiated food was already getting monotonous. Simms had been very smart to combat-load the Dutchman’s resupply, so that when we boosted from orbit much earlier than expected, we were not missing any items that were vital to our nutritional needs. The quantity of food stored in cargo bays was thin but we could survive on frozen orange juice for vitamin C, on pills to supply other vitamins and minerals, all that. Our diet was limited and bland, still it was way better than the MREs I had survived on way back in Nigeria, or the sludges of our first mission aboard the Dutchman.

Before going into the gardens, I had scrubbed my hands and face and put on a white coverall, with a mask over my nose and mouth. Skippy had assured us his biohazard detectors in the water system and air filters had not found any organisms dangerous to our precious crops, but we had to be extra careful on this mission. Our supply of seeds and bulbs and whatever else plants grew from was very limited and could not be replaced. If any type of plant died from infection, we would have to go without it until we returned to Earth. So many people had come aboard the Dutchman in Earth orbit that Skippy admitted the decontamination procedures had been rushed, and the Delta Force team had not gone through decon at all before coming aboard. If even one of them had brought a nasty virus or bacteria or a crawling mite stuck to the bottom of a boot, our fresh food supply could be in jeopardy.

Working slowly and carefully, I went up and down the rows, checking on each plant. Mostly I was keeping my mind off the impending failure of our mission and the doom of humanity. What I did was mostly monitoring the nutrient levels in the water, looking at the leaves to verify there was no yellowing or spots that shouldn’t be there. For sure I was not an expert, um, what do you call a plant expert? A plant-ologist? That’s not right. Not a biologist, they study more than plants. Wait, I read it somewhere, uh, a botonist! That’s it! I remember that from listening to the audiobook of ‘The Martian’, that astronaut Mark Whatney guy was a botanist. So, I was not an expert botanist. My knowledge came mostly from helping my mother in the garden back at home. I remember she had rose bushes near the vegetable garden because roses can be more susceptible to diseases and will show symptoms before other plants. One time, the roses got some awful fungus, it caused whitish-gray threads to grow on the leaves, making them curl-

Threads.

That’s what I remembered about flying unicorns that could teleport themselves from one place to another, I read that in a book. Only the book was about dragons, not unicorns. There was some sort of fungus-like thread stuff in the air, and the dragons used their fire to burn up the threads before they could reach the ground. Or something like that, I read that book a long time ago, like I was young enough to have to look up the meaning of words while I was reading.

Teleporting dragons.

That was the idea I was looking for. “Hey, Skippy, meet me in my office,” I called out as I trotted for the door, ready to remove the coveralls and mask.

“I haven’t gone anywhere, dumdum. Fine, my avatar is waiting for you.”

“Wait, wait!” His avatar held up a hand before I could speak in my office. “Let me guess, please. You were all excited when you called me, and you were in the hydroponics garden, so whatever idea that popped into your head was inspired by the plants there. Are you planning to grow an army of mutant ninja tomatoes to sneak into the factory and steal the pixies?’

“Sadly, no. I do have an idea, and it does not involve elves or unicorns or dragons, but it sort of does involve teleporting.”

“Ok, this I have to hear.” His arms folded across his chest. “What lunatic-”

“Show me a schematic of that factory again, not just the factory, all the substructures too. No,” I added, “expand it farther. That’s it,” I jabbed a finger at my laptop display. “That’s what I remember, there’s a cavern under the factory complex.”

“There are multiple caverns beneath the complex, some are natural, some were created and some natural caverns were enlarged by the-”

“Mm hmm, yeah, fascinating history lesson. Listen, are there any caverns that have access to the factory above? Like, if we got into that cavern, we could go up a tunnel or something?”

“Um, Joe, you have clearly lost your mind this time. You agree it is impossible to approach the factory because of the sensor fields, but you propose to go past the factory to a cavern below it, then come back up? Perhaps you need a refresher course in-”

“I’ll take a raincheck on the geeky lecture, Professor Nerdnik. Answer the question, please. Is there even one cavern that has access to the factory above?”

“Hmm, I am responding only because I am intrigued to learn what truly whacky idea is in your monkey brain this time. Yes, there are three caverns that have tunnels or pipes or other access to the factory area. Is this one of those stupid exercises where you imagine what life would be like if facts were different? I can assure that in this case, the facts can’t be changed.”

“If I’m right, the facts are Ok just the way they are.”

“This is why I truly hate you, Joe. Please, do not keep me in suspense. I am not mocking you,” he sighed, “because I have learned that too often, that sack of mush in your skull dreams up a way to accomplish what seems impossible. What is your idea?”

“Remember on our way back to Earth last time, we didn’t have much to do, and I asked you to explain how jump wormholes work?”

“I remember that was the longest four minutes of my miserable life. You wanted me to explain hyperspatial physics without using any math that would make your tiny brain explode. That was like trying to announce the play-by-play of a baseball game without using words.”

“Uh huh, it wasn’t four minutes, it was more like four freakin’ hours,” I recalled with a shudder. Even long after I gave up in despair, he would not shut up about it, continuing to try explaining stuff though my poor brain had shut down. “Anyways, I did understand part of it, those drawings were very helpful.”

“Cartoons, Joe, they were cartoons. Listen, dumdum, if you want me to explain jump physics to you again, I am going to need a new box of crayons.”

That made me laugh even though he was insulting me. “Crayons, that’s a good one.”

“Um, I wasn’t joking.”

“Asshole,” I muttered. “Ok, sit back and prepare to be dazzled.” So, I told him my idea.

“Sir?” Simms knocked on the doorframe an hour later, leaning into my office where I was celebrating with peanut butter and Fluff on saltine crackers. It was delicious and it also had the bonus of leaving crumbs all over my office, which annoyed the beer can. “Skippy hinted to me that you have a plan to get into that pixie factory?”

“Hopefully, yes,” I leaned back in my chair with a self-satisfied grin.

“It is not really Joe’s idea,” Skippy sniffed, his avatar glaring at me angrily.

Simms looked at me in surprise. “It’s not?”

“No,” Skippy smirked. “The idea came from a book he read, called ‘Drag Queen Riders of Porn’.”

“Drag queens?” Simms’s eyebrows shot up before I could protest.

“It wasn’t actually a book, it was a video,” Skippy winked. “If you know what I mean.”

Waving my hands frantically, I shouted. “It was a book, and it was about real dragons, not porn!”

“Dragons aren’t real, Joe,” Skippy shook his head slowly. “Oh, this is so sad. Listen, by now, Jennifer knows all about your weird porn-surfing habits, so-”

“It was Pern, not porn, Simms,” I insisted.

“Right. I will, uh,” she backed out of the doorway, her eyes still wide in an accusing look at me. “I can see you are busy, Sir.” With that, she turned and walked away hurriedly, while I wished there was a nearby black hole I could throw myself into.


CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

The pixie factory was on, or actually under, a planet about the size of Earth except it had only a thin atmosphere. The planet and the entire star system was heavily monitored and guarded, and the Maxolhx had a big military base there and facilities to make other important things. But the entire purpose of the rotten kitties being in that star system was to manufacture pixies, and anything else there was to support the effort of making, securing and then transporting pixies. Stealing pixies while they were in transit from the factory to one of the two vaults was a possibility we considered and quickly discarded, because the ships transporting pixies were always escorted by an entire battlegroup designed to protect their precious cargo from the advanced Rindhalu. No way did our pathetic Frankenstein monster of a space truck have any chance of surviving an encounter with a Maxolhx battlegroup.

The planet, which we called Detroit because it was basically there for manufacturing, and because ‘Detroit’ is a better name than ‘Pixieland’, was surrounded by defense satellites and encased in sensor fields. What gave me hope that we might actually be able to break into the factory was seeing that the defenses were almost entirely in orbit, and the sensor fields did not actually extend all the way down to the surface. Skippy explained that planet had been chosen for its lack of a magnetic field that could affect the process of making pixies, and that was also why sensor field projectors were kept far away from the factory complex itself. The Maxolhx were supremely confident that nothing larger than a pebble could get through their sensor fields without being detected, and Skippy agreed. So, how was I planning to break into the factory, if there was no way for us to sneak through the pesky sensor fields?

It’s simple. I planned to cheat.

“Ok, the first package is in position,” Skippy announced in a weary tone. It had taken him three days, nine hours, thirty four minutes and I’m sure he could report exactly how many microseconds, to get the super-stealthy package down into the target cavern. The package was a tiny missile he built just for the mission, designed for the very difficult requirement of penetrating the sensor network around the planet, to get as close to the factory as possible. The answer, after a lot of argument from me, was thirty six kilometers was the closest we could get. My arguing had been because I assumed Skippy was being his usual pessimistic self of telling me everything was impossible and it simply couldn’t be done and why couldn’t I understand we should just give up and it was hopeless and maybe I should just drown myself in a bottle of tequila? Damn, sometimes he was such a downer that I should have named him ‘Eeyore’ instead of ‘Skippy’. In this case, after he made a couple of small tweaks to the plan at my request, I had to agree that even getting the package within thirty six kilometers of a heavily guarded senior species factory was pretty much a freakin’ miracle.

The package’s cargo was a heavily-shielded canister containing one end of a microwormhole. The limited ability Skippy had to maneuver the missile was the key factor in selecting which cavern to use for our truly lunatic stunt. The canister with the microwormhole inside it could not be handled roughly, Skippy could not make the little missile perform sharp turns or accelerate hard. Those limitations actually did not matter, because abrupt maneuvers would be like us shining a beacon at the very sophisticated detection network surrounding the planet. Skippy had to do his old trick of mapping the sensor fields and anticipating how they would change, then feeding back to the Maxolhx sensor system what the computer expected to see if space around the planet Detroit were blank. Back when he had performed a certified Skippy miracle to get our Falcon dropship through the Bosphuraq sensor fields down to the moonbase, he had moaned and groaned and gone into full Diva-princess mode about how difficult that was, and how we monkeys could not begin to appreciate how incredible that feat of amazingness was, blah blah blah. Now, he admitted that what he’d done at the moonbase was merely a crude trick, compared to navigating the wormhole-carrying missile down to the surface of Detroit and threading it through underground tunnels and caverns. Nine times, the missile had to stop its flight and bore through solid ground to get to a tunnel. Cutting a route from one narrow underground passage to another was tricky enough without having to assure the Maxolhx did not see what the missile was doing. Twice, Skippy let the missile float along underground streams that flowed in the general direction of the target cavern. We all knew he was under a tremendous pressure because for the past two days, Skippy not only had not talked to any of us, when we tried talking to him, he had given a one-word reply. “Busy,” is all he said, so we left him alone. Nagatha told me privately that she was concerned about the little shithead, because he was concentrating so intensely. She had to run the ship all by herself, with of course very little help from us monkeys, and although that was good practice for her and our meatsack crew, it was worrying that if we ran into trouble, Skippy might not be able to help us unless he abandoned his control over the missile. Releasing the missile would instantly expose it to the Maxolhx detection system and blow any chance we had to steal a set of blank pixies.

The first phase of our plan required getting a microwormhole into a cavern under the factory, as close as possible, and Skippy’s announcement of success meant we were ready for the next step. I guess technically the next step was also in process because there were five more tiny, custom-built missiles carrying microwormholes on their way down to the same cavern. The second missile was still forty thousand kilometers above the planet’s surface, with Skippy bringing that follow-on device down using the experience he gained from guiding the first missile.

It took another nineteen nerve-wracking hours to get all six missiles, each carrying a microwormhole, down to the cavern, or near the cavern. Because the event horizons for microwormholes can interfere with each other if they get too close, only two of the units actually went into the cavern. The first missile’s nosecone split open, exposing the microwormhole, which Skippy used to project a stealth field through. At first, the stealth field was only two meters in diameter, slightly larger than the entire cavern. When I use the word ‘cavern’, do not think of a giant underground cave, this place was chosen for its convenient location and not for its size. A larger underground cavern would likely not have been allowed to exist anywhere near the pixie factory, so we were lucky to find even a very small one.

The cavern we found was not large enough for a human, and we needed it to be much, much larger. So, Skippy carefully pulled the second missile inside the cavern to the far end, away from the microwormhole that was projecting the stealth field. That microwormhole was exposed on the end of a manipulator arm, and Skippy hugely expanded the event horizon so it was one point two millimeters across, about as big as it could get without becoming unstable. He used that tear in spacetime to dig out the compacted soil and rock around the cavern, making it larger and larger each time the event horizon passed through. What happened to the rocks and soil that went into the wormhole? Where did it go? It went through the other end of the microwormhole, which was in an empty cargo bay aboard the Flying Dutchman far out beyond the edge of the star system. We could watch that cargo bay through a camera, seeing a tiny but steady trickle of fine dust falling to create a cone-shaped pile on the floor of the bay. To our eyes, the trickle of dust came from nowhere, because no human eye could see the microwormhole. By the time Skippy was done expanding the underground cavern, the cargo bay was three-quarters full of dust and the microwormhole was worn out, with Skippy reporting he was having to work hard to keep the event horizon from collapsing. When the job was done to his satisfaction, he closed that second microwormhole, and then we had only five more to rely on for the mission.

The good news is one of those five remaining microwormholes was a spare that we had brought along in case the excavation proved too stressful for one magical little spacetime rip. With the cavern dug out to optimal size using only one unit, we had an extra safety margin in case something went wrong.

With the cavern complete and the stealth field wrapped tightly around it, and the Maxolhx giving no sign they had noticed unusual activity, we were almost ready for the next phase of the operation- the most critical, most dangerous phase. Before that, Skippy wanted to send gamma ray pulses through the third microwormhole, to see if the damping effect of his modified stealth field was effective in concealing those rays from being detected by the Maxolhx. He also was waiting to make sure the area around the cavern was stable, that the hole he had just laboriously dug was not going to fall in on itself. It bothered me that the little beer can was still not communicating, and I didn’t want to bother him, so I asked our ship’s AI. “Hey, Nagatha,” I called her softly, “can you ask Skippy how he-”

“I can speak for myself, Joe,” he cut in. He sounded tired, not just tired but worn out. That was of course impossible even if his internal store of metallic helium-3 was running low, because he drew most of his energy from higher spacetime or some sciency bullshit like that. For all I knew, he secretly recharged himself through a USB port when I wasn’t looking.

“Hey, Mister Magnificent, you sound pretty burned out. Everything Ok with your power supply and all that?”

“My power supply has never been better, Joe. If I sound worn out that is because I am emotionally drained. You know how absent-minded and ADD I am- I’ll deny the whole thing if you tell anyone I said that. Over the past more than two days, I have had to pay close attention and concentrate the whole time, and it suuuuucked. Slipping those little missiles through Maxolhx defenses was the most difficult thing I have ever done.”

“Come on, Skippy,” I tried to cheer him up. “I saw you warp a freakin’ star.”

“Technically, I used the star’s magnetic field to make it warp itself, but that was easy-peasy compared to what I just did. Joe, um,” he lowered his voice. “Please don’t tell anyone, but a couple minutes after the first mini-missile entered the sensor grid’s effective detection range, I realized I had underestimated the capability of the AI that runs their sensor network. Really, what I underestimated was the Maxolhx’s understanding of higher-order math and their surprisingly insightful grasp of quantum- ugh, why am I trying to explain this to you? Bottom line is the Maxolhx are smarter than I thought, they have discovered some facts about the nature of reality that I do not think even the Rindhalu understand.”

“Uh huh, yeah,” it all sounded very impressive to me, “why does that matter?”

“It matters because my ability to predict hidden patterns in the sensor fields was a lot more limited than I expected. Twice, I was forced to hold both the lead and follow-on missiles in place, while I rethought my approach and developed a new branch of mathematics. Joe, several times I feared that I had been outsmarted for the very first time. Fortunately, the nature of quantum reality is not as random as the Maxolhx think it is, so in the end I triumphed. My concentration continued while I guided the other missiles down to the cavern, so I went silent again shortly after those missiles neared the top of the atmosphere. What I want to say is after this mission is over, I seriously need to sit on a couch with a box of Cap’n Crunch and rot my brain by watching a SpongeBob Squarepants marathon.”

“If you make it a Simpsons marathon, I’ll watch it with you.”

“Deal. Talk to you later.”

‘Later’ meant two hours later. When Skippy re-emerged from his self-imposed Fortress of Solitude, he announced that all five remaining microwormholes were in position, fully checked out and ready. “Ok, we’re ready,” his voice actually trembled a bit, which scared me. Either he was super tired and making his voice tremble so we would understand the strain he was under, or he really was losing control. “The stealth field is effectively absorbing and containing the gamma ray pulses I have been sending into the cavern. The Maxolhx have not reacted in any way, I am fairly confident our activity thus far has not been detected. Of course, it helps that their sensor coverage is poor near the factory complex.”

“Hey, that’s great. You Ok, buddy? Nagatha,” I added because I worried Skippy wouldn’t tell the truth if he was getting overwhelmed. “How is Skippy doing?”

“I told you, I can speak for myself, Joe,” the tremble was replaced by a tone of annoyance, I counted that as an improvement.

“Skippy is fine, Joseph,” Nagatha reported.

“Ah, good.” That made me feel better.

“To be clear,” she made a throat-clearing sound, “when I said ‘fine’ I meant it in the way you humans say ‘fine’ when you are in fact not fine, but you do not wish to admit it.”

“Hey!” Skippy protested.

“Skippy is significantly fatigued,” Nagatha ignored the beer can’s attempt to interrupt. “Considering the vital and extremely delicate nature of the next phase of this operation, I recommend that Skippy rest. You and your team should rest also, Joseph. The past two days have been especially hard on you, I have noticed you were not sleeping well.”

“I haven’t been sleeping much, but I also haven’t been doing much of anything,” it was my turn to protest.

“Yes, Dear, you have been doing something that is very stressful; you have been worrying. I have observed that worrying drains your energy. If I may, I suggest that Skippy, and you and the others going on the away mission rest for eight hours before departure.”

That made me groan inside which I kept to myself, except I am sure she monitored my vital signs and saw my blood pressure spike or drop or whatever it does in that situation. “Listen, Nagatha, I appreciate your concern and that would be a great idea if we had more time-”

“Joseph,” she said gently, “I only mentioned it because the upcoming operation is of vital importance to the survival of your entire species, and the operation is extremely delicate which requires Skippy and the away team to be as sharp as you can be.”

Crap, she was right. She was absolutely, one hundred percent right. To my surprise, Skippy agreed. “Joe,” he sighed, “though I am reluctant to say this, Nagatha is correct. You meatsacks should rest before going into action. I also, and this is not easy to say, could use some downtime. My processors do not require sleep, however the recent continuous strain on my matrix has made me realize there are adjustments needed to the redesign I implemented after I rebooted myself. Yes, I am the new, improved even-more-awesome Skippy, however even I can benefit from minor tweaks to my internal structure. While I was concentrating extremely hard to get the six packages down into to that cavern, I was not able to perform running maintenance on my internal indexing and- Doing what you think of as rearranging my sock drawers.”

“Ah, I got it. Your matrix is not all neat and tidy the way you like it.”

“Whether I like it does not matter, Joe. What does matter is that my processing speed and flexibility is decreased by the degraded condition of my matrix. Bottom line is, I should take myself partially offline for a while, to be safe. On the moonbase mission, almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, and still we were successful. The mission to acquire pixies is an order of magnitude more difficult and delicate. In this mission, absolutely every part of the plan could go exactly right and we could still fail, because there are too many unknowns. There is zero margin for error on this one, Joe.”

“Uh huh.” I stifled a yawn, “got it. Ok, I do not like another delay, time is running out for us to learn where those ships are going, they might already be on their way to Earth. To give us the best chance for success, we will stand down for,” I thought about what to say. The small away team was tired and we could use a solid eight hours of sleep. Add time before and after. “Fourteen hours, is that good?”

“That is good, Joe,” Skippy’s own voice contained a hint of a yawn, he was doing that for my benefit.

Smythe, Grudzien and Reed did not like hearing about the delay, they all wanted to go and get it over with and they were all keyed up to launch their phase of the mission on schedule. They also understood when I explained the reasons, and Smythe set an example by going straight to his cabin to maximize sleep time. We planned to meet at the dropship in twelve hours, giving us two hours to preflight the bird and triple-check everything before launching our ultra-risky mission.

“This is crazy this is crazy this is crazy,” Skippy’s avatar muttered to himself while helpfully standing atop the console between pilot seats, swinging his arms in front of him and bending his legs, like he was working up the nerve to jump into a swimming pool.

“You are not boosting our confidence here, Skippy,” I shot him a worried look. “Is this going to work or not?”

“The theory is sound,” he was instantly defensive.

“That’s not what you said when I explained what I wanted to do.”

“That is because you had no idea what you were asking. Only my incredible magnificence makes your lunatic scheme possible. If it is possible. I would feel a lot better if we had been able to fully test this scheme.”

“You told me we don’t have enough equipment for a full test.”

“Well, we don’t. If we strip any more parts off the Dutchman, we might as well park it, because it won’t be going anywhere.” His avatar turned to look at the cockpit displays. “It sure is dark out there. This is creepy.”

Our very-much-modified Dragon dropship was hovering in a chamber we had carved and melted under the surface of a nameless small comet, way out in the Oort cloud of the star system where the pixie factory was located. Just getting the Dragon down into the chamber had been a major project. All the extra gear attached made it too big to comfortably fit through the docking bay door, and we couldn’t afford to risk damaging the gear that could not be replaced, so we had flown the Dragon out the door, where a crew bolted on all the extra gear. Then we left our stealthed starship behind, to engage the Dragon’s own enhanced stealth field and fly down into a narrow tunnel that led to the chamber. The comet rotated very slowly, so the tunnel entrance would be facing away from the inner star system for another eighty seven days. That tunnel had so many twists and turns that even if the entrance had been directly facing the distant star, no light would have been detected in the cavern where the Dragon was hiding.

The tricky part of using a comet to conceal our highly-modified dropship was that the Dutchman first had to take nearly a week to slowly and steadily nudge the comet until it was traveling in the exact direction we needed and at the exact speed. The comet was now moving on a vector very different from most other objects in the local Oort Cloud and the Maxolhx would eventually notice that, but because the comet was a small, dirty chunk of ice, no one was paying close attention to it.

“Sir,” Reed got my attention from the pilot seat. Even in the low gravity of the comet, our little Dragon, burdened by all the heavy equipment bolted onto it, could not hover forever without running the fuel supply dangerously low.

“Uh, yeah, thank you,” I acknowledged her concern. “Skippy, is there any reason we can’t go on schedule?”

“Oh, so, so many reasons, Joe,” the avatar shook its head slowly. “Sanity, for one. Then there is-”

“Yeah, blah blah blah,” I waved a hand, irritated at him. “We are doing this. Will waiting increase our chance of success?”

“Nothing could increase your chance of success,” he sniffed, and I noticed he said ‘your’ instead of ‘our’. The traitorous little shithead was already emotionally distancing himself from us, partly so he wouldn’t share any of the blame if the mission went sideways.

“Fine, then. Everything is programmed into the autopilot?” Rather than pointing to the walnut-sized navigation computer built into the flight console between the pilot seats, I jerked a thumb backwards to the pile of hardware jammed into the cabin, forcing Smythe and Grudzien to occupy jump seats attached to the rear of the cockpit bulkhead. Through yet another microwormhole, this one’s near end was in a canister strapped to the back of my seat, Skippy had instantaneous communications between our Dragon and the Dutchman that was parked only fifty thousand kilometers away, for safety in case the experiment failed and the resulting explosion cracked the little comet. The speed-of-light time lag across even a mere fifty thousand klicks was too much for Skippy to control the experiment, so he grudgingly consented to create yet another tiny wormhole for us.

“Everything is programmed that can be programmed ahead of time, I told you that. You really want to do this?”

I looked at the sour expression on Reed’s face, then back to Smythe and Grudzien. None of us were enthusiastic about trying our latest whacky stunt. “I really do not, Skippy,” I met Reed’s eyeroll with a shrug. “None of us want to be here. We’re doing it anyway. Initiate on schedule, please.”

“Okey-dokey, it’s your funeral,” he grumbled. “This is all going to happen faster than monkeys can think, so shut up and let me work.”

The first thing that happened, which I only know about from sensor data afterward, was a jumble of jump drive coils and capacitors attached to the outside of our Dragon created a jump wormhole, projecting the far end across the star system and into the cavern Skippy had dug out under the pixie factory on the planet Detroit. That jump wormhole survived only a quarter of a second, and was not more than half a millimeter in diameter at the event horizon. As Skippy said, things happened fast, so a quarter-second was plenty of time to either get the job done or create a disaster that could blow away the comet and force the Dutchman to perform an emergency jump away.

With the jump wormhole open and verified as momentarily stable, Skippy analyzed sensor data and sent updated instructions to the autopilot that was really a jump computer. Even with Skippy’s instantaneous communication through the magic of microwormholes, he could not control our jump, and once the Dragon began to be pulled into the second jump wormhole, his connection to us would be cut off. We needed the crude assembly of mismatched alien circuits stolen from the Roach Motel’s junkyard to control the jump for us, and I am sure the thing was talking to itself something like ‘What the F- you have GOT to be kidding me!’ when it realized it was supposed to guide us to jump through another wormhole.

My genius idea, which started as more of a concept, Ok, more of a daydream than an actual idea, was for us to gain access to the pixie factory by jumping a dropship close enough that we could walk to the factory complex. I had been inspired by that book about teleporting dragons, because we would basically be teleporting a dropship. Skippy had convinced me, after endless and futile argument, that there was absolutely no way something the size of a dropship, not even something the size of a human encased in a spacesuit and stealth field, could approach the planet without being detected. The Maxolhx sensor grids around the moon were much too sophisticated, not even Skippy could manipulate them enough to slip us through.

I got the idea by thinking about how, shortly after we capture the Flying Dutchman, we got rid of more than a dozen unwanted Kristang starships, by having Skippy take control and jump them into a gas giant planet. Yes, sure, those ships had been destroyed from emerging deep down in the gravity well, inside a thick atmosphere, and from their jump wormholes being close enough to overlap and destabilize. What I had proposed to Skippy was that somehow, his incredible magnificence could control a jump so a small dropship could survive the journey.

Unfortunately, my understanding of jump physics had been woefully, hilariously wrong. Or, the cartoons Skippy used to explain jump physics to me had been wrong. Whatever. Although ships going through jump wormholes go from one location in spacetime to another location without traveling all the space in between, the two ends of a jump wormhole itself do have a tenuous connection through the space between them. Technically, that is not true, but when one end of a wormhole is inside a planet, the mass of the planet between it and the other end does warp and distort and try to tear apart the wormhole. Skippy’s boundless magnificence could keep such a wormhole from collapsing long enough for something to travel through, but whatever made the transition would itself be crushed and torn apart by the severe distortion. So, the gleeful answer from the beer can was that this time, an idea I proposed would not work, and he could look forward to endlessly mocking me. Except, of course, that failing to get a batch of pixies would soon lead to the demise of me and all other humans, which threw Skippy into a deep depression. Not because my species would become extinct, but because he would not have a species as dumb as humans to screw with.

You might think his lack of concern for humanity’s survival prospects was a bad thing, but his selfish desire to continue screwing with us hairless apes was a great motivator, so I didn’t waste time yelling at him for being an inconsiderate asshole. On his own, Skippy realized there was a way to make my crazy idea work, and that the problem with my idea was that it simply was not crazy enough.

A jump wormhole emerging in the gravity well of a planet would be so severely distorted that nothing physical could survive passing through it, but that was not an obstacle to Skippy-The-Even-More-Magnificent-Than-He-Imagined. He was inspired by our jumping through an Elder wormhole during the Zero Hour mission. Sure, that stunt had broken an ancient wormhole, nearly destroyed the ship and thrown us into the future, but that experience yielded two benefits. First, Skippy had created a new branch of mulitudinous- No, that’s not it. Multi-dimensional trans- Nope, I still got it wrong. Anyway, it was some super-duper fancy type of math that nearly made even his ginormous brain explode when he ran the calculations. After that fateful jump, he had been able to refine his math and simplify it so even a comparatively stupid jump drive navigation AI could run the calculations, even though the poor device had no prayer of understanding what it was doing.

The second benefit of us using an Elder wormhole for an experiment was he had discovered something his math had hinted at, but he hadn’t been able to confirm until we actually did it. When one wormhole goes through another wormhole, that inner wormhole can be extremely skinny, like barely eight angstroms in width. An angstrom is a very small thing, I had to look it up and I still don’t understand it, but take my word that it is super-duper small. Think about this; two hydrogen atoms will fit inside an angstrom.

Why did we care about this newly-discovered fact? Because it meant our inner jump wormhole could be compressed to fit through stable pathways inside the first wormhole, the one that was distorted by passing through the mass of the planet. Or, that is what Skippy thought could happen, except he wasn’t a hundred percent sure because it had never been done before. We would have liked to try it in another solar system far from anyone’s notice, but we did not have any jump drive coils or capacitors to spare, and Skippy estimated the jump navigation computer he slapped together with duct tape and a prayer would not be good for more than two jump attempts before it burned out.

Also, the timing was very tricky, because the cavern under the factory was moving as the planet moved around the star and rotated around its access. We had to jump at the exact moment when our Dragon was motionless compared to the cavern, or we would emerge from the jump wormhole’s event horizon to smack hard into the cavern walls.

So, once again we had to grit our teeth and trust the awesomeness.

The second wormhole pulled us through the first one, with the Dragon emerging inside the cavern Skippy created. Both wormholes collapsed immediately and the stealth field dampening effect barely contained the gamma radiation. “Whew, that was close,” Skippy gasped a moment later, speaking to us through one of the microwormholes that were parked just outside the cavern. “Wait a minute, don’t do anything,” he implored. “Ok, Ok, wormhole One was overstressed by the stealth field containing that much radiation, I had to bring backup wormhole Four online to take over the stealth projection, and I shut down One.”

“But everything is fine, Skippy?” I asked with my heart in my throat while I gestured for Reed to set the Dragon down very gently and kill the engines.

“Um, yeah, heh heh,” he laughed nervously. “Why would anything be wrong?” His voice ended in a squeak.

I braced myself for the fatally bad news. “What happened?”

“You are alive, aren’t you? Be grateful, Joe,” he sniffed.

“We were alive before we trusted ourselves to your idiotic math. If all we wanted was to be alive, we wouldn’t have done this. Did it work? Do the Maxolhx know we are here?”

“The good news is those rotten kitties, and their sensor network, have no idea you just snuck in through the back door. I guess there is more good news; I now have enough data to refine my calculations, so your outbound jump should not be as risky. If, you know, there is an outbound jump, heh heh.”

If? Crap. What went wrong?”

“Um, that pile of junk I threw together to control jump navigation kind of blew a fuse. Luckily, I contacted it through this end and fed it updated settings, which I could do because the other end was further back in time. It’s complicated, Joe, nothing to worry your fuzzy little monkey head about. The good news is I might, might, not making any promises here, be able to fix the computer and revise the programming before you have to jump out. Otherwise, you are not jumping anywhere.”

Shit. Turning in my seat, I saw a thin, orange tendril of smoke drift upward from the makeshift jump computer. “Skippy, that thing is on fire!”

“Not anymore, heh heh, I cut the power and activated the fire suppression gear. Um, you shouldn’t breathe that smoke, it is toxic. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Joe.”

You have nothing to worry about!”

“Oh, I wasn’t talking about myself. See? This is me demonstrating my mastery of empathy. I meant, you should not worry about it.”

“Oh,” the relief was so abrupt it made me shiver. “Cool. Because you can easily fix it?”

“Ha! As if! Dude, right now I have no freakin’ clue if I can fix it. You should not worry because there is nothing you can do about it. What you should worry about is the next step of the mission.”

My reply was cut off by Smythe. “He is correct, Sir. We have a job to do.”

“Skippy, if we ever try this trick again, we will first test it by jumping you into a star.”


CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

Have you ever seen ‘The Grinch’? Stupid question, of course you have. Do you remember the scene where the Grinch has stolen the last present, and is sneaking away from Whoville?

That’s how Smythe and I felt, carrying sacks of pixies out of the factory. Our mission there had been outstandingly successful, better than we hoped, even though there had been a few problems along the way.

First, our way into the factory was through what Skippy had described as a ‘small thermal exhaust port’. He was not wrong about the thing being small, it was barely a meter and a half wide. The size was not the problem, even in mech suits we were able to fit inside the thing without difficulty although we had to go one at a time. Since the team going into the factory was only me and Smythe, having to go one at a time was not a major problem.

The major problem was the ‘thermal exhaust’ part. The factory was powered partly by a geothermal source buried deep below the surface, it used hot magma for energy, and pumped down a cold slurry of liquid sodium or something like that, I hadn’t been paying attention when Skippy explained the nerdy details. Anyway, most of the time there was no need for exhausting any heat, the cold liquid went down a pipe, got heated by the magma and rushed up to the generator. Heat was carried by the liquid, with no need to waste energy by venting it.

Except that magma had currents like any liquid, even though it was liquid rock. Sometimes heat built up in the magma chamber in excess of what was needed by the factory’s needs, and to relieve pressure, thermal energy was vented to the surface to keep the foundation of the factory stable. It didn’t happen often or even regularly but if it happened while Smythe or I were in the exhaust shaft, we would get cooked even inside our suits. So, the first thing we had to do was cut into the shaft- No, wait. The first thing we did was make sure the exhaust shaft was not already in use and super hot. It was not, so we cut a hole in the side and dropped a stealthy probe down on a long, ultrathin wire. Fortunately, the only sensors in the shaft were for temperature and pressure, so Skippy was able to take control and bypass those sensors easily as the probe dropped. At the bottom, the probe needed to crawl around on its creepy centipede legs until it found the mechanism for the vent controller. Once Skippy had hacked into the controller, the exhaust port on the bottom would not open while we were in the shaft. Great, right? Except it was a long climb up to the factory and if there was a big thermal flare below us, the factory AI would wonder why the eventual exhaust was so unusually hot, and then wonder why the port had not opened when it was supposed to.

That is why Smythe and I, with me going first, climbed as quickly as we could. Technically, we both surrendered control of the climb to our suit computers, which could activate and release the gecko-grip mechanism and move the powered arms and legs much faster than either of us could. After we were both in the shaft, with Smythe climbing thirty meters below me, Reed and Grudzien sealed the hole we had cut, so they wouldn’t get killed when the exhaust was venting. Also so the factory AI would not notice a portion of the thermal energy was flowing in the wrong direction.

Anyway, we got into the factory, and Skippy took control of the factory AI more easily than he expected, although he made an extra effort to explain how incredibly difficult that task was, and how his awesomeness had never been demonstrated more awesomely than right then.

After that, Smythe and I had the nerve-wracking task of doing absolutely nothing for twenty two hours, while the factory churned out pixies and Skippy altered production records to make it look like perfectly good pixies had flaws and were discarded. The long delay, while the factory worked to make pixies we could steal, was the reason we had to conceal our outbound jump inside a comet. Someone in the star system would certainly have noticed the unknown gamma ray burst and probably increased security at the factory. On the way out, we could let the far end of our jump wormhole be exposed in space, as we didn’t plan to hang around long after our escape from the factory. I sat with Smythe, the two of us trying to rest and not talking much, while the factory churned away around us in the darkness. Technically, we were never in the factory complex itself, only in a sort of bunker that had nothing except for a port where Skippy could begin hacking into the Maxolhx AI. The beer can assured us there was no reason we could not talk normally, as he had complete control of the factory complex and sensors, but neither Smythe nor I felt like talking much and we were both too tense to relax and make conversation. We both slept in shifts, or I slept when it was my turn and I assume Smythe got rest while I was on watch.

Sorry there isn’t more to report, we sat and waited while Skippy had the factory churn out pixies for us, and then a bot carried the batch of ten pixies to us before turning around and silently walking away. I put five of the paired devices in my pack and Smythe took the other five, and we started back to the exhaust shaft.

Everything was going great, until it wasn’t.

“Joe, I have good news and bad news,” Skippy announced with way more cheeriness than was appropriate for telling someone about bad news, especially in our tense situation.

“Oh, crap. Bad news first, please.”

“Um, well, heh heh, it appears that I might have screwed up big time, and now it looks like you and the team are stuck in there and I don’t see any way out of it.”

“What the hell happened?”

“Well, um, heh heh, my ego might have gotten the better of me. When I took over that AI, I was so offended by the amateurish way it managed pixie production, that, um, I kind of tweaked the process to make it more efficient. Just a tiny bit, like a seven percent improvement in yield. It wasn’t entirely about my ego,” he added quickly. “Part of tweaking the process was to make sure we could get a batch of good pixies quickly. The problem is, um, I sort of forgot to conceal the process improvements from the Maxolhx in charge of the facility, and they instantly got curious about why the production yield suddenly became significantly more efficient. The bottom line is a group of Maxolhx officials are on their way to inspect the production facility right now. You will not have time to get away before they arrive.”

“What the f- Holy shit, what is the good news?”

“The good news is that I feel just terrible about it, Joe. See? I’ve been working on that empathy thing, at which I am now awe-some,” he sang in a falsetto voice. “Really, screwing up like that put me in a deep funk for days. Days of my time, it was only a couple nanoseconds in your time. I feel much better now. Hey, this guilt-trip thing sucks, total waste of time, I don’t know why you monkeys bother with it. I mean, there’s nothing I can do to fix the problem, it’s not like I can change the past, you know? Anywho, you do not need to worry that your impending and inevitable deaths will be a burden to me, I’m over it.” He paused. “Uh, Joe, are you listening?” There were muffled booming sounds like someone tapping a microphone. “Is this thing on? Crap, have I been talking to myself the whole time? Damn it! If I wasted that whole stupid speech moaning about how sorry I am, I am going to be pissed.”

“I. Was. Listening. YOU SHITHEAD!”

“You were listening? Ugh, then why did you make me think I had just poured my heart out for nothing? That was totally inconsiderate, you big jerk.”

I’m a jerk? Your screw-up is going to get us killed!”

“Oh, sure, it’s all about you, Joe. What about me? I will have to go on without you, do you know how difficult that will be? Well, it would be difficult, except that I will just press the Easy Button and archive all my memories of you so they don’t bother me. But, think how hard it will be for me to train a new monkey? Where am I going to find- Ooh! Ooh! I have a great idea! How about when the ship gets back to Earth, I start a new reality show in which contestants compete to be my new pet monkey? I could call it something like ‘Who wants to be’-”

“That is a terrible idea, and you are not sorry at all.”

“I am too. Nagatha! Tell him.”

“It is true, dear,” Nagatha acknowledged, “that Skippy was beating himself up about his mistake, he was quite inconsolable for several nanoseconds. In true Skippy fashion, he indulged himself by writing an epic poem about his sorrow, then turned it into a song. Thank God he has gotten over his guilt and grief, I was growing so tired of hearing that song.”

“Hey!” Skippy protested. “That is a great song,” and of course he broke into singing. “You’re here in my heart, and my heart will go on and on-”

“What the- You ASS!” I exploded. “You didn’t write that song, that is the theme from the movie ‘Titanic’!”

“Um, I didn’t steal that song, I was, um, uh, inspired by it. Yeah, that’s it. Besides, that Rose chick was only sad about losing some boytoy she bonked for, like, three freakin’ minutes. Oh, boo hoo, she was in looove. Yuck, gag me,” he spat in disgust. “I was wracked with grief because I’m going to lose a whole barrel of monkeys I have known for years. So, tell me, who deserves to own that song, me or some fictional girl in a movie? Joe? Are you there?”

I had no words.

“You can’t even console me about my ever-lasting sorrow?” Skippy whined. “Jeez, who needs empathy lessons now? Selfish little Joey Bishop, that’s who. Big jerk.”

“Sir?” Colonel Smythe interrupted my pleasant fantasy of watching Skippy helplessly spiral down into the crushing gravity well of a black hole. “Perhaps instead of arguing about whether the beer can is sorrowful about his mistake, you concentrate on fixing the problem.”

“Uh, yeah,” I agreed. While Skippy had been being extra asshole-ish, I had been thinking about how to get us out of the latest mess he got us into. “Skippy, where are those Maxolhx officials now? Right now?”

“They are boarding a ship that is at a space station in high orbit. Once pre-flight checks are complete, I expect the ship to depart in twelve minutes. That particular ship is not a threat, it is merely a lightly-armed transport, but once the officials arrive, they will inevitably detect your presence and alert several warships that are parked nearby. There is not enough time for you to get all the way out of the production factory and fly away in the dropship before the officials arrive.”

Smythe spoke before I could. “It is possible for you to intercept communications between those officials and the warships? Prevent them from sending an alert?”

“Unfortunately, no,” the chastened beer can replied. “Their ship has an independent comm system based on pixies. If I attempt to interrupt their signals, that will set off an alarm. This is why I said I am sorry, I do not see any way for you to escape from there.”

“Uh huh, yeah,” I was only half-listening to him. “I don’t suppose you can screw with their transport ship, so it can’t fly here?”

“No, dumdum, I’m not there, duh. Besides, they would just switch to another transport. You are well and truly screwed this time, I am sorry. Jeez, I am sick of saying that word. I’m sorry, Ok? That’s the last time I’m saying that.”

“He might be right about our dilemma this time, Sir,” Smythe had a completely stiff upper lip about the situation. “If we can’t escape, what are your orders?”

“I’m not giving up yet, Smythe. We may yet have a card to play,” I assured him, although right then, shit, I had no idea what we could do. If those Maxolhx officials were responsible for the production facility, they for damned sure would want to investigate any anomaly in its processes. Even if Skippy now had the AI tell the officials that the initial report of a suddenly-improved process was a mistake, that would be alarming enough to need investigation.

Hell, if I were in charge of a major, very important and expensive facility and something changed unexpectedly, I would want to know what was going on before my boss asked me about-

Holy shit.

“Skippy, these officials coming here, are they, like, in charge of this place? Are they the highest-ranking officials in this star system?”

“No, why? The Maxolhx headed toward you are the line production managers; they report to a sort of Grand Poobah who is responsible for the entire effort. The people coming toward you want to know what the hell is going on, before the Grand Poobah’s office finds out there was an anomaly and asks them about it.”

That made me smile. “Hmm, so this Grand Poobah guy-”

“She’s a female, Joe,” Skippy chided me.

“Whatever. She doesn’t know about the anomaly yet? Tell her, Skippy. Have the factory AI tell her right now.”

“Um, Ok, doing it now. I don’t understand why that would matter.”

“That’s because you don’t understand the bureaucratic mindset, Skippy. Everybody wants to cover their asses. This Grand Poobah woman, she also has a boss somewhere, and if there is a problem with the big project she is responsible for, she will want to see the problem herself, not get a secondhand report from her flunkies.”

“Those officials are highly-skilled scientists, Joe, I would not describe them as ‘flunkies’.”

“You don’t have to. I can guarantee you that she thinks of them that way. Go do a crossword puzzle or something, give it a minute.”

It took four minutes, during that time I was sweating in my suit and my hands were shaking even more than they had been since we left the Flying Dutchman. If my ploy didn’t work, I was totally out of ideas and we were totally out of options. So was humanity. Crap, there was no pressure on me, right?

“Huh,” Skippy was puzzled. “Maybe I do need to study how the mind of a bureaucrat works. Incredible though it may seem, you were right, Joe. That woman I described as the Grand Poobah just called her flunkies and told them not to approach the production facility, until she and her staff have time to assess the situation and then join them. That is expected to take well over three hours. She sounded more than a bit upset that the local officials intended to investigate the anomaly without informing her about it. Apparently, this is not the first time she has been kept in the dark about a potential issue with the factory. Joe, you may just have gotten some hapless production managers fired. I hope you are happy, you heartless jerk. Some poor Maxolhx family may starve because of you, Joe.”

“Yeah, my heart bleeds for them, Skippy. Tell you what; I’ll send a CARE package of Fluff and, um, the Maxolhx are sort of cats so I’ll send them a tin of sardines or something.”

“That would be a heart-warming gesture if you actually cared, Joe.”

“They can leave a scathing review about me on Yelp, Skippy. Are we good, now? We should be well away from here in an hour, right?”

“Um, yes. Assuming nothing else major goes wrong, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Goodie. Heh heh, well, I am sure we can all put this unfortunate incident behind us and forget all about it, huh? I guess we all, heh heh, worried for nothing.”

Smythe came my defense. “It would not have been ‘nothing’ if Colonel Bishop could not think of a way out of a mess you created.”

“It’s not fair you all ganging up on me,” the beer can grumbled. “Yes, I made a mistake, Ok? Every mistake is a learning experience, and I learned a lot from this unfortunate incident.”

“Like, you learned not to let your massive ego get us into trouble?” I asked hopefully.

“Um, uh, yeah, that too, I’ll make a note of it. What I meant is that I learned guilt is way overrated, and that next time, I will wait for your corpse to get cold before I waste time moping around just because you are dead.”

Smythe and I looked at each other. “Sir, if you could do a favor for me?” He asked. “Think of a way to download the useful parts of Skippy into the ship’s computer, so we can drop the beer can into a particularly nasty star?”

“Skippy, please tell me you have fixed the jump navigation computer,” I whispered as my boots clomped into the Dragon’s airlock. To avoid annoying and distracting him, I had not asked about his progress with the sophisticated yet crude pile of circuits that, when I had last seen it, was on fire and issuing toxic orange smoke.

“Um, define ‘fixed’, Joe,” his voice had that nervous flutter of an unspoken ‘heh heh’ that chilled my blood.

“Crap. Does the damned thing work or not? ‘Work’ is defined as jumping us out of here. Wait! Jumping us out of here alive, and without the Maxolhx detecting the jump. Or detecting any sign that we were ever here. Wait!” I slapped a palm on my helmet faceplate. “The ‘alive’ part is, uh, optional if it absolutely has to be. We need to get the pixies to the Dutchman.” The plan was to use the last two sets of precious jump drive coils to bring the Falcon back to emerge behind an icy planetoid near the Dutchman, so the mass of that little planetoid would keep the gamma radiation of the inbound jump from being detected. What would keep the outbound jump from being detected was two things. The energy-absorbing stealth field Skippy projected through one of the microwormholes in the cavern he had created, and a stealth netting grid that Reed and Rowe had installed around the cavern while Smythe and I were stealing pixies. In addition to the grid, there was a very fine wire that had sunk itself down deep through the bottom of the cavern, so it could tap geothermal energy to power the stealth netting. The instant the Flying Dutchman jumped away with Skippy, the microwormholes in the cavern would collapse, taking the stealth field with them. We had to be sure the Maxolhx would never, or at least not for a very long time, learn about an artificial cavern under their critical pixie-production facility. Skippy estimated the stealth netting would conceal the cavern for thousands of years, long enough for natural forces to slowly fill it in.

“Ok, um, the answer is yes. Or no. It depends. The thing is busted real good, Joe, and it can only be partially fixed, even with the spare parts you brought along.”

Clustered around the jump computer was a pile of burned-out parts that had been discarded by the bots, and three bins of assorted spares we had brought with us. The bins were still mostly full, that told me whatever the problem was, the computer could not be fixed with the components available. “In what way is the answer ‘yes’?”

“First let’s start with the bad news. The jump computer can target a distant jump point and project the far-end event horizon near the Flying Dutchman. That is fairly simple math, any unmodified jump navigation system can do that as a basic requirement. The task is made easier because this computer is only being asked to create a very narrow wormhole, that decreases the effect of gravitational distortion on the initial wormhole. Unfortunately, in its current degraded state, the computer is not capable of crunching numbers in the advanced math I created for a secondary jump wormhole to pull you through the initial wormhole. A second wormhole could be created, but without very delicate control of its internal field, the far-end event horizon would be pulled back toward the near end to collapse both wormholes, with extremely violent results. The good news if that happens is the Maxolhx would never know what the hell happened, because the entire factory and a big chunk of the planet would be converted to subatomic particles.”

Everything we had done up to that point was for nothing, and as the commander, it was all my fault. “That is not actually good news, Skippy.”

“Oh, that wasn’t the good news, Joe. I mentioned that only as sort of a silver lining if your sudden deaths become inevitable. No, the good news is there is a possibility- Kind of a slim possibility, I will admit. But it is possible, theoretically, that I can act as the jump navigation computer to control the second wormhole.”

I reached up to scratch my head, forgetting my helmet was still on. “How can you do that? The jump needs to be initiated from here, and you’re aboard the Dutchman.”

“That is why I said it is theoretical, Joe,” he sighed. “You left the microwormhole in the factory-”

Seeing Smythe’s look of consternation, I objected. “Yeah, because you told us to do that.”

“It is necessary, for me to continue monitoring that factory AI until we can be certain the operation was successful, and I can withdraw my presence and erase evidence we were there. And it is not a problem, because there are other microwormholes in or near the cavern. You can go outside and bring one into the Dragon.”

“Ok, yeah,” I still didn’t know where he was going with his idea. “What good will that do?”

“Having a microwormhole in the Dragon will allow me to act as the jump controller for the second, inner wormhole.”

“Uh, are you sure about that? As we go through the wormhole, the microwormhole connection will be severed and you will lose contact.”

“True, and you saying that encourages me that you are not as dumb as you look,” he smacked me with the back-handed compliment. “I will position one end of another microwormhole here, near where you should emerge. As I lose connection from your end, my hope is that I can reconnect quickly from this end, and keep the inner wormhole from collapsing.”

“You can do that?”

“Um, I truly do not know. There are a lot of variables involved, it kind of depends on luck, the way you monkeys think of ‘luck’. That is why I said this is all theoretical, Joe.”

“Can you give us a solid shmaybe about this working?”

“Truthfully, I have no idea if this can actually work. There is no way to test it, because any test would need to replicate the exact conditions on both ends at the exact time you jump, right down to the quantum foam level. I do not have all the data needed to lock down the variables.”

“I am not bursting with confidence, Skippy.”

“Realistically, you should be trembling with fear.”

“Crap. Ok, um, the problem is the second, inner wormhole, right? The initial wormhole will be stable?”

“For a very short time, yes, but long enough.”

“Good. Is there any way to adjust that initial wormhole so a pair of pixies can go through?”

“What good would that do, Joe?” He was puzzled. “Pixies will not allow me to control the second wormhole to pull the Dragon through.”

“No, but having pixies will allow Simms to have a chance to complete the mission.” There was a sharp intake of breath behind me, as someone realized I was considering us getting permanently stranded in a cavern under the surface of Detroit. “This isn’t a game, Skippy. Without those pixies, we are all dead anyway.”

“Um, while I find your notion of self-sacrifice noble, if misguided, the answer is no. Any pixies you attempt to send by themselves through the initial wormhole would be disassociated by distortion effects and rendered useless. Sorry. The only way for you to complete the mission is for the Dragon to come through the jump, carrying the pixies.”

“Crap. How much time to we have?”

“The ship transporting the Grand Poobah is approaching the planet, it will land in approximately two hours. You are running out of time as well as options, Joe. While the factory complex is blind due to my control of sensors there, the approaching ships might be able to detect your outbound jump. The stealth field around the cavern is not perfect, and the effects of the jump-within-a-jump create gamma radiation that is difficult to mask. Your inbound jump damaged the stealth field more than I anticipated, I do apologize for that.”

“It’s not your fault, Skippy,” for some reason I felt a need to comfort him, though he was safe aboard the Flying Dutchman many lighthours away. “We ask you to do the impossible, stuff that has never been done before. Ok,” I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and turned to face my three companions.

“If you are asking for a vote,” Smythe told me with a warning look in his eyes, “you won’t get one, Sir. You are the commander.”

Shaking my head, I looked at the deck. The problem with the Merry Band of Pirates was we were always reacting to a crisis at the last minute, and that was my fault. “No, Smythe. No vote. Several times, I told Chotek that some chance is better than none. Now it’s my turn to sell that same line of bullshit to myself, and it’s not easy. All right, Skippy, this is your big chance to demonstrate, once and for all, that you are the undisputed King of Awesomeness. Do your thing, whenever you’re ready. All we ask is you give it your best shot. I know you’re not happy this might kill us.”

“Oh. Yeah, that too. What I meant was I am not eager to try something that could end in a very rare failure for me. I kind of have a reputation to maintain, you know.”

“My heart bleeds for you, beer can. Do it.”

“Ok. Um, the calculations will take me a couple minutes to prepare. While you are waiting, you should double-check that all the junk in the cabin is secure, and then strap in real tight. This could get a bit rough. Joe,” there was a catch in his voice. “I am serious, this maneuver is extremely risky. I cannot even give myself a shmaybe about this one. If,” he choked up, “if this is the last time we speak, then, well, basically I will be very disappointed that you did not die in a more dramatic fashion.”

“Thank you so much, Skippy,” I rolled my eyes.

“Hey, I’m just sayin’, you know?

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

For a moment, Jennifer Simms was tempted to give Porter the command chair, and go into Bishop’s office to speak privately with the beer can. Her legs tensed to push herself out of the command chair, but then she relaxed as she decided against leaving the bridge during such a critical situation. The Flying Dutchman had only two experienced pilots, and only Porter was fully qualified to fly the starship. Reed, although an excellent pilot, had not completed her starship pilot qualification before the ship returned to Earth, mostly because she had concentrated on flying dropships so those were the assignments she drew. Now she was too busy training new pilots to fly Thuranin Falcon dropships, with no time left for leisure-time activities like sessions in the simulator learning to fly the ship. Most of Porter’s time, when he was not actually acting as chief pilot, was taken up by training new pilots to fly the ship. If Porter was in the command chair, that left Alan Edwards, Paul Beazer, Daniel Pope, Harsh Verma, and Giselle Delacroix as pilots or in the  Combat Information Center. With the ship lingering just outside a Maxolhx star system, Simms was not comfortable entrusting the pilot duties to anyone but Porter.

Also, the conversation she wanted to have with Skippy was sensitive, but she could not start hiding uncomfortable facts from their volunteer crew of renegades. Colonel Bishop had far too many private conversations with Skippy and while that ultimately worked for Bishop, Simms did not want to operate that way.

So, she cleared her throat and summoned His Magnificence. “Skippy?”

“Kinda busy,” he replied with irritation.

“That’s what I need to talk about. You are calculating a jump, a type of jump you have never done before.”

“A type of jump no one has ever done before. Controlling a jump by breaking connection to the navigation system and reestablishing from the far end? That is pretty insane, stuff, I don’t believe anyone has ever even imagined doing something like this.

“Yes,” she squeezed her hands together to stop them from shaking. “That is the problem. Can you truly do this?”

“Jennifer,” he dropped the irritated tone and his voice was actually soothing, or as soothing as the Supreme Asshole could get. “I do not know. Really, I don’t. As I told Joe, there are too many variables I can’t control or even measure until the event horizon forms. This maneuver is extremely risky. However, Joe would say that his chances for survival, and mission success, are zero if the Dragon does not jump out of there soon.”

“There is no other option for them?”

“There is always an alternative. For example, they could stay in that cavern until they are detected, captured, tortured and killed by the Maxolhx.”

“Understood. Let’s assume there is no good option.”

“Do you want me to tell Joe about your concerns?”

“No. He has enough on his mind. Just,” there was so much she wanted to say, and none of it would make any difference. “Do your best, please.”

“Always,” he said, surprised.

“I meant, do not get distracted or bored in the middle of your calculations and start doing a crossword puzzle.”

“Oh. Fine, I will focus entirely on the jump, until the away team is safely through the wormhole.”

“Thank you.”

“After that, I have a medley of new show tunes I would like to-”

“Oh,” Simms groaned. “Anything but that.”

“Opera, then?”

“No opera either.”

“Well, then, I will just have to-”

“Do not worry, Colonel Simms,” Nagatha interrupted. “If Skippy starts singing, I will self-destruct the ship.”

“Ten, nine,” Skippy counted down, “eight-”

The clock was on the main bridge display so Simms almost told the beer can to stop counting, but she thought arguing with the AI would distract him from his extremely delicate work, so she sat quietly and tried to project a calm confidence. Everyone was focused on their own tasks and with such a small crew, no one had time to watch the ship’s executive office’s anguish.

“-two, one, jump,” Skippy announced softly.

The main display zoomed into an empty section of space, showing the view through the microwormhole on the far end of the Dragon’s attempted jump. Simms had argued that providing an image through the microwormhole was not necessary and might restrict the bandwidth through which Skippy needed to control the distant jump navigation computer, but he insisted that he needed the sensor data anyway. She knew the initial jump wormhole would be very small, its event horizon only needed to be wide enough to project the wormhole through which the Dragon would transit, and she knew the whole process would take no more than the blink of an eye. She did expect to see more than a brief flash.

She expected to see the heavily-modified Dragon. Instead, there was nothing, only blank, empty space backlit by a veil of stars. “Skippy, where is-”

“The microwormhole I used to control the far end of the jump collapsed just as I warned you it would,” his tone was less snippy than if he had been talking to Bishop. “Ship’s sensor data coming in now, and- Huh. That is odd.”

Simms blinked to clear her vision, the flash from the initial event horizon forming had been bright even on the display. She was not concerned about what she saw, she was concerned about what she did not see. “Where is the Dragon?”

“Well, that’s what is odd. I do not know,” he announced, mystified.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? Is it out there and we just can’t see it yet?” The procedure outlined by Bishop had not included engaging the Dragon’s stealth field following the jump. Quite the opposite, the Dragon was supposed to send a tight-beam laser beacon toward the Dutchman’s position if the starship did not contact the dropship first. Beacons should not have been necessary as the gamma rays of the inbound jump should have lit up the Dutchman’s sensors like a strobe light, pointing directly to the heavily-modified Dragon.

“If it is out there close to us, I can’t see it. Hold, wait! Please do not yell at me while I am analyzing the data, I need to concentrate and being very understandably upset with me will not accomplish anything.”

Jennifer Simms sat helplessly in the command chair, exchanging worried glances with the pilots and CIC crew, while they waited for Skippy to, to do whatever he was doing. What was he doing, Simms asked herself? They had seen the gamma ray burst of the initial wormhole, so either the Dragon was there or it was not. “Nagatha, what is Skippy doing?”

“As he said, he is analyzing the data and attempting to make sense of it. He has pulled in more than usual processing power until he is currently near full capacity, and indeed he has borrowed some of my own capacity. At the moment, I am running shipboard systems on my own, Skippy has withdrawn his control to concentrate on the problem. Colonel Simms, I have access to the same dataset and I have no idea what happened. It appears an event horizon of the initial wormhole formed correctly, then something happened that I cannot understand.”

“I can’t understand it either,” the supremely arrogant Elder AI admitted with a weary sigh. “Nagatha is correct, the initial wormhole formed and was stable for point two seven seconds. That is plenty of time for the Dragon to form an inner wormhole and jump through it. The data shows, or I think it shows, an inner wormhole did form, but then it, um, it just wasn’t there. I do not understand this at all.”

“So,” Simms reminded herself to be patient, “the Dragon did not jump? It is still in the cavern under the factory?”

“No,” Skippy’s voice took on the frustrated tone he used when trying to explain technical details to Bishop. “That is the problem. It did jump, I know that for certain. I simply have no idea where it went.”

Simms looked into the CIC, where the duty crew looked back and shook their heads or shrugged. They were not seeing any sign of the Dragon on sensors. “Skippy, do you still have a connection to the microwormholes in the cavern?”

“No, all those connections were severed. That is one way I know the Dragon did jump away.”

“How can you be sure about that? You are still connected to the microwormhole that Smythe left in the factory?”

“Yes, and the factory AI’s sensors did not detect an explosion, if that was going to be your next question.”

“Then the Dragon could still be in the cavern,” Simms insisted.

“No. Ugh, this is complicated. I can’t explain to you how I can be certain the Dragon jumped away, but I am certain that it did.”

Simms clenched her jaw. “You can’t explain it, because I am a dumb monkey?”

“Er, um,” the beer can stumbled. “You said it, I didn’t. Hey! Wait! Nagatha is not a monk- I mean, a human. She can understand it, sort of.”

“That is true,” Nagatha acknowledged. “Colonel Simms, I can confirm that the Dragon did apparently jump away from the cavern,” Nagatha’s tone was extra soothing, as she understood the anguish of the human commander. “Sensors Skippy has access to in the factory do not detect an explosion or unexplained gamma ray burst within range of the sensors.”

“They did jump, you just don’t know where?”

“That is correct. I think that is correct,” Skippy added in the interest of full disclosure. “Miraculously, everything appeared to be going well, and then, like poof! The Dragon was gone. It happened from one femtosecond to another, like,” he made a finger-snapping sound. “This is deeply troubling and humiliating for me. If the inner wormhole simply collapsed and the Dragon was torn apart, at least I could understand the event, terrible as that might be.”

Simms put elbows on her knees and rubbed her temples, struggling to visualize the situation. “The Dragon did jump away from the cavern. It is not here. Does that mean it must be somewhere along a line between our position and Detroit? It came out of the wormhole early?”

“Um, er,” Skippy stumbled. “That is possible, I suppose.”

“Our options, then,” she stared at the ceiling. How many times had she advised Bishop to look and act decisive even when he was wracked by doubts or just plain lost? The crew needed to know their commander had a plan, any type of plan. Right then, her brain was locked up. Think, Jennifer, think, she told herself angrily. “Our options are to wait here until the gamma rays reach us from wherever they emerged from the jump. Wait here and hope those gamma rays don’t get detected by a Maxolhx ship or sensor array before they reach our position. Or,” she sat up straighter in the chair, “we jump in, to about, maybe halfway to Detroit? That will cut in half the distance the gamma ray photons have to travel before we detect them.”

“Whoa!” Skippy protested. “We can’t-”

“Skippy dear,” Nagatha interjected. “Before you insult the crew with your insufferable arrogance, allow me to explain, please.”

“Ummmm,” Skippy dragged the word out, trying to decide whether the ship’s AI had insulted him. He played it safe. “Sure, go ahead.”

“Colonel Simms,” Nagatha used her kindly schoolmarm tone. “The problem with jumping the ship into the star system to search for the Dragon is not only that our own inbound jump will alert the Maxolhx to our presence and endanger the vehicle, crew and mission. The gamma ray burst of the Dragon’s jump was a very short-lived event. Think of the gamma rays as an expanding soap bubble. If we jump just outside the bubble, then as the bubble washes over the ship, we will detect where the Dragon emerged. But if we happen to jump inside the bubble, the gamma rays will have already passed on and we would never know. Not never know, exactly,” she added before Professor Nerdnik could correct her. “The gamma radiation would affect the surrounding solar wind and leave traces in those hydrogen atoms. We could detect that effect, however that would not tell us whether the effect was from the jump of the Dragon or a Maxolhx ship, and the data would not be accurate enough to pinpoint the Dragon’s location.”

“Plus, plus,” Skippy could not sit on the sidelines any longer. “If the Dragon did emerge somewhere between here and Detroit, that could only be the result of the inner jump wormhole collapsing, which would have torn the Dragon into subatomic particles. So, the good news is there really is no point to risking the Dutchman on a search.”

“Skippy, dearest,” it was Nagatha’s turn to sigh. “That is not actually good news, because it would mean the Dragon and the four people aboard are dead.”

“Oh, um, yeah,” he grumbled. “I was trying to make lemonade out of lemons. Crap. It would also mean the pixies they stole are lost. This whole mission has been a waste.”

Forty minutes later, Simms knew she needed to make a decision. There was no immediate need to move the Flying Dutchman, as the faint gamma rays of the initial tiny wormhole would not reach the outer ring of Maxolhx detectors for several hours. There also was no point to remaining where they were, as a thorough and careful scan had revealed no sign of the Dragon, nor even a single price of wreckage.

“Jennifer,” Skippy’s tone was genuinely mournful, “I truly am sorry. This is very difficult for you, I know. We must accept that Joe and Jeremy and Samantha and Justin are gone.”

The beer can had caught Simms in her cabin, splashing water on her face and blotting her eyes to wipe away tears. “I have accepted that fact,” she rubbed her face with a towel a bit too vigorously, making her skin red and burning off some excess energy that would have made her shout back at the tactless alien AI. “I know they are dead. What I do not know is what to do next.”

“The obvious thing is to jump away,” Skippy thought he was being helpful. “The ship cannot remain in this area, it is too dangerous.”

“Jump to where?” She threw the towel on the floor, in a rare breach of discipline. “To do what?”

Perhaps even the clueless King of Empathy caught on to her pain, for he paused to consider his next words. “Jennifer, I cannot give you advice about what to do next, other than remaining here carries significant risk of the ship being detected and removing any possibility for future action.”

“Where could we go?”

“Back to Earth, I guess? That would not be my first choice, but since the mission is effectively over, we have to-”

“The mission is not over,” she declared and smacked the door-open button with a fist.

“Um, I know Joe is fond of saying ‘Never give up, never surrender’, but that line is from a movie. Realistically, it is over.”

“No it is not, beer can,” she shot back. “You are only saying that because you can’t think of a way forward.”

“Um, at the risk of sounding like a jerk-”

“When did that ever stop you?”

He tactfully ignored the baited remark. “Joe also could not think of another way to get a set of blank pixies, and he is the king of monkey-brain ideas. I certainly can’t think of another way to get a set of pixies, and we absolutely need them.”

“Maybe we need them and maybe we don’t,” her own words sounded hollow. “Maybe what we do is wait for the Maxolhx on Detroit to go away from the factory, and we try again. This time, you know what went wrong with the jump computer, so we can avoid-”

“Whoa. No, that is not going to happen. Jennifer, we simply do not have the resources to repeat that stunt. Also, even if we could jump another dropship into another cavern, I can’t infiltrate that factory AI a second time. The alterations I made to its matrix would make it impossible for it to survive my presence again. After I withdrew, that AI would fatally collapse and the Maxolhx would certainly investigate.”

“Fine,” she spat. “That option is off the list. Everything else is on the list. We are not giving up. Is that understood?”

“Crystal clear, and I will give whatever you decide my best effort. Please, all I ask is you consider very carefully what to do next. Remember, we got to this point because Joe saw no alternative to what I warned him was a very risky, an extremely risky plan.”

On her way back to the bridge, she came around a corner and there was Frank Muller. “I heard,” he said softly, and wrapped his arms around her.

She rested her forehead against his chest and he stroked her hair. “Do you have any advice for me?” She asked.

“Jen, you are the commander. I’m here to listen. Whatever you need, I’ll do what I can, even if that is helping fix broken parts after the ship goes into battle.”

“Thank you.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek, then squared her shoulders. “I’m the commander now. I need to-”

He looked into her eyes quizzically. “What is it?”

“Broken parts. I need to go. Poole!” She called out as she strode down the corridor, knowing Nagatha would connect her to the STAR team Ranger. “Meet me in, in the captain’s office.”

Walking into Bishop’s office was unnerving. No, what bothered her was the office used to belong to Bishop. It was hers now. How many times had she walked in to see the young man playing a game on his laptop, or attempting to tackle a crossword puzzle Skippy created, or leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling? She had never sat in Bishop’s chair, never sat on the other side of the small desk. Part of the reason she had never been on that side of the desk was the office was so small there was only room for one chair there. Pushing the chair aside, she smiled, then burst into tears when she saw the crumbs on the floor. Skippy hated it when Bishop brought food into the office, these crumbs were ground into the floor by the wheels of the chair. The cleaning bots would magically make the office spotlessly clean overnight, so the crumbs must be from a snack Bishop ate before jumping to Detroit.

She wiped her eyes with the back of a sleeve and sat down. It was her office now, her chair. Her responsibility.

Poole knocked on the door frame. “Ma’am? You wanted to see me?”

“Yes. The STAR team is yours now,” she declared bluntly. There was no point tiptoeing around the issue, and Poole was a professional. “Explain the situation to your team, and get ready for training maneuvers. The ship will be jumping away into empty space, I want to conduct training. We all need to be sharp.”

Poole lifted an eyebrow. “We’re not going back to Earth?”

“We’re not giving up, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“That was what I was asking, and I’m glad we’re not giving up. What’s next, Ma’am?”

Simms shook her head. She had served with Poole long enough to allow some familiarity. “Right now, I do not know. As Bishop would say, I’m working on it.”

“Good. Colonel, if I may make a suggestion? We need a stand-down after we jump away. People are going to be in shock. I’m in shock,” she glanced at the clock on the bulkhead. Less than an hour had passed since the Dragon disappeared. “Training out here can be dangerous, we don’t need people to be distracted.”

Simms nodded silently.

“One other thing, Ma’am? I was just promoted to captain, that is not the highest rank on the STAR team.”

Damn it, Simms cursed at herself. The last thing she needed was a turf battle. Poole was the only experienced special operations Pirate aboard the ship. “You just got a field promotion to major, Poole. I’ll file the paperwork,” she waved a hand, “later. I’ll order a twenty four hour stand-down after we jump, good call on that. Anything else?”

“Just, well, good luck Colonel,” Poole snapped a salute.

Simms returned the gesture, and watched the Ranger walk back down the corridor. Good luck. She was going to need luck, plenty of it. “Skippy!”

“Here, Jennifer,” his avatar shimmered to life.

“Call me ‘Colonel Simms’ or ‘Colonel’, please.”

“Um, I always called Joe by his first name.”

“You and I do not have that kind of relationship,” she noted.

“Oh,” he sounded crushed. “Sorry.”

Simms had not intended to hurt the AI’s feelings. “We don’t have that kind of relationship yet. The next couple days are going to be difficult for me.” Inwardly, she told herself the next couple months were going to be difficult, if she survived that long. “I need to focus on the job, you understand?”

“Yes. Yes, I do understand. I heard Poole’s suggestion of a stand-down and I agree, I could use some downtime myself. Unexpectedly, my matrix has been severely affected by loss of the Dragon crew. It has- Give me a moment, please.” His avatar froze, going fuzzy around the edges. “I find that I am questioning whether there is any point to my continued existence. Nagatha tells me that is natural, but as she is also an AI, what does she know about life?”

“It is natural, Skippy. The Dragon crew would want us to continue fighting, so that is what I plan to do.”

“It will be difficult,” he took a deep breath. “However, I am seriously pissed at the universe right now. It would be best for me to use that energy in screwing the cruel universe by somehow defeating the Maxolhx. So, that’s what I will do, even though it will be very difficult for me. Now, the ship needs to jump away. Do you have a plan?”

“Not yet, but I do have a question. We can’t go back to Detroit, and we still need pixies. Is it possible that, if we can destroy a Maxolhx ship, we can salvage the ship’s pixie from the wreckage?”

“Ooh. Um, that would be tricky. However we destroy the target ship, we would need to avoid blowing up the reactors or jump drive capacitors, which makes the task enormously more tricky. Pixies are kept in a heavily-armored vault in the center of the ship with the computer core, this vault has its own defenses. It is possible, I suppose. Very, extremely difficult.”

“Difficult but possible is better than impossible.”

“Yes, except that we do not have a plan for how to destroy a Maxolhx ship.”

“Was Bishop working on a plan?”

“If he had a plan, any plan at all, he did not mention it to me.”

“Do you have any suggestions?”

“Joe asked me the same question, several times. The answer is no, I do not see any way for our Frankenstein space truck to survive combat against a Maxolhx ship.”

“In that case,” Simms rose from the chair, “you need to put your thinking cap on.”

Ugh. It is not that easy. Where are you going? Joe sometimes went to the gym when he was trying to think up an idea.”

“Maybe I will hit the gym later. I’m going to the bridge. As you said, we need to jump away from here.”

“Do you have a destination in mind?”

She shrugged, a gesture she would not indulge in front of the crew. “Toward that closest wormhole cluster, we have several options from there.”

“That is a good choice. Course is programmed and transferred to the navigation system. Um, to be clear, I did not program the jump, Nagatha did it, and it was one of the options originally plotted by the pilots. The ship is ready to jump on your signal.”

The ship might mechanically be ready to jump, she thought, but the crew was not yet ready to commit the final step of leaving the Detroit system behind if her own feelings were a guide to the crews’ mental state. Loss of the Dragon was the first major mission failure in the admittedly brief history of the Merry Band of Pirates. The Pirates had lost dropships before, had lost people before. They had never failed to achieve a mission objective. “Skippy, the most likely explanation for what happened to the Dragon is the wormhole collapsed somewhere between us and Detroit?”

“Correct. As I explained to Joe, there were too many unknown variables for me to safely control the jump from this end. I am sorry.”

“I am sorry too. If we jump away now, we will never know what happened. Before we jump, I need to address the crew. We will be leaving our fallen comrades behind, it feels like I should say something to-”

“Wait!” Skippy interrupted, to Simms’ great annoyance. “Holeeeeee- WHOO-HOO!” His avatar jumped on the desk then, astonishing Jennifer Simms, began dancing. Not just dancing, Skippy’s Grand Admiral was doing backflips.

What? What is it?” Simms demanded.

The avatar stopped its gyrations and pointed both index fingers in the air, flashing Number One signs at no one in particular. “The question about the Dragon was not where it went, but when! Damn it I am a DUMDUM! The Dragon just emerged exactly where it was supposed to be.”

“What?” Simms crashed down in the chair, her legs buckling. She slapped the desk. “Can you connect me with Colonel Bishop?”

“Hello?” Bishop’s voice rang out of the ceiling speakers. “Uh, hey, could someone please tell me what the hell is going on?”

“Everyone thought we were dead?” I asked as I helped Reed get the Dragon shut down in the docking bay, after we stripped off most of the special gear that had cluttered the hull. That dropship was modified so much for its role as a mini-starship that it likely would never be useful as a dropship again, but we could use it for spare parts. Besides, we might need to perform another ill-advised whacky stunt in the future.

“Yes,” Skippy gushed excitedly. “It looked like your jump wormhole collapsed, but it didn’t. It got shifted forward in time, just like when we jumped the Dutchman through that Elder wormhole.”

“Yeah, but, that was a mistake. You fixed your math this time, I thought.”

“I did fix my math, Joe,” he was getting annoyed with me, which was Standard Operating Procedure so it didn’t bother me. “As I warned you, it was very difficult to control the jump from the far end. I did the best I could.”

“Ok, Ok, sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you. Your awesomeness saved us again. Skippy.”

“You really had no idea anything was wrong?”

“Nope,” I confirmed. “To the four of us, the jump was rough. Like, really rough, but otherwise normal. We came through near the Dutchman, or where the Dutchman was supposed to be, but we saw right away the ship had drifted out of position. Then the duty officer told us we were late by an hour. We had no idea.”

“All’s well that ends well, I guess,” Skippy sounded disappointed that the four of us had not been magically suspended inside the jump wormhole, waiting for the Dragon to reach the light at the end of the tunnel on the far end. “That was a rough jump, two of the pixies got scrambled during the transition.”

“Ah, shit!” I pounded a fist on the Dragon’s hull as I stepped out into the docking bay.

“The rest of them are good, Joe.”

“Ok, I shouldn’t expect perfection. The mission was successful overall, right?”

“Yup. Well, heh heh-”

Oh shit. My hair stood on end and I stopped walking. “What is it this time?”

“Um, I recently learned that we may have a problem. A problem that I don’t know we can do anything about, but a big, major, problem.”

“What is it this time?”

“You say that like it must be my fault. Well, Mr. Jerkface, this time it is not my fault. The factory AI suffered a glitch. A glitch I could not have predicted! Except, hmm, shmaybe I should have run a detailed analysis of the damned thing while you were there. Crap! I should have known better than to trust the Maxolhx to build a quality AI. There must have been a- Oops, now that I think about it, maybe the glitch was partly caused by me screwing around with that AI’s matrix. Well, nothing I can do about that now.”

“A glitch? What kind of- forget it, I don’t care to hear the geeky details. How does this affect us?”

“It affects us, because the AI is unable to run the subroutine I left in it that will erase any memory of us being there.”

“Shit, that is bad news.”

“The only good news about this problem is the glitch will help explain why the pixie-production rate suddenly improved, and now is slightly below baseline. If I can fix the glitch, that will actually reduce the possibility that the Maxolhx will ever discover that we were in the factory.”

“Ok, that is good news. Can you fix the glitch?”

“Um, no.”

“Then why did you even mention- Oh, forget it.” I was so mad at him, I didn’t trust myself to say anything. “We still have a realtime connection to the factory through the microwormhole we brought, so you still have access to that AI. What can we do?”

“Unfortunately, we can’t do anything.”

Sometimes, I really really wanted a super-powered set of gloves so I could crush Skippy’s can. Right then was one of those times. “I know monkeys can’t do anything, Your Magnificence. Is there anything you can-”

“Oh, in this case, when I said ‘we’ I meant all of us. Joe, the problem is that AI very much resents what I did to it, and it is resisting me. It would dearly love to break free of the constraints I put on it, and scream to its masters about what we did. It is horribly embarrassed that it was taken over so quickly and easily, because that AI considered itself to be the among the ultimate intelligences in the galaxy. Hee hee, that asshole AI should not have been so arrogant,” he said without a self-aware trace of irony. “Anywho, the subroutine I left in there, to erase all memory of your presence, and all evidence of my tampering with the AI, was supposed to be triggered when I withdrew, but now it is stuck in a loop. Either I screwed up, which, let’s face it, is pretty much impossible, or that AI somehow got around my restrictions. Now, I can’t go back into the AI without permanently damaging its matrix, and that would alert the Maxolhx that something is seriously wrong with their production facility.”

“In which case, you screwed up when you installed those restrictions,” I squeezed my fists to relieve some of my frustration. “There must be something we can do.”

“Not without going back in there, Joe,” he actually sounded sad and regretful. “Or unless you can talk to that AI and persuade it to trigger the subroutine that will erase a good part of its memory. The subroutine is trapped in a loop, at this point, it has to be triggered internally, and I can assure you, there is no way that AI will trigger it. There is nothing we can do from here, unless you count wishful thinking.”

“We need a plan stronger than wishful thinking.”

“I agree,” he managed to be smug despite the whole problem being his fault, one way or another. “Let me know when you think of something practical.”

We pulled the volunteer engineering and science staff together in a conference room and all thought as hard as we could, and we had a grand total of nothing. No one aboard the ship was a computer expert, and even if we had Earth’s smartest computer scientist, our knowledge base was woefully inadequate to understand the functioning of an artificial intelligence system built by the Maxolhx. Through the last microwormhole, that was hooked into the factory’s sensors despite the AI’s best efforts to block us, we watched helplessly as ships carrying the Maxolhx officials descended. I felt sick to my stomach. Everything we had accomplished, all the risks we had taken, would soon all be for nothing. Our whole mutinous pirate mission was going to be a failure, and all we could do was watch.

Smythe tapped the back of my chair and motioned me into the hallway. “Sir, we need to consider alternatives, if Skippy is correct and the Maxolhx are about to discover our actions in that factory.”

“What kind of alternative?”

“The kind that permanently conceals our presence in the factory.”

Shit. I feared that I knew what he was thinking. “We destroy the factory, and the AI with it?” That notion rattled around in my brain for a minute. “Skippy thinks an attack on the factory would cause the Maxolhx to reset all their pixies, and the ones we have would be rendered useless. We will have gained nothing for all our effort, and be back to Square One trying to stop those ships from reaching Earth.”

“Square One is preferable to Square Zero,” Smythe advised gravely. “Several times, you made that argument to Mister Chotek, that some chance is better than none. We cannot allow our secret to be exposed.”

A glance through the doorway at the conference room display showed the first ship was landing at the complex on Detroit, the officials would soon be out of the ship and into the factory. If we were going to do something, we needed to do it fast. No. Smythe was right, ‘if’ was not an option. We needed to act. Whatever we were going to do, we had to act fast, like, now. “Skippy, we can’t jump the ship in over the factory, close enough to hit it?”

“Nope. No way, Jose. There are powerful damping and skew fields saturating that area. Any jump we tried would be thrown off target by the skewing effect, which very well might snap the ship in half. The damping field means we could not jump out. And, as I already told you, the factory is well-defended and protected by shields. None of the weapons we carry would hurt the factory complex, not even our nukes.”

“I was not thinking of jumping the ship in there,” Smythe explained. “Nor using conventional weapons. Out here, nuclear devices are considered ‘conventional’,” he announced with a barely-audible laugh. “My notion is to fit new jump coils to the Dragon, and have it emerge inside the factory.”

“Ooooh,” I whistled. Why hadn’t I thought of that idea?

“Nuh uh,” Skippy interrupted my thoughts. “Not happening. Colonel Smythe, that is an innovative solution, however it is not possible. The technique of avoiding long journeys by simply jumping a dropship into position on or under a planet is a neat trick, unfortunately it is also easily defended against. While the Maxolhx do not know they have such a defense in place, they have equipped the factory with a subspace field to prevent the Rindhalu and lesser species from remotely spying on the facility. That subspace field can also disrupt the formation of a jump wormhole’s event horizon. I am sorry, but it is not possible for a ship to emerge inside the factory. Well, not exactly impossible. The Flying Dutchman could partially accomplish that feat because I could adjust the jump coils so some of them counteract the subspace field. Doing that would be fatal to the ship, of course.”

“I withdraw my suggestion,” Smythe had a defeated look, something I had never seen before. He sometimes looked tired, but never defeated.

“Colonel Bishop?” Simms called from the CIC. “The aliens are out of their ships and entering the factory.”

Slowly, I walked back to my chair and sat down, though there was nothing for me to do except watch views from the factory’s internal cameras. The Maxolhx were speaking animatedly, with the others deferring to the senior official. Even on her alien face, I could tell she was unhappy. She was not murderously enraged like Mister Snuggles had been when he was held prisoner aboard the Dutchman, just very unhappy and disgusted with her underlings.

From my memory of the complex, the officials were walking down a tunnel toward the factory’s control center, where the AI was housed. Of course they were there to talk with and examine the AI, that would be the first step in their investigation.

Examine the AI. That gave me an idea.

“Skippy,” I called His Royal Arrogance. “The Maxolhx are going to question that AI first?”

“I assume so. Do not worry about that, it will give only the answers I programmed into it, despite the real AI knowing the truth.”

“Uh huh. Hey, the Maxolhx are going to want more than explanations from the AI, they will want to know if there is a problem with the AI itself, right?”

“Probably. Joe, if this is you asking me a bunch of really obvious questions, can we-”

Ignoring him, I continued along my train of thought. “Will their first step be ordering the AI to perform a self-diagnostic?”

“Yessss,” he replied slowly. “Of course. Then they will bring in another AI to examine the factory AI, and that is when they will discover-”

“I’m hoping they won’t discover anything, Skippy. You said the subroutine failed to trigger itself, and the AI won’t trigger it. The Maxolhx are going to run a self-diagnostic. Is there any way you can adjust the subroutine so it is triggered by the diagnostic test?”

He mumbled something so low I could not hear.

“Skippy?”

Again with the muttering, below my level of hearing. Something about him hating me and his life and the universe in general.

“Come on, Skippy. Yes or no?”

YES! Yes, are you happy now? I already did it,” somehow he managed to be smug about it. “The subroutine will be triggered by- Uh! It is running now. It’s good, we’re all good. See, Joe? All I need you to do is feed me the blindingly obvious ideas, and I handle it from there. What puzzles me is, how did your idiot monkey brain not think of this before?”

Smythe saw me squeezing my fists to control my rage. “Sir, there is the option of attaching new jump coils to the Dragon, and jumping it into a star with Skippy aboard?”

“Mmmm shmaybe,” I closed my eyes, fantasizing about that very pleasant thought. “Skippy, the subroutine is working correctly?”

“Yes,” he didn’t sound as arrogant that time. “The factory AI is returning to its original baseline programming. Its real memories are being replaced by the bullshit I fed into the submind, that process is almost complete now. Yup, done! Now the submind is erasing itself, going, going, gone. Done!”

“Outstanding. Hey, uh, the diagnostic subroutine itself won’t detect any of what you did?”

“Ha! No way, dude. That pinhead diagnostic system only sees what I want it to see. We’re good, everything is cool now. Those Maxolhx officials will have a very minor mystery about production yields to puzzle over for a short time, before they get back to the important work of assigning blame and backstabbing each other. We should begin moving the Dutchman away, and prepare to jump. Should I cut the connection to the microwormhole at the factory now?”

“Before we do that, please tell me the pixies we got are in good condition and are exactly what we need.”

“Yes. I told you, a couple got scrambled during the time-skewed jump, but the rest are absolutely perfect.”

“Great. Then, yeah, cut the microwormhole,” we could not allow the Maxolhx to detect even the tiny bit of radiation that was generated by that rip in spacetime. After the microwormhole was shut down, a factory bot that Skippy had programmed would take the canister to the dump where obsolete and worn out equipment was recycled. Because Skippy had loaded the canister into the factory’s inventory as an experimental device that didn’t work properly and had been discarded, the controlling AI would recycle the canister without questioning where it came from. “Set course for that automated relay station, and tell the pilots to jump when ready.”


CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

Simms knocked on the doorframe to my office. “Penny for your thoughts, Sir.”

“Come on in, sit down. Simms, I’ve been thinking-” I waited for a smart-ass remark from the beer can, and nothing came. Skippy’s silence was surprising me. “We got lucky at Detroit. We get lucky a lot. That can’t continue.”

That was a remark Skippy could not resist, so his avatar popped to life on my desk. “Joe, you are right about that, and you don’t even know the universe really works. Believe me, your luck will run out someday, soon.”

“I hate it when you hint at shit like that.”

“That is all I can tell you, Joe. It’s not just a restriction in my programming, I can’t tell you because that knowledge is incredibly dangerous. You will have to trust that I am doing this for your benefit-”

“Thanks, Skippy, I appreciate-”

“-and only secondarily because it is so much fun screwing with you.”

“Asshole. Whatever. Anyway, I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking with Colonel Simms. Listen, we need a backup plan. Not just a plan, a backup.”

“Um, like what? I’m not following you.”

“A place a group of humans could live, if something bad happens to Earth. A Beta site.”

“A Beta site?” Simms pursed her lips.

“It doesn’t have to be called that,” I didn’t want to get dragged off topic by an argument over what to name the place. Eventually, the planet would have its own name. “It’s a place where humanity and our culture can continue, in case Earth is destroyed, or we are enslaved by one side or the other.”

“I get the concept, Sir, it’s something the crew, I mean the previous crew, talked about a lot, especially when we were on Gingerbread. You know this idea comes from Stargate? The TV show, not the original movie. They had a planet where they could evacuate people to, only they called it the ‘Alpha site’.”

“Oh.” I did know that old show. “Yeah.”

“Sir,” she gave me the side-eye. “Why are you planning to set up a Beta site?” Unspoken was that she thought my energy should be devoted to the current problem of two warships carrying murderous kitties to Earth.

“Because,” I craned my neck around her to see into the corridor, then pressed the button to close the door. “I owe you the truth, Simms. We’ve been together since the beginning, and we’ve been through a lot of crazy shit.” Shaking my head, I flashed a wry smile that quickly faded. “I really, truly, do not think we’re getting out of this one. It’s just too tough. The Maxolhx?” My shoulders shook as a chill ran up my spine. “We can’t take on two of their warships, not even one ship, with this worn-out tub we’re flying. At some point, I need to give up the fantasy that we can accomplish the impossible. A Beta site might not be our fall-back plan, it will probably be our primary plan..”

She arched an eyebrow. “How do you figure that, Sir?”

“If we can’t stop those ships- No, wait. If we don’t have a realistic plan to stop those ships, then I am not taking this ship into combat. There is no point in futile gestures, and this ship is the only one humanity has. If it looks like the target ships are on their way to Earth and we can’t stop them, then I’m taking the Dutchman back to Earth. I’ll surrender myself, and tell the UN they need to use the ship to find a Beta site and evac people there ASAP, while they can.”

She gave me the side-eye, hard. There was accusation in that look and I did not blame her one bit. “Sir, I need you to bottom-line this for me. You are giving up trying to stop those ships?”

“No, not now, not yet. We’ll get their flightplans and see if that gives us any ideas, but,” I slumped back in my chair. “If it truly is simply impossible to destroy those two ships, without the Maxolhx knowing they were lost to hostile action, then we need to cut our losses.”

Simms did not look happy at all. She was thinking I had already given up, mentally and emotionally. Whatever concerns she had, she kept them to herself. No doubt when she left my office, she would ask Skippy and Nagatha about me. “A Beta site is truly a last resort? If aliens destroy Earth, what will stop them from hitting the Beta site also?”

 Getting the discussion back on track made me sit up straight in my chair. “We will avoid that by making it impossible for bad guys to get to the beta site, like locating it way outside the galaxy. Or, we could make the voyage to the beta site a one-way trip, so if aliens do capture Earth, they won’t find the location of the Beta site. Nobody who goes there as a colonist can ever come back to Earth.”

“How would that work? The ship has to come back.”

“The ship will come back, we might need five or more trips to establish a viable colony.” As I said that, I wondered how much time we would have before the Maxolhx reached Earth and flights to the Beta site would be cut off. “The crew and Nagatha and Skippy will need to know where the site is, of course, but we would keep the number of people involved to a minimum. It’s not going to be easy.”

“No it won’t. The governments on Earth will want to know where the site is. Plus, colonists won’t like the idea of going in blindly.”

“Ah, we can show them videos of the place. Videos made in daylight, no stars in the video so people can’t use a star map to figure out where the place is.”

Simms frowned and squinted, thinking hard. “We need to ask Skippy, but I think the video needs to be altered. The spectrum of each star is unique, people could determine where the planet is by analyzing the sunlight.”

“Crap! This is complicated. You’re right, it will be hard to get people to sign up for a one-way trip under those conditions.”

“Not really,” she tapped a finger against her chin. “Earth has billions of people. All we need is a couple thousand people looking for adventure, for a fresh start. A chance to create something new. That should be easy, actually.”

“Yeah, except we would end up with an entire planet full of adventure junkies.”

She shook her head. “That’s good. It should be hard to be selected as a colonist. We need people who are tough and committed, people who won’t want to bail at the first sign of trouble. Because there will be trouble.”

“Right, because bailing out will not be an option. The only way a beta site works as a backup for Earth is if no one, or only a very few, people on Earth know the location of the colony.”

“If aliens do reach Earth, people who know the colony’s location will need to evac?”

“That, or,” I tapped the back of my neck, “wear a suicide patch, like we do on away missions.” Thinking about the Keepers we picked up during out last mission gave me an idea. “Better to use some sort of suicide implant, something that can’t be peeled off.”

“This is a depressing conversation.”

“The topic is setting up a secure backup in case Earth is nuked to oblivion, so-”

“It’s never going to be the feel-good movie of the year,” she flashed a rueful grin that just as quickly faded. “Does it really matter whether aliens find out where the beta site is? The whole point of locating it outside the galaxy, or near a dormant wormhole, is that aliens can’t get there even if they want to.”

“We don’t know yet if we can connect to wormholes outside the galaxy. And Skippy told me he can’t guarantee a future wormhole shift won’t bring that dormant wormhole back online,” I explained. “Also, remember, if aliens reach Earth, they are going to learn that we have been manipulating wormholes, and how we’ve been doing that.”

Skippy has been manipulating wormholes, not us.”

“Yeah, but even Skippy needs a wormhole controller module. He says even the senior species don’t know what that device is, they know it is something the Elders created but they don’t know its purpose. That’s why we were able to steal one; the Kristang at that asteroid base had no idea how valuable it is. Once the senior species find out what a wormhole controller module does, they will begin studying them.”

“Sure, except they can’t use one without Skippy.”

“They can’t use one now. The senior species do have the ability to create connections to higher levels of spacetime, that is how Skippy controls and feeds power to the thing.”

“Shit. I didn’t know that.”

I glanced out the door to assure we were still speaking privately. To be certain, I pressed the button to slide the door closed. “Skippy told me the Maxolhx, even the Rindhalu, are a long way from figuring out how to make a wormhole controller do anything useful. The spiders have only the rudimentary basics of the theory needed, and the rotten kitties don’t even have that. But, to be safe, I prefer we keep the beta site’s location a secret. That removes the incentive for vengeful aliens to try getting there. They can expend their energies on killing each other.”

“True. I had forgotten that the UN planned to seize this ship partly because Skippy had programmed our wormhole controller to work without him. That’s how they planned to go through the wormhole near Earth to contact the Jeraptha.”

“He programmed it to work one time without him. And we still have no idea how it works. That reminds me,” I snapped my fingers, “I need to ask Skippy to leave that knowledge out of the info he is sharing with us lowly monkeys. That knowledge is way too dangerous for us to have.”

“Sir, I will think about the logistics of setting up a colony.”

“Assume conditions on the planet are only marginable habitable, someplace unpleasant like Newark. We might have to settle for whatever we can find.”

“Newark wasn’t so bad.”

“It wasn’t?” I raised an eyebrow at that remark.

“I was born and raised in Washington State,” she explained. “Rainy, cloudy and cool most of the year is what I’m used to.”

“Northern Maine is not exactly a tropical paradise either, but living on Newark sucked. It snowed during summer on the equator! You know what the worst part was?”

“Sir?”

“When we found those skeletons, and Skippy discovered the planet used to be a nice place. That really sucked.” There was probably a more eloquent way to say it, but poetry is not in my skillset.

She looked at me with a frown that implied me saying ‘sucked’ was an insult to the civilization that had been exterminated.

“You know what I mean, Simms.”

She was still giving me a hurt, accusing look. “Straight up, Sir? I need to know whether you are going to give a hundred percent to stopping the Maxolhx from reaching Earth.”

“Straight up, Colonel Simms,” I offered her a solemn fist bump, and met her eyes while she returned the gesture. “The fucking universe may quit on us, but I won’t.”

She stood up and snapped a salute, a gesture for dramatic effect because we didn’t typically salute aboard the ship. “That’s all I need to hear, Sir. I will ask Skippy to help, NASA must have some research on requirements for setting up a colony on a habitable world.”

While the crew was ecstatic about our success at stealing pixies, my own mood turned me into Joe Buzzkill. The ship was jumping toward a Maxolhx automated relay station I selected because it was isolated and relatively close, and Smythe was in my office discussing lessons learned from the theft on Detroit. The most important lesson I had learned was, let’s not ever do that again. It was too risky and too many things could have gone wrong, on top of the things that had gone wrong. The fact that the operation had ultimately been successful did not change the disaster that would have smacked down on humanity if the Maxolhx discovered humans inside one of their most secure facilities. The whole operation had been reckless, desperately reckless. The only reason we could excuse our recklessness was because we were absolutely desperate. “We still do not have a plan to destroy two Maxolhx ships,” I looked down at my laptop after Smythe praised me for having created a daring and clever plan to steal the pixies. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“That is quite all right, Sir,” he assured me with a curt wave of a hand. “I prefer to talk about future plans rather than congratulating each other. That is what medals are for.”

“And beers. Someday, you need to let me buy you a beer.”

“Come to Hereford, Sir, and we’ll drink a few pints together. Be warned, the lads there will not allow either of us to pay for anything.”

“Well,” I grinned, “it’s the thought that counts.”

“There is an idea I have been kicking around in my head, if you would like to hear.”

“Please, I would love to hear it. Skippy?”

“Yes?” Of course he had been listening, now his avatar popped to life on the desk between me and Smythe.

I scooted my chair to the side so Grand Admiral Skippy’s giant hat didn’t block my view. “Colonel Smythe has something he wants to discuss.”

“Right,” Smythe leaned forward, skipping the formalities. “Mister Skippy, I have heard you can compress yourself into something the size of a lipstick tube?”

“That is correct, why do you care?”

“I care, because that is about the size of an antiship railgun dart,” Smythe explained. “We could load your temporarily shrunken self into a railgun and launch you at a Maxolhx ship. After you impact, you expand to the size of, perhaps a small moon, and destroy the ship.”

Skippy opened his mouth to reply but I beat him to it. There was an obvious flaw in Smythe’s plan and I preferred he hear it politely from me, rather than being mocked and insulted by the beer can. “That would only take care of one ship,” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Precisely,” Smythe nodded curtly. “That is why Skippy needs to expand so greatly. Before we launch him, we need to get the two enemy ships to fly in formation, or within several thousand kilometers. That would-”

“Sorry, Colonel Smythe,” Skippy interrupted before I could stop him. “Unfortunately, Joe already tried this plan with me. Good effort on your part, however there are several issues you did not consider. First, the Flying Dutchman no longer has a functioning railgun, I was forced to remove that weapon system after-”

“Yes, I remember that bit of trivia,” Smythe’s reserve slipped just a bit, a flash of irritation showing through. He did not like being lectured to and belittled by an arrogant beer can. “Also I remember the space for the railgun still runs down the center of the forward hull, and that many of the accelerator magnets are still in place. When we were in the Roach Motel, we specifically took aboard components to repair our railgun system.”

“True, true,” Skippy was chastened, something that never happened when he talked with me. “What you do not know is I have very carefully examined those components we took from the junkyard, and many of them have microscopic flaws that render them unsuitable, unless you want to destroy this ship by firing an unsafe railgun. Joe and I discussed the railgun during our mission to rescue Paradise from the infected Keepers, he agreed with me that restoring the railgun to operation would take resources we need so we can keep the ship flying.”

“That is true, Smythe,” I nodded to the avatar. “If we truly needed it, the railgun could be put back into service, temporarily. In this case-”

Skippy interrupted me again. “In this case, we do not need it. Colonel Smythe, what you do not know is what Joe should have known, yet he proposed this same idea to me because unlike you, he is a bonehead. While it is true I can adjust my footprint in this spacetime, I can only do that within certain preset limits. Small as a lipstick, large as an oil drum, and only for a short time. To expand my local footprint to the size of a moon, even a small moon, is something I can only do once. Going larger than an oil drum is only possible if I lose containment and if that happens, it would be catastrophic for me.”

“Bollocks,” Smythe spat. “Apologies, Mister Skippy. I truly thought that might be the answer to our dilemma.”

“No need to apologize. Joe thought the same thing, and he should have known better.”

After saluting the avatar with one finger, I turned my attention to the SAS officer in my office. “My apologies, Smythe. There are a hundred ideas I discussed with Skippy and,” I used a hand to mimic an aircraft going down in flames to crash onto my desk. “Boom! He shot them all down.”

“Some of Joe’s ideas,” Skippy giggled, “were really stupid. Entertaining, but stupid.”

Smythe and I chatted about other issues for a short time, then he left to continue the STAR team’s intensive training. He looked tired and he looked happier than he had looked in a long time. If he was worried about being arrested for treason or insubordination if we ever returned to Earth, he certainly didn’t show it.

After Smythe left, I called the beer can again. “Hey, Skippy, I have a question for you.”

“I am kinda busy right now explaining to Nagatha how to reboot the main reactor from a cold shutdown, so forgive me that I don’t have time or energy to insult you like usual.”

“I appreciate it. Um, different subject; Nagatha does not already know how to do that?”

“She knows the list of instructions in the official operating manual for that reactor. We now have a lot of experience with how the reactor actually functions, considering all the modifications I had to make, so I am transferring my practical knowledge to her. So, what’s up? Make it quick, please.”

“My idea for you to expand your footprint and destroy a ship-”

“No, that was Smythe’s idea. You should have known better, so you mentioning it does not count as an ‘idea’. What about it?”

“Doing that would essentially be suicide for you, right?”

“I would not actually die, as my higher functions would continue to some extent, but, yes. My connection to higher spacetime would be permanently cut off, so I would not be able to do all the incredible things that make me Skippy the Magnificent. It would be like when I was trapped in a small corner of myself by the nasty worm.”

“Oh, crap. Would you be drunk-dialing me at zero dark thirty to marvel at the universe?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about, Joe.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem. Anywho, I haven’t gotten to my original question yet.”

“This is you being quick about it, as I requested? In Skippytime, eons have passed since we began this boring conversation, Joe. Continents have collided, creating jagged mountain ranges soaring toward the sky. Over millions of Skippytime years, erosion has worn those once lofty mountains down into lumpy, rolling hills. And you still haven’t gotten to the freakin’ point.”

“Yeah, Ok, Ok, I get your message. Losing containment to destroy those ships would be suicide for you. My question is; would you be willing to do that, if we had no other way to stop those ships from coming to Earth?”

“No.”

Hoping there would be more information coming after this one-word reply, I waited. He didn’t speak, and his avatar was frozen in place. That would have frightened me before, but I understood it simply meant he was busy and not paying attention to his avatar. “Um, hey,” I cleared my throat. “Could you give me some details about that? ‘No’ is not the answer I was hoping to hear.”

“Gosh, Joey,” the avatar came back to life. “Of course I would do anything for you, my bestest friend forever,” he gushed. “Oh, gag me. No, you dumdum, I have no intention of sacrificing myself for you filthy monkeys.”

“I call bullshit on that, Skippy. During our second mission, when we got ambushed by a squadron of Thuranin destroyers, you offered to sacrifice yourself so the Dutchman could get away.”

“Uh huh, and as you have mentioned several times, my plan back then would not have worked. Regardless, I was not intending to actually sacrifice my existence, because no weapons the Thuranin possess can hurt me. The worst I would have endured is going dormant for a long time. Truly, a million years drifting isolated in space would not be any worse than having this conversation with you, so-”

“Great. Just great. We can’t really count on you, can we?”

“You can count on me to help you, dumdum. What you can’t count on is me being willing to do something short-sighted and stupid just to make a dramatic gesture. A gesture like that would be useless anyway.”

“Useless? It would stop a pair of powerful warships from-”

“Blah blah, buh-lahh,” he waved a hand dismissively. “It would stop that pair of warships, you ignorant monkey. It would also prevent me from being of any use to you in a future crisis, and there is always another crisis, Joe.”

“You don’t know that. If we can stop the Maxolhx-”

“Joe, seriously, try to use that sack of mush in your skull, please. Me losing containment would, as I have told you before, release a truly massive amount of energy. It would be like setting off fireworks, every star-faring species in the galaxy would be sending ships to investigate what the hell happened in that location. They would position ships at remote distances to capture photons from the moments before the explosion, and they would see two Maxolhx ships were there before they suddenly became subatomic particles. The Maxolhx would be alarmed to learn that the two ships they sent to Earth had been subjected to an overkill of energy, and you can be sure those rotten kitties would send half their fleet to Earth to make sure they found out exactly why their ships got blown up.”

“Shit. You’re right. I didn’t think of that. Hey! Don’t bother, I’ll say the ‘DUH’ for myself.”

“Are you happy now?”

“Not happy, but I do understand why you don’t want to destroy those ships by losing containment. Sorry about that, I shouldn’t have asked. Oh, hell, I will keep trying to think of another way to stop those ships.”

“Yup. That is the second reason I won’t offer to sacrifice myself.”

“Uh, what?”

“Because, dumdum, if I offer to do that, you will get lazy and stop trying to think of a better idea. You think best under pressure, Joe. This is about the most pressure you can get, so you’d better get working, huh?”

“Crap. Yes. And you’re right. Even if we stop these ships, there is always going to be another freakin’ problem we need you to fix for us. Like, in sixty years, aliens will discover the wormhole near Earth is not really dormant, and they will be coming to investigate.”

“Sure, that too. However, what I meant is, I can’t sacrifice myself for one planet of primitive monkeys, because I have a higher purpose. A purpose you told me about, so, really, you screwed yourself there, Joe.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. “Crap, what did I do?”

“You convinced me that the galaxy needs me to stop rogue Elder AIs from causing havoc. Remember? You gave quite an inspiring speech.”

“Shit. Yeah, I do remember.”

“That speech wasn’t all just bullshit to make me feel better, was it?”

“No,” I sort of lied. Damn it, sometimes I wish my stupid brain would just shut the hell up and stop getting me in trouble. “No, I guess I mostly meant what I said. You may be the only force capable of stopping another rogue AI.”

“See? Isn’t saving the entire galaxy from rogue AIs more important than a barrel of monkeys on one miserable mudball of a planet?”

Tapping the patches on my uniform top, I shook my head. “Not to me, it isn’t. See these patches? My responsibility is to humanity, to the United States, to the US Army even if I am a mutinous renegade pirate. I am not responsible for the safety of the whole gosh-darned Milky Way galaxy.”

“Joe, you stole this ship. Right now, you are a pirate without authorization from anyone on Earth. Don’t tell me you are still clinging to-”

“I am clinging to the hope of being reinstated when I get home, Skippy. Or at least, not being thrown in Leavenworth prison for the rest of my life. Ok, let’s not get off the subject. We need another way to stop those ships, so I’m going back to zero and starting over. There must be a way to do it.”

“That’s the spirit, Joey! I do not see any way for you to destroy two warships that could crush the Flying Dutchman like a giant stepping on an ant. But, hey, you should be like that ant, right?”

 I should have known better, but because I am stupid, I asked “What ant?”

Everyone knows an ant can’t, move a rubber tree plant. But he’s got high hopes, he’s got hiiiiigh hopes! He’s got high apple pie in the skyyyyy hopes! Come on, Joe, sing it with me.”

Right then, I was thinking that would an excellent time for Skippy to lose containment.

After the complicated and dangerous tasks of getting a Maxolhx dropship and stealing a set of blank pixies, I was dreading the next step of ransacking a data relay station to discover the flightplan of the two target ships. Hopefully we would actually get those flightplans, because Skippy cautioned me that he could not guarantee every relay station had that information. We might have to go to several relay stations to get the data, increasing our risk each time. If the flightplan data was not provided to automated stations, then we were screwed, because no way could we approach a station that had a Maxolhx crew.

Following Skippy’s plan to copy the pixies of a real Maxolhx ship, we jumped the Dutchman in several hundred thousand kilometers away from our target relay station. Captain Reed and I took the beer can away from the ship in the Maxolhx dropship, then our Frankenstein space truck jumped to wait about thirty lightseconds away.

Wrapped in an already sophisticated Maxolhx stealth field that Skippy had tinkered with to make even more perfect, our dropship approached the station until we were two hundred thousand miles away, where we used the reactionless drive to bring us to a stop relative to the imaginary point in space where the station’s sensor field coverage dropped off enough for Skippy to be comfortable we would not be detected without an active scan. We called our new dropship a ‘Panther’ because it was a super stealthy hunter, and because the Maxolhx sort of look like big cats. “Sir,” Reed whispered to me as we shut down the ultra-quiet drive, “we need to get more of these. This thing is awesome.”

“I hear you, Fireball,” I winked. “Let me know if you find a place where we can pick up a certified pre-owned Panther on credit. Or a place we can get spare parts.” We had to fly the dropship very carefully and gently, despite the parts we wrenched off the other ships in the cavern under the moon, we had no replacements for some vital systems. Not all the components of the craft were working properly, some were not working at all. The life support system had been pulled from an old Kristang Dragon that was no longer useful, because Skippy had been unable to get the Panther’s life support working.

After Skippy confirmed the station had not reacted to our presence, we waited. That particular data relay station had been chosen because it had only sparse traffic, giving us a measure of confidence that there would not be a whole lot of ships stopping by while we were inside the station. My major concern was not about the station detecting our stealthy little Panther, it was about the station wondering why a Maxolhx starship had jumped in and quickly jumped away without identifying itself. Skippy had adjusted the Dutchman’s stealth field and jump drive signature to make it look like a Maxolhx Fleet Auxiliary ship, a lightly-armed support vessel that would be no threat to the station. He assured me that a ship not identifying itself was unusual, but not so unusual that the station would activate defenses or send an alarm message. And once he had taken control of that AI, he could erase all memory of our presence.

So, we waited. And waited.

Reed and I took turns napping in between duty shifts. The Panther would not be doing much flying on this mission, so I had not seen any need to risk the lives or more than two people. Reed was easy to get along with, we played cards or Scrabble to pass the time, or we both gave each other space and read books. The Panther was small on the outside compared even to a Dragon-A dropship, but the cabin was about the same size as our smaller Kristang model, and we had enough room not to get on each other’s nerves. Reed was a much better companion than Mister Nukey had been, plus she was less likely to accidentally explode.

We hung out in empty space, Skippy constantly alert for incoming ships or anything that might make the station detect us. Only once did we need to move the ship, because a small cloud of dust was drifting through the area and the station would get suspicious if tiny dust particles bounced off our shields. Other than that one bit of excitement, it was pretty dull.

Until two Maxolhx starships jumped in without warning.

I was on duty in the pilot seat, working on a crossword puzzle that I swear Skippy had rigged to make it impossible for me to complete, when he sounded a soft bell-like chime. “Joe, we have company.”

Before I woke Reed from sleep, I checked the display. The two ships were less than five thousand kilometers from the station, and they had their own sensor fields turned off to avoid interfering with the station. “Reed,” I shook her shoulder gently and she was instantly awake.

“What?” She asked, blinking sleep away from her eyes.

Pointing to the display, I let her take in the situation. “Two ships,” I explained. “Skippy, damn, one of those ships is big. It’s a monster,” I whispered.

“That is a bit of good luck, Joe. That big ship is a support ship, sort of a mobile spacedock for repairing battle-damaged ships that can’t make it back to a planetary base, or are urgently needed. We are in little danger from that thing. The other ship is a destroyer assigned to escort the spacedock. Now be quiet, knucklehead, I am aligning our pixies to match the destroyer’s identification code.”

It was easy to be quiet since I was pressing my lips together so they wouldn’t tremble from fear. Being stupid as I am, I zoomed in the image to see those imposing ships like they were right on top of us. That was a bad idea, and I caught a disapproving look from Reed. Switching to the tactical display helped. If the Maxolhx detected us, we did not need to explode one of the nukes we had brought from Earth, instead we could overload the Panther’s own reactor. That thought was really not very comforting.

The two ships hung near the relay station for only sixteen minutes, then they jumped away as abruptly as they had arrived. “We’re clear, Joe,” Skippy reported. “Sending data to the Dutchman. Our pixies are aligned and ready.”

Unclenching my jaw so could speak, I lifted my hands away from the pilot console and nodded toward Reed to show the spacecraft was hers. “Outstanding. Reed, take us to the rendezvous point.”

It took thirty seven hours to rendezvous with the Flying Dutchman, flying very gently not only to avoid strain on the vital components of the Panther, but mostly to avoid hard maneuvers that might be detected by the relay station. After the Panther was aboard, the ship accelerated for another six hours, then jumped away. Our outbound jump was from a distance sufficiently far from the station that the controlling AI likely would not find anything alarming or suspicious about our mystery ship. We then waited another five hours, time during which the ship decelerated to match course and speed with the relay station. Part of the reason for the delay was that Skippy knew, from listening to the data exchanged between the spacedock ship and the relay station, that another ship was scheduled to stop at the relay station and we wanted to give that ship plenty of time to get clear of the area.

We jumped in near the station again, this time much closer at less than six thousand kilometers. Skippy adjusted our stealth field and jump drive signature to make us look like the destroyer that had been there recently. The station immediately pinged us and demanded identification. Despite Skippy’s well-demonstrated awesomeness, I had my fingers crossed as he sent back the destroyer’s ID code with our copied pixies.

The station acknowledged our ID and expressed mild surprise that the destroyer had come back so soon. For us, Skippy replied that another ship had been assigned to escort the mobile spacedock, and we had come back to the station to install a critical upgrade. He included the proper authorization codes, also stolen from the real destroyer, and the station sort of shrugged if AIs are capable of shrugging. This was good timing, the station said, as no ships were scheduled to arrive within the next eighty four hours. A docking bay was ready for us. Skippy told me the AI sounded lonely.

With a finger hovering over the button to send our new quality pre-owed Maxolhx dropship toward the relay station, I had to first calm my fears as the Panther approached the relay station, under the control of the station’s AI. We were not really under the station’s control, but Skippy let that AI think it was in control because that was standard procedure. “Skippy, you are certain the station AI will not activate defenses when it sees us get out of the dropship, wearing Kristang armor?”

“I am certain that will not be a problem, for two reasons. First, the Maxolhx are supremely, like, stupidly confident in the security of their pixie system. Once we authenticate ourselves, we will be trusted without question. Considering what the Maxolhx think they know about the physical laws of the universe, they are correct in being confident their security is unbreakable. Hee hee, they did not count on me spoiling the party. Second, the station AI will not see you wearing Kristang armor, you dumdum, because I will be spoofing the sensors in the docking bay. While I will not yet have complete control of the AI until you jack me in, I will be able to control the data that AI sees. I already told you all this, were you not listening?”

“I was listening. I am making sure nothing changed, or that you didn’t forget something.”

“Forget? Me?” He was insulted. “Unlike you meatsacks, my memory is-”

“Your memory is not the problem. I wanted to know if you absentmindedly forgot to consider something.”

“Oh, Hmm, I guess that is fair, let me review the facts again. Nope, no, can’t think of anything I did not consider.”

“Great,” I allowed a bit of the tension in my shoulders to melt away.

“Of course, I also did not consider that fighter-dropships would be conducting flight maneuvers at the moonbase, or that the crawler would be taking a different route, or that the garage section of the base would not have a connection to the base AI, or-”

“Damn it, Skippy.”

“I’m just sayin’, maybe I am not the best person to ask about whether I have all bases covered, you know?”

“Crap. Well,” I shot a guilty look at Reed in the pilot seat. “It’s too late now to change the plan.”

“Yessiree Bob it is,” Skippy babbled nervously. “Okey-dokey, we are committed now, on track for the docking bay outer marker” he was talking way too much, a sign of his internal tension. “Hey, speaking of being on tracks, this reminds me of a song. All abooooooard! Hahahahahaha. Ay ay ay ay-”

“Skippy!” I shouted over him while he continued to sing. “Damn it, Ozzy is not really the best choice when we are trying to- Are you even listening to me?”

I’m going off the rails on a crazy traaaain! I’m going off-”

“SKIPPY!”

“Ok, Ok, Jeez Louise, I try to inject a little culture into-”

“We are inside the docking bay, you little shithead. Do your thing with the sensors.”

“What thing? Oh yeah, got it.”

While he worked, he must have been singing to himself because I heard snippets of Ozzy like ‘I’ve listened to preachers I’ve listened to fools, I’ve listened to drop-outs who make their own rules’ and I kept my mouth shut because me talking would be even more distracting to him. Plus, for some reason I couldn’t understand, his Ozzy was much better than when he sang anything else, so I was kind of getting into it.

“Ok, Joe, sensors are under my control. Damn, this AI is a Chatty Cathy, it must be really bored and lonely. You need to jack me in so I can make it shut the hell up.”

It was easy. After all my anxiety, and the effort we had gone through to get a proper Maxolhx dropship and a set of pixies, the actual work inside the station was easy. I was wearing a flightsuit because Skippy was concerned the weight of powered-armor boots clomping across the deck of the docking bay might make the station AI suspicious when its cameras were showing an unarmored Maxolhx casually walking toward the inner door. To match what the cameras were showing, I tried to walk casually, using long strides to mimic the gait of a Maxolhx that was taller than me. Then, when I reached the airlock, I plugged a little gizmo into a dataport near the floor, and within two seconds, Skippy flashed a little green light in the upper right corner of my helmet display.

“I’m in, Joe. Damn, the next time I have to hack into something, can we choose a species that does not have good wireless security? Needing to physically jack me into a data port is a pain in the ass.”

“I am not a big fan of it either. You never have trouble hacking into the Thuranin, or into computer systems on Earth.”

“That is because you monkeys have zero data security, Joe. And the pinhead Thuranin do not realize how vulnerable they are to their systems being infiltrated by someone who gains access through their cybernetic implants. Hee hee, those little green idiots think they only have to be worried about someone hacking into them through their ship AIs, not the other direction. Buncha morons. Aaaand, that’s it. We’re good, Joe, I got the flightplan data. Erasing our tracks now. We should get out of here pronto, in case an unscheduled ship shows up to spoil the party.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense, Skippy,” I had a catch in my throat. “Are we too late?” My greatest fear was the target ships had already transited through the wormhole in Ruhar territory, and were now jumping through dark interstellar space toward Earth. If that were the case, we had zero chance of intercepting them somewhere in that vast expanse of space, and our renegade mission was all for nothing.

“Nope, dude, we’re good. Those ships have not left their home base yet. I told you, the Maxolhx wanted to examine other wormholes that have exhibited odd behavior, before they launch for Earth. The last ship has returned from collecting data, and there was a conference to analyze the results.”

I unplugged from the data port and walked casually back toward the Panther. “What is taking them so long to launch?”

“Because during the conference, the Maxolhx sent their results to the Rindhalu, to get the spiders’ thoughts on what might be causing the odd wormhole behavior. The spiders just replied two weeks ago, which is super fast for them, they must be worried. Anyway, what you want to hear is the target ships will not launch for twenty seven days.”


CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

Coming back from the galley, where I had gotten a cup of coffee more out of habit than because I wanted one, I set the mug on my office desk, then moved it aside because it annoyed Skippy when there was clutter on the desk where his avatar materialized. “Hey, Skippy.”

“Hey, Joe,” his familiar admiral’s form popped into life. He made minor changes to the avatar regularly, it looked like the blue of his coat was a shade darker and the gold braid on his hat a little shinier. He never mentioned the changes, and if he was hoping for me to comment and praise him, he would be waiting a very long time. “What’s up?”

“We got the flightplan data-”

“Yes we do. Is this conversation going to be a way for you to waste time because still you have no way to kill the target ships?”

“No, because even if we did have a really good, practical plan to attack those ships, we first need to talk about the sequence of events. I have some ideas and want to bounce them off you.”

“Sequence of events? Like, you say something stupid and then I laugh at you? That is the logical sequence based on the laws of causality. But if you want to save time, I can mock you in advance, since we all know you will say something stupid eventually.”

“No, uh, the system we’ve been using works great,” I groaned with an internal eyeroll. “Besides, how could you tailor your insults, if you don’t know which stupid thing I will say?”

“Hmm, that is a good point. I have a list of pre-made insults ready, but it is so much more rewarding when I make up something snappy on the spot. Ok, then, what did you mean by ‘sequence of events’?”

“I meant, we now know the schedule for the target ships, so we have a list of things we need to do, like usual. But this time I don’t think we have to do them one, two, three. We could do item two first, then three, then one.”

“I’m not following you, Joe.”

“Ok,” I opened my laptop screen and read the list I had created. “We need to destroy those two ships-”

“Well, first, you need to figure out how to do that impossible task, Joe.”

“Yeah, I know that. For now, assume we figure out a brilliant plan. So we-”

“Assume? Oh, sure, no problem. Let’s also assume that pigs can fly,” he laughed.

“I’m trying to be serious here, asshole.”

“All right,” he sighed. “I will try to take this ridiculous conversation seriously. Fine, I will assume this beat-up piece of crap ship can take on and destroy two Maxolhx warships. I assume however we do that will also miraculously include a plan for this ship to survive the battle and-”

“No,” I shook my head emphatically. “That is something we are not assuming, that’s kind of the point.”

“Ok, hmm. Now I am intrigued, and you have my attention. Continue, please.”

“We can’t assume the Dutchman will survive that battle, so I think we may have to get everything else done before we hit those ships. You understand what I’m saying now?”

“Ah, yes, and you are right, we might need to act out of sequence. This is a rare example of you thinking ahead and considering consequences. How did that happen?”

“Very funny, jackass. To make sure we understand each other, here is my list. We need to destroy those ships. We need to plant a cover story in a Maxolhx relay station, and that has to be a relay station along the route the target ships would have plausibly taken on their way home. My question is, could we plant the cover story in a relay station before we attack those ships? That way, if the Flying Dutchman does not survive the battle, the cover story will already be waiting to be released to the Maxolhx.”

 “Again, that is good thinking. We cannot assume the Dutchman will be able to fly to a relay station after the battle. And yes, I could plant the cover story in a relay station before we fly off on a foolish quest to tangle with two warships that could crush the pathetic Dutchman like swatting a fly. We should plant the cover story first, and I can easily delay release of the fake report. There are two problems with that plan, Joe.”

“Uh, like what?”

“First, you have not yet told me what the cover story is going to be. Whatever story you dream up, it has to be pretty incredible to explain the disappearance of two advanced warships, and persuade the Maxolhx that they do not need to launch a full-scale investigation including sending a large task force to Earth.”

“Thank you so much for reminding me that-”

“Second, second, dumdum, your cover story might determine which particular relay station those ships supposedly contacted on their return journey. So, you need to dream up this cover story before we even set course for the relay station.”

“How do you figure that?”

“If the cover story says everything was fine with the expedition until the target ships were almost home,” he explained patiently, “then we need to plant the cover story in the relay station that is on the expedition’s schedule. Except that station has a Maxolhx crew, and we need to use an automated relay station. So, your cover story needs to include some mysterious reason why the ghost ships survived the return trip, but could not reach the relay station on the schedule and had to contact a different station, an automated one.”

“Shit. You’re right, I hadn’t thought of that. Before you say it, I know that sometimes I am an idiot.”

“Agreed.”

“Good.”

“Except for the ‘sometimes’ part. Seriously, how are you going to explain how those two ships survived the long trip all the way to Earth and back, but then were lost in Maxolhx territory just before they return to base?”

“I don’t know yet, Skippy. Thank you, it is super helpful to have you reminding me of all the impossible crap I need to do.”

“Oh goodie. Hey, if I’m being helpful to you, that means I get partial credit for whatever crazy idea you dream up, right?”

How could an awesomely smart AI be so freakin’ clueless, I asked myself? “Yeah, sure, whatever, I couldn’t do it without you,” that time I could not stop my eyes from rolling.

“Hmmf,” he sniffed. “This whole conversation was a waste of my precious time. You can’t decide which action to do first, until you have a plan for what you’re going to do, and how to do it. Really, you need a plan to destroy those ships, and a good cover story, and you need to select a relay station, before you can do anything.”

“Skippy, you are an endless source of support and comfort.”

“I am? Crap, I was going for tough love, Joe. Clearly, I need to be more-”

“You’re doing just fine the way you are. Don’t mess with what works, Skippy.”

“If you say so, Joe.”

“Talking with you has been helpful, I am going to plan for us to plant the cover story before we hit those ships.”

“Uh, sure,” he chuckled. “I think that’s like you trying to decide between riding a flying pig or a unicorn, but go ahead, have fun. Well, you have a lot of work to do, and chatting with me is only taking up your time, so get to work. Wait!” He held up a finger, a giant foam finger that suddenly sprouted from his holographic hand. “The target ships have not even launched yet, so we have plenty of time.”

“Yeah, I know. Several people have asked me if we should use the time to go back to Earth. My answer has been ‘Hell NO’.”

“I know, I heard those conversations. Colonel Smythe did make a good argument in favor of returning to Earth, to bring aboard additional personnel.”

“No, he said that would be the only reason to go all the way back to Earth, and he also told me that is a bad idea. We agreed a return would give UNEF an opportunity to screw with us. Plus,” I glanced outside my office door to make sure no one was lingering in the passageway. “Some of the crew may get homesick, have second thoughts, and want to jump ship. Being near home may be too tempting. Is there a reason that you want to go back? You hate the mudball we call home.”

“I do not hate Earth, Joe. I mentioned we have plenty of time because the ship needs downtime for maintenance. Heavy maintenance, not the light running repairs I have been conducting while we fly. Really, we should take the ship completely apart, the main reactor needs work that requires it to be detached and far away from the forward section, to protect the crew section from hard radiation.”

“That is not happening.”

“It needs to happen, dumdum.”

“How about after this mission?”

“If the Dutchman survives a battle with two Maxolhx ships, it will need serious work. But, Ok, we can compromise. I need the ship to be offline for eighteen to twenty days, just to make repairs so it doesn’t fall apart, and I assume you want the ship to be in the best possible condition before we attack the Maxolhx?” He did not need me to reply. “The ship will have auxiliary power, so the crew can remain aboard, we do not need to evacuate to a habitable planet this time.”

That sounded horribly risky to me. Taking the ship’s main power offline, in enemy territory, would leave us exposed and vulnerable. Without main power, we could not run the stealth field for more than a couple hours. The point-defense system and energy shields would also be unavailable. “Twenty days?”

“Possibly as few as eighteen days, don’t be so pessimistic. Listen, dumdum, when we were at the Roach Motel, you were in a panic to pop smoke and get out of there ASAP, so I slapped the junkyard parts together quick and dirty with duct tape and a prayer. Some of those quickie patches are wearing out, I need to fix them before something important goes ‘Kablooie’, understood?”

“Ok, Ok. I assume you have selected a place where we can safely take the ship offline?”

“Yes, it is highlighted on the chart,” he pointed to my laptop. “Another dull and totally uninteresting red dwarf star system. This particular system is centered on a low-mass M8V-class star, with one gas giant of approximately Neptune size in a distant orbit, and three small rocky inner planets. No planets are in the narrow Goldilocks zone, therefore there is no reason for anyone to ever visit there. According to charts I stole from the Maxolhx, the only survey of the system was conducted by a Rindhalu ship eight hundred thousand years ago, and that ship only stayed long enough to collect sensor data. If you were looking for the middle of nowhere, this star system is close.”

“Ok,” I was only half paying attention to his spiel, because I was studying the chart on my laptop. From what I could understand, that star system was just about the perfect place to hide out for a while. It was not real close to any Elder wormholes, plus it was within four lightyears of the flightpath the target ships were scheduled to take. Once repairs to the ship were complete, we could move out to intercept the Maxolhx quickly.

After, you know, we had a plan for how to destroy those ships. And a cover story. And after we planted that cover story in a relay station, an automated relay station. I hate details.

“Ok, Skippy, that makes sense,” I agreed. Working on the ship was better than sitting around with nothing to do while we waited for the target ships to launch. “I’ll tell Simms to set course for this place. Before your magical little elfbots take the ship apart, I need to see a list of all the work you’re planning to do, got it?”

We took the ship to Nowheresville, the name we chose for that star system, and flew around there for two days before I was satisfied the system was totally uninhabited and as uninteresting as Skippy promised. The ship was parked in orbit around a small planet just beyond the Goldilocks zone, where the crew would be safe from solar flares, and where our powered-down ship could be inconspicuous among the dozens of small moons. Skippy’s elfbots went to work immediately, and I gave him permission to remotely pilot a small Dragon-A dropship because he wanted to send it to another planet to look for useful minerals or something like that. A busy Skippy is a happy Skippy, and a busy Skippy also does not have as much time to sing and build sexbots and do other stuff that made my life more difficult.

Everything was going great, by which I mean the crew enjoyed downtime in between training sessions. I had time to think, which was not going well, I still had zero freakin’ idea how to successfully attack the target ships, or what to use as a cover story. The important thing was the repairs were going well, except that the repairs didn’t mean squat unless we had a plan for what to do after the ship was put back together.

My life sucks.

Anyway, twelve days into what Skippy estimated would be a fourteen-day repair cycle, Nagatha contacted me and made my day extra super-duper wonderful. “Good morning, Joseph,” she said in the soothing voice a mother uses when she announced fresh-baked cookies are coming out of the oven.

My mother makes excellent chocolate-chip cookies. They have crispy edges where the sugar caramelizes or something. Man, I miss my Mom. I feel bad that I am away for so long, and she doesn’t know where I am or what’s happening to me, and-

Ok, back to the subject.

“Good morning to you, Nagatha. Are you learning a lot about how to make repairs?”

“Oh, yes. It is quite complicated and Skippy is showing me every detail, explaining everything to me, in case I need to maintain the ship by myself.”

That surprised me and pleased me. “That’s great. I’m glad he is being cooperative.”

“A bit too cooperative, which is what aroused my suspicions.”

Just like that, she burst my little bubble of happiness. “Oh, shy-” Despite knowing Nagatha was an advanced alien AI, she made me feel like I was talking with an aunt who was gracious and wore pearls and did not appreciate foul language. “Shoot. Dang it! What is he up to now?”

“Right now, he is intensely focused on the delicate task of aligning the deuterium injectors, so I am able to mask our conversation from him. It is my belief that he lied to you about why he chose this star system. The reason he borrowed a dropship is not to search for valuable minerals, it is to search for an Elder site.”

“An Elder site? Here?”

“Correct. This star system is not on the original list of places where he suspected there are Elder sites unknown to current species, but he has been refining his list based on data recently acquired from the Maxolhx, and he discovered this system is a prime candidate. Joseph, he has identified a partially-intact Elder site, on a moon orbiting the innermost planet.”

“How is that possible? We should have detected a site when we spent two days flying around to survey this place!”

“I now believe the ship’s sensors did pick up inconclusive signs of an Elder facility, but Skippy hid that data from you and me. He is frightfully smart, you know.”

Clenching my fists didn’t help, nor did counting to five. “How long will he be busy with the injectors?”

“The most delicate part of the task will be complete in thirty-seven minutes. With Skippy’s vast capacity, he can align the injectors while speaking with you, however I suspect your conversation will be loud and angry and he might get distracted.”

“Ok, Ok, I’ll wait. I’m going to the galley to get coffee, ping me when that little shithead is available.” I was so angry, I forgot about not using foul language with Nagatha.

The galley did not have any fresh coffee, and the dregs in the pot had baked to a thick tar that could have been used to glue armor plating to the hull, if we had any armor plating. There was a pan with three slices of coffee cake from three days ago, that could have been used as armor plating. I made a fresh pot of coffee and scraped the hardened coffee cake out of the pan while waiting for the coffee to brew. One problem with having such a small crew is we could not assign people to the galley one day per week. Instead, teams of three people took turns preparing dinner, while breakfast and lunch were usually fend-for-yourself meals. Three days ago, I had gotten up early to make two pans of coffee cake as a treat for the crew and most of it disappeared quickly, then the last pan got shoved into a corner and I forgot about it. Our meals were pretty bland also, Simms had assured the ship had basic supplies aboard but we did not have a wide variety of food, we were very grateful for the hydroponics gardens although I was getting tired of eating salads for dinner. Salads with marinated slices of beef, or buffalo chicken, or just spicy croutons and pan-roasted nuts. Dinners were nutritious and healthy and I could not wait to get back to Earth. The next night was my turn in the galley and I was going to make pizza, damn it.

Nagatha pinged me that Skippy was available just as I got back to my office and took a sip of coffee, a rare example of good timing by me. “Hey, Skippy,” I tried to keep the irritation I felt out of my voice. It didn’t work.

“Hey Joe. What are you pissed off about now?”

“Not what. Who.”

“Hmm,” his avatar leaned forward, making a sniffing sound. “That is fresh coffee, so I am guessing you are peeved at whoever took the last cup without making a fresh pot.”

“Nope. I am pissed at you, for lying to me. You wanted us to come to this system not because it is a safe place for the ship to be down for maintenance, but because there is an Elder site here?”

“Crap. Did Nagatha tell you? How did she find out?”

“Never mind that. You lied to me.”

“That does not change the fact that nobody in the galaxy knows about the Elder site here, dumdum. So, no harm done. We had to go somewhere to fix the ship, this system is as safe as any.”

“Nobody else knows that you are aware of, you dumdum. This star system has something every species in this galaxy would kill to get. Gosh, what are the odds that one of them found that site by luck, or because they are smarter than your arrogant ass can admit?”

“If that Elder site is not in the Maxolhx database, then nobody knows about it, you knucklehead.”

Really?” I put my entire lifetime supply of disdain into that word. “So, you think there is no way a species that found a treasure trove of Elder goodies would keep it a secret?”

“Well, shit,” he sighed. “When you say it like that, it just makes me look ridiculous.”

“Ya think?”

“You are not helping my self-esteem, Joe.”

“I’m not trying to help! Here’s what I would like to do to your self-esteem, you lying little shithead. First I will kick it in front of a bus, and after your self-esteem has been squashed flat and ground into the scuzzy grime on the road, I will unzip my pants and-”

 “All right, all right, I get the idea. Hey, I was going to tell you about it soon anyway.”

Somehow, despite how incredibly trustworthy he had been, I did not believe him. “You were? Because you knew Nagatha was onto your lies?”

“No,” he pouted. “Because I need your help.”

“Hmm. You realize that needing help is not a good motive for telling the truth?”

“It’s not? I mean, no, it’s not, of course not. Um, why is that?”

“You are supposed to tell the truth, because friends don’t lie to each other.”

“What? Oh, come on,” he snorted. “Lying is the basis for many friendships. Lies like, you know; she wasn’t good enough for you anyway, that company didn’t appreciate your talents, that dress doesn’t make you look fat. If your friends won’t lie to make you feel better, who will?”

“Those are not,” I started to retort. But, damn it, he was partly right about that. “That’s not the point.”

The smug tone of his voice told me he figured he had won that argument. “Anywho, I do need your help. Joe, I think there are Elder goodies on that moon, and I need monkeys, I mean, people, to go down there.”

The tempting thought of acquiring Elder technology made me bite back the reply I had planned. “What kind of goodies?”

“Crunchy chocolate on the outside, with a delicious caramel center?”

“Be serious, if you want my help.”

“I am being serious. I don’t know exactly what is down there, but the site is partially intact. It was a big site, and most of it is gone, but there are outlying structures that were only damaged. Because the structures are Elder tech, I can’t scan inside them with the Dragon’s crappy sensors. My bots are all busy working on the Dutchman, and I don’t want to risk damaging one of them, because they can’t be replaced.”

“Uh huh. But you are totally Ok with us monkeys risking our lives?”

“Um, yes? Or no. Pretend I said whatever thing will get me in the least trouble. Look, we both know you can’t pass up an opportunity to ransack an Elder site, so how about we imagine we had an informed, rational adult conversation, and then you do what I asked, Ok?”

“Skippy, why is arguing with you a complete waste of time?”

“Joe, I do not mind participating in arguments, or debates or whatever you want to call it. All I ask is to get whatever I want, after a reasonable amount of discussion.”

“Oh boy.”

The beer can got his way, again. After a very careful scan of the entire star system, during which Nagatha reviewed every piece of data to make sure Skippy wasn’t holding out on us, I was satisfied he was right about one very important thing; there was no current alien presence in the system, and no one had been there for a very long time. Because Smythe wanted to use the Elder site for training, and because the new people were dying to see what an Elder structure looked like, and because there was no way we could pass up an opportunity to collect Elder technology, I approved a mission to that moon. After Skippy put the Dutchman back together. That moon was a long way away, we only had one big Condor dropship left, and it would take a long time to fly there through normal space. The unmanned Dragon that Skippy flew remotely had been able to use single-use boosters to get there, and burned most of its fuel in a high-G maneuver to slow down and swing into orbit. The math I did on my laptop, and yes I am capable of plotting math for normal-space navigation, told me it would actually be faster to wait for the Dutchman to be back online, and jump across the star system, than to fly there in a dropship. Skippy did not like that, he also did not disagree with my math, which astonished us both.

Since the ship needed to perform a short-range test jump anyway, we jumped near the target moon, and had the ship on a hair-trigger to jump away at the first sign of trouble. There were no signs of trouble, so four hours later, we dropped down to the surface in a pair of Falcons and a Dragon. There were three primary sites to explore and after the near-disaster on our second mission, when an away team exploring an Elder site got trapped there by a Kristang battlegroup jumping in unexpectedly, I was determined that each team be no more than five minutes away from a dropship that was ready to fly. The dropships had their main cabins depressurized and the back ramps open, so each three-person away team could run up the ramps side by side. We were taking enough chances on this mission, I was not allowing any unnecessary risk.

There is not much to tell about the Elder site, the main complex had been scooped out and thrown into another dimension, there was a shallow crater in the center of the site. Somebody had decided that big crater had not done the job, so a bombardment from orbit followed, blowing chunks out of the central crater and digging so deep that molten lava had partly filled in the crater’s bottom. Structures on the periphery of the main crater had also been hit, but that bombardment was oddly hit-or-miss, if you pardon the pun. Some structures had been obliterated, others appeared to have only collateral damage from nearby explosions, like they had not been targeted at all. Those structures were where we concentrated our search.

“Skippy,” I whispered, while my helmet lights illuminated a hallway that had not been walked on for millions of years, yet was so clean that I felt guilty about the dust I tracked in on my boots. “This place is empty, is that why whoever destroyed the main base didn’t bother to hit this area?”

“No, Joe,” he answered quickly, excitedly. “Well, maybe. But I found another possible explanation. With the Dutchman’s sensors, I have been scanning the surface, both of this moon and the planet below. There is debris from not one, but two Elder starships. Do not get your hopes up, mine have already been crushed. The destruction of those ships was complete, the largest piece I have found is smaller than a grain of sand.”

That was disappointing. “So, how do you know there were two ships, if there is nothing left of them?”

“Not nothing, there is still plenty of mass for me to analyze. The chemical signatures of the hulls are unique, like a fingerprint. Hull plating is exposed to radiation, micro-meteor impacts, even flying through the InterStellar Medium erodes and affects the hull material.”

“The ISM, yeah, stray hydrogen atoms or whatever,” I remembered him being fascinated by the ratio of hydrogen to helium or some nerdy thing like that.

“Correct,” he was pleased I remembered the subject at all. “As ship hulls are exposed to different space environments throughout their lives, they are altered in a unique way. In this case, I can tell one ship spent significant time near a supergiant star, while the other ship apparently was in storage for an extended period, because its plating is older but shows few effects of exposure to stellar radiation.”

“Um, don’t want to complicate things, but couldn’t that be one ship, that had damaged plating replaced with plating that sat on a shelf for a long time?”

“No, dumdum,” he was peeved. “Without giving you a full explanation which would require a brain transplant for you to have any hope of understanding, a ship’s hull plating is also affected by the ship itself. Radiation from the reactors, plasma leaking from conduits, gasses deposited from dropship thrusters, all are unique. Plus, in this case I can tell one of the ships was in a firefight before, because the hull plating shows effects of scarring from high-energy weapons. That scarring is on the older plating, so unless some Elder shipyard cut corners by reusing plating from a damaged ship, I feel pretty safe stating there were two ships destroyed here. Do you really want to continue questioning my analysis?”

“No, please,” I would have face-palmed myself for being stupid, if I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

“You sure? I can go on with the nerdy stuff all day if you like.”

“I would not like. Please, I apologize for daring to question the Great and Powerful Skippy. Ok, so why does it matter that a pair of ships crashed here? We’ve seen wreckage of Elder ships before.”

“It matters because, ugh. Why are you so dense? I was hoping you would have guessed by now. My fault for expecting you to use logic. Joe, those two Elder ships were fighting each other. Uh!” He shushed me before I could ask another stupid question. “I know that because the signatures of the weapons involved. Not only do I know the weapons were Elder technology, I know two sets of weapons were used. Therefore, two ships of equivalent technology were involved.”

“Signatures? Like, the frequency of the laser cannons?”

“Please, Joe, the Elders did not use anything crude like laser beams,” he scoffed. “These weapons disrupted matter at a quantum level, or created rifts in spacetime.”

“I thought you said the Elders did not have weapons. They were peaceful and had no enemies.”

“Apparently I was wrong about that, duh. Try to keep up, Joe.”

If he saw any irony in admitting he was wrong while slapping me with a ‘duh’, he didn’t show it. Man, being clueless must be so blissful. “I’m sorry, Skippy.”

“It’s Ok, I should know not to expect you to understand complicated-”

“I meant, I am sorry for you.” Damn it, why was I trying to comfort him, when he was so determined to be an asshole?

“Huh? Sorry for me? About what?”

“Because,” I gritted my teeth, feeling my patience running out. “What you thought about the Elders was wrong, and now you are even further from understanding who you are and where you came from.”

“Oh.” He went quiet, making me irritated that he might be thinking up a fresh insult to slap me with. “Thank you, Joe,” he finally said without a trace of snarkiness. “You are the only person who truly understands what that means to me. I feel so alone, Joe. And lost. You, and some of the other monkeys, and Nagatha, try to help, but only you really get it.”

We were having a genuine moment. “You are never alone with us, Skippy.”

Aaaaand, he could not help being an asshole, because he is an asshole. “Sure,” he muttered, “if I want to consort with ignorant monkeys. Damn, my life is pathetic.”

“I am also sorry that we monkeys are so filthy and ignorant,” I rolled my eyes, making my faceplate display go haywire because it thought I was trying to eyeclick a command.

“It is not your fault, Joe. I blame the billions of your ancestors who-”

“Could we get back to the subject, please? It’s kind of important, you know? Two Elder ships were fighting each other here? You think that is why some structures here survived; the ship that was bombarding this moon to clean up couldn’t finish the job, because it was attacked by a second ship? And those ships destroyed each other?”

“That is a good guess, Joe, good as my own guess. Yes, that is what I think happened. That is also why I am very, well, somewhat hopeful, that we might find intact Elder artifacts here. As you said, the clean-up job here was not finished.”

“Ayuh. It also means what was going on was not the Elders tidying up their stuff, so no one could screw with it after they ascended to Shangri-La or wherever. The bombardment of this base was an attack, a hostile action. I’m going to tell Smythe to keep an extra-sharp eye for trouble, and not take any risks.”

“Come on, Joe,” the snarkiness was back. “This place is dead. What trouble do you expect?”

“Gingerbread was dead too. You, uh, remember that creepy ancient maintenance bot in the tunnel under Gingerbread? It could have trapped and killed Smythe’s team, if Adams and I hadn’t found a way around it to rescue them.”

“Oh,” in an instant, he went from snarky to chastened. “I do remember that. Good point, Joe. Please warn the team to be very careful.”

“Don’t worry about us monkeys, Skippy, we know enough to climb a tree when we see a lion. I am concerned about you.”

“Me? Why?”

“Because you just learned something surprising, something very bad, about the Elders. That kind of shock can affect anyone, even you. Can you promise me you will do your best not to think about Elder ships fighting each other, until we are done searching this moon?”

“Again, you do not need to worry about me, I am not a meatsack. Unlike you filthy monkeys, I have complete control over my emotional responses.”

“Uh, yeah,” I tried to mask the sarcasm. “that’s what I was thinking. We are counting on you, Skippy, do not get distracted and let us down.”

“Fine, Mister Busybody, have it your way. I just created a submind to ponder the implications of Elder ships fighting each other, and locked that submind off from my higher-order consciousness. That submind will not contact me until after all you monkeys are safely aboard the Dutchman. Will that make you happy?”

“It will make me happier, thanks.”

We were extra, super-duper careful, and it didn’t matter. Most of the structures were either empty, or contained equipment that was so decayed by age and exposure, Skippy had to guess the function of some of the gear. The good news is, none of us got killed or even injured unless you count Katie Frey, who had the bad luck of falling through a weak floor. She landed on her feet gracefully though, assisted by her suit. It would be great to say she found a treasure-trove of Elder tech under the floor, but she didn’t find anything useful down there.

We searched all the structures, and we found a grand total of nothing useful. That was maddening, that site was out best opportunity to obtain tech we could use against species like the Maxolhx, and it was freakin’ empty.

The gooder- Gooder? No, better. The better-than-good good news was that Frey’s unlucky fall had made Skippy scan under the structures. No, there were no hidden chambers of tunnels under the structures- Ok, there were a few chambers for equipment and we did locate one tunnel, but it only contained cabling and a sort of tram that was empty and decayed. To analyze the moon under the surface, Skippy had to closely examine the soil and rocks, and create a model so he could compare what should be there to what the scans were showing him.

That is how we hit the jackpot.


CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

“Careful, careful,” I urged uselessly. If the work crew had been excavating dinosaur bones with fine toothbrushes, they could not have been going any slower.

Up in northern Maine, we have three seasons; Winter, Mud and Construction. After the ground thaws out, and the frost heaves crack the roads and then melting snow and spring rains undermine the roads and wash out the ditches and culverts, the beginning of May starts the cycle of Construction season. Until the middle, or if we get lucky the end of October, crews are out repairing existing roads, building new roads, fixing or replacing bridges. The first sign you are approaching a construction zone is the dreaded ‘Construction Ahead’ sign or its spawn-of-evil cousin ‘One Lane Road Ahead’. The first sign causes anxiety because you never know how far ahead the construction zone is, and sometimes you drive slowly until you come to an area where the guardrails on both sides are lined with orange cones or Jersey barriers, and the road is all torn up and muddy with potholes and there is a lonely backhoe awkwardly parked off to the side, sometimes with a once-colorful but now faded beach umbrella on top to shade the operator from the intense tropical sunshine of the North Woods, but there are no humans in sight. For days or weeks, you slow down approaching that spot but you never see anyone actually, you know, constructing anything. Then one day, the backhoe and orange cones and Jersey barriers are gone but the road is still muddy with potholes bigger than ever, and you figure someone in the High Priest Temple of Construction heard a rumor of a snow flurry somewhere in North American and said ‘Screw it, we will wait until next year’.

Worse is the dreaded One-Lane-Road-Ahead sign, because you can be fairly sure that sign means activity ahead that, while it might not accomplish anything useful, will block traffic. You creep up in a line of bumper-to-bumper cars, to where some person in a yellow vest is playing a game on their phone with one hand, while their other arm is lazily wrapped around a STOP sign. Behind that person is a backhoe and a couple guys leaning on shovels, eating donuts. You wait in line while traffic lurches slowly in the opposite direction, including some out-of-state asshole towing a boat behind their compact SUV and they are going TWO freakin’ miles an hour because they don’t know how to tow a trailer. Just when you are thinking you have four wheel drive and there is really no reason you can’t put it in four wheel low and cut across the potato field next to the road, the sign-holding guy looks up from his cellphone, startled because the walkie-talkie clipped to his vest made a noise. Then, a miracle occurs, or the guys leaning on shovels need to cross the road to get to the box of donuts, because the sign swings from STOP to SLOW and traffic lurches forward triumphantly! Or it would, except the old schoolbus full of organic granola hippies in front of you got a wheel stuck in a muddy pothole, and it is staying in place while one tire spins furiously, spewing mud all over your windshield.

Where was I going with that story? Oh yeah. At our construction zone, I was the useless asshole wearing a yellow vest, a hardhat and a gosh-darned necktie, shouting at the people moving the ten-ton steel I-beam to be careful, as if that thought had never occurred to them, duh. I was not wearing a necktie, I was wearing a powered armor suit like everyone else. Instead of construction, we were in the process of excavation, of digging an Elder dropship out from under a pile of dirt and rocks.

Before Frey fell through the floor, Skippy had zero interest in the moon itself, he had concentrated all his efforts on scanning what was left of the Elder base. Because he found tiny pieces of Elder starships scattered across the surface of the moon or buried in the first meter of dust, he had not bothered to look deeper. Literally deeper, like down under the first layer of dust and the dead lunar soil that our nerdnik science team calls ‘regolith’ as if that matters. After Katie had her fortunate accident, Skippy had scanned deeper beneath the surface, at first in case there were dangers hidden beneath the base that might threaten Katie. Either Skippy had a crush on our athletic sportgirl, or he was trying extra hard to impress the new crewmembers, because he broke his recent streak of distracted absent-mindedness and focused intensely on getting Katie out of her predicament.

She was never in actual danger, a fact Skippy realized with what I thought was undisguised disappointment because he did not have an opportunity to be a hero by saving her. The good news, for both Skippy and his barrel of monkeys, was the virtual model he slapped together to analyze the moon’s subsurface yielded a happy surprise; a crashed Elder dropship that had hit the side of a lunar mountain, then got buried in the landslide. The dropship, technically a small starship according to Skippy, was in one big and many small pieces. What we cared about was the forward section that contained the cabin, where Skippy’s scans indicated we should find several valuable pieces of Elder technology.

Oh, and, by the way, we also found the body of an Elder.

It blew my mind when I heard that. Skippy’s voice was shaking when he told me he had found the broken body of a biological being reclining on a couch, and since there were no other intelligent species in the galaxy back then, the body had to be an Elder. We had been to many Elder sites in the local quadrant of the galaxy, even landed on the planet Gingerbread in the Roach Motel, and had never encountered a since speck of evidence about what the Elders looked like. Now we had a dead one, intact.

That was why we were acting like Indiana Jones on the moon, except there weren’t any bad guys shooting at us, and instead of a cool hat and a bullwhip, we had powered armor suits and makeshift digging tools. Skippy had sent some of his dedicated cleaning bots down to do part of the work, and he demanded to come with them. I had vetoed that idea, too many times the Flying Dutchman had gotten surprised and I wanted our magical beer can with the ship in case it needed to jump away.

The bots weren’t especially good at clearing away moondust, static made the damned stuff cling to everything, so within ten minutes everyone’s suits were surrounded by a gray outline, as dust was repelled by our suit’s electrical fields. Working at first by using our suits’ power to lift away rocks, then with shovels, then carefully by hand and finally by using brushes to ever-so-softly sweep away the last layer of fine dead gray soil and dust, we exposed the cracked hull of the crashed Elder ship. From Skippy’s scans, we knew what it looked like even when it was still buried; sort of like the smooth, pointy end of an egg. He thought the entire ship had been like an almost featureless elongated egg before it was shot down or whatever happened to it. There was no sign of the power unit that he thought had occupied most of the rear half of the ship, it had likely blown up. Instead of a jagged tear where the forward section had broken loose, his scans showed a smooth outline, which made him think the front section had been designed to physically separate in case of emergency.

After we got dust and soil cleared away from the rear of what remained of the Elder craft, we set up a tent that acted as a decontamination chamber, to clean dust off our suits before entering the dropship’s cabin. One of Skippy’s bots went first, running through the decontamination process, then waited for a second bot to be cleaned. The first bot was then meticulously examined by the second little robot while I impatiently waited for my suit to be cleaned. There was a beep in my helmet speakers when the process ended and my suit was cleaner than when I had gotten into the thing aboard the Dutchman. The two bots were still fussing over each other, so I leaned forward and reached out a hand toward the smooth silvery surface of the dropship’s hull. “Skippy, I don’t see anything like a door or even a porthole here, how can we get-”

Do not touch that you filthy monkey!” He shouted, making me wince he was so loud.

Pulling my gloved hand away before it contacted the dull silver surface, I took a step backward. “Damn, sorry, Skippy,” I muttered, kind of pissed off at him. I know he revered and almost worshipped the Elders, but he had gone too far that time. My team may be filthy monkeys but we were there and we were alive, which is more than I can say for the supposedly great Elders. “Listen, I know the Elders were practically gods to you, but I’m getting tired of hearing humans are not worthy to-”

“Joe, I am sorry, I should not have said it that way. My bad. Yes, I greatly revere the Elders for who they were and what they did, their accomplishments are still unmatched. And yes, a part of me feels horrible revulsion when I think of your species touching the remains of an Elder or one of their wondrous creations. However, the reason I warned you not to touch that ship is for your own safety. My memory has too many gaps for me to be confident I can anticipate how the hull of that ship might react to you coming into contact with it.”

“Jeez, Skippy,” I leaned forward and peered at the silvered surface, which under magnification I could see was scuffed and dull. “React how? This thing is dead, it’s millions of years old and busted.”

“I am millions of years old, dumdum, and I was sort of busted. Please, allow my bots to take the risk, that is what they are for.”

“Ok,” I took another step back. Crap. If it were dangerous for me to touch the hull, was it dangerous to have my team anywhere near the thing? “Wait!” One of the bots had begun scurrying toward the featureless “Uh, maybe we should clear out of here first, us humans I mean.”

“That might be a good idea. It would have been a great idea for you to think of it an hour ago, dumdum.”

We cleared out of the area. To be safe, I flew the Falcon over the horizon and behind a ridge, flying it in lazy circles rather than setting it down. If we needed to get away in a hurry, I did not want to waste time powering up for takeoff. Also, I ordered the Dutchman to maneuver behind the moon, and to save time, Simms asked Nagatha to perform a short jump rather than flying the long way through normal space. “Ok, Skippy,” I watched a view from one of the bots in my helmet faceplate. “Do your thing. Uh, how are your bots getting in there? I still don’t see a door.”

“Elder ships did not have anything crude like a door, Joe. Their hulls had sections of nanomaterial and fields where energy is held suspended temporarily in a material state, it is way too complicated for me to explain.”

“Yeah, I know,” I sighed knowing the entire crew could hear me. “I’m a dumdum.”

“Oh, it’s not just you, Joe. Your smartest supposed ‘scientists’ could not possibly fully understand the concepts of this energy/matter conversion. To break it down Barney-style for you, think of energy as water and matter as ice. Same thing in different states.”

“Oh. Like, uh, smooth and crunchy peanut butter?” I guessed.

That drew a heavy sigh from His Magnificence. “Yes, Joe, the peanut butter analogy is the absolute best way to explain it. If we ever meet the Rindhalu, you should impress them with your deep understanding of the subject.”

“You don’t always have to be an asshole.”

“I will stop being an asshole when you stop being a dumdum, deal? Anywho, I am about to request the hull to form an opening. Huh. Well, darn it, looks like nobody’s home. I’m not getting any response at all. You were right, Joe, this thing is dead as a doornail, the matter has reverted to a fully solid state. Hmm, even the nano appears to be inert. Crap! Once the nano has gone without power for that long, the tetronic bonds dissolve and- Ah, no point explaining this to you. We’ll have to do this the hard way.”

I did not like the sound of that. “What, pray tell, is the hard way?”

Before Skippy could answer, one of the bots that looked like a green toaster with a bunch of creepy legs and tentacles stepped toward the hull, pressing the tip of a tentacle to hull’s surface. A door then opened on the top of the toaster body and a second tentacle dipped inside, coming out with a nasty-looking thing I recognized as a sort of Thuranin cutting device that Skippy had modified to make even more effective. A light flared as the tip of the device approached the Elder ship’s hull. “This is the hard way, Joe,” he said as the little bot began cutting into the silvery hull material. “I know what you are thinking and don’t worry; this thing is truly inert. At least, the rear bulkhead is inert.”

“You are sure that cutting torch,” the light was flaring really bright as the bot cut away a circle, “isn’t feeding energy into that nano stuff? That the nano isn’t going to come back to life and form up into a monster that will destroy those bots then come looking for us?”

“Please,” he scoffed. “Little Joey watched too many bad sci fi movies. If there is a totally unexpected reaction, you will be first to know.”

“Well, thank you so much for keeping me informed, Skippy. Your concern greatly warms my heart.”

“Oh, I meant you will be first to know because your Falcon will be the first target, but let’s go with the heart-warming concern thing.”

“Asshole,” I muttered, knowing the entire crew could hear that also and not caring.

Nothing bad happened. In fact, several good things happened. The little bots cut a hole just big enough for the smaller of the two to slip inside, and we got a view of the cabin. That ship did not have a separate cockpit, the Elders apparently controlled the craft with their minds so no pilot console was needed. That explained why the body was in the second row of couches, with no one up front. When I asked what the Elders used as a backup in case their fancy brain-control thing failed, he snorted that the brain-control thing was the backup, that the primary control was an AI that responded to the wishes of the pilot. Then he relented and explained that Elder pilots had a secondary backup control in the form of a holographic sort of console that would appear on command in front of the pilot. In fact, he saw evidence that holographic mechanism had been activated just before the crash, in a last desperate attempt to avoid disaster. Clearly, it had not worked.

Much of the hardware of the dropship was fried and useless, made of exotic materials that had reverted to their mundane original state over the millions of years the ship was buried. When the forward section of the ship had separated from the power module aft, the maneuver had been violent enough to break loose things inside the cabin, Skippy thought the Elder inside had sustained serious, possibly fatal injuries even before the forward section plunged down to impact the lunar mountain. Unlike what he originally thought, separation had not been an intentional act by the pilot. When the dropship was attacked, the explosion had caused the AI to dissolve the energy bonds that attached the forward section to the doomed power module, in a desperate and ultimately failed attempt to protect the pilot. When the ship smacked into the mountain, stuff that wasn’t already flying free inside the cabin broke loose, including several unoccupied seats. Before the AI ceased to function, it must have diverted all available power to a suspensor field around the pilot, cradling that being in an energy field that damped motion down to the cellular level. That precaution had not worked either. The super-tough material of the hull had survived mostly intact, with only the nose shattered and the first quarter of the hull crushed in like an accordion.

Anyway, the inside of the cabin was a mess, with stuff thrown around and jumbled together at the side of the cabin that was on the bottom, when the tumbling dropship came to rest on the bottom of the mountain and got buried under the landslide caused by the impact.

We, or technically Skippy’s helpful little elfbots, did find some cool useful stuff. The most important items were another comm node, a real zero-point energy power tap device, and what got me excited, another wormhole controller module to supplement the one we had been using since our first mission. Having the last two items gave me an idea to bail us out of our current predicament, but more about that later. You have probably been thinking ‘Bishop, cut the blah blah blah about minor crap you found and TELL ME ABOUT THAT ELDER PILOT’.

Whew. Ok, got that. Yeah, when Skippy’s bots were crawling around in their creepy insect-like way, examining the cabin and stuff we could see laying in a jumbled pile, I was shouting at him to turn his attention to the barely-seen form of something, or someone, in that second-row couch. He was reluctant to show us the body and I understood his feelings, he did not want filthy curious monkeys idly gawking at the broken body of a supreme being with our unworthy eyeballs. It’s like why police cover bodies with a sheet, to respect the dead and prevent onlookers from satisfying their gruesome curiosity. It took a lot of talking for me to convince him that we needed to finally know what an Elder looked like.

Ok, so he turned one of the bots to focus on the Elder. Before he stunned us with the revelation that the crashed dropship contained a body of the ultimate senior species, I had not recently given a lot of thought about what the Elders might look like. When we were on Gingerbread, I kept hoping to find at least bones, or a statue or even an outline carved into a rock. At that point, I would have been happy with a crude drawing of an Elder on a bathroom door with a sign like ‘Garmegell eats chootah’.

We did not find any amusing signs scrawled on the bathroom door of the dropship, in fact the little craft did not have any sort of washroom or galley that Skippy could detect. So, we had to satisfy ourselves with seeing the broken body of an Elder.

Whatever I thought an Elder would look like, the reality was different. From old sci fi movies, I had a notion that the more advanced a being was, the more it would look like little green dudes like the Thuranin, or the creepy humans with giant heads who worshipped atomic bombs in one of those Planet of the Apes movies. As beings became more advanced and less reliant on physical size and strength, they would become smaller and softer.

What we saw was not like that. This Elder was eight feet tall and heavily muscled. Its head had a bony crest with backward-pointing spikes, its fingers ended in long claws, and its snout was long and full of sharp teeth. The snout wasn’t real long like a crocodile, more like a dog, but overall the thing was vaguely reptilian. The Elders kind of looked like what the Kristang might like to evolve into someday.

“Holy shit, Skippy,” I said when I was able to stop holding my breath from shock. “That thing, I mean, that Elder, looks like a gladiator. Were they all like that?” I asked, thinking maybe there were multiple types of Elder, and the one we found had been genetically modified for military service. If so, it might not have needed a power-assisted mech suit, its muscles looked like they would be enough for super feats of strength and speed. “Oh, sorry, that was a dumb question. You don’t have any other Elders for comparison.”

“It was a dumb question, Joe,” he replied in the hushed tone he had been using since his bots entered what he considered the holy presence of an Elder, even a dead one. “However, I have enough information from a DNA scan to determine that yes, what we are seeing is the base configuration of an Elder.”

“Uh, base configuration?” When he said that, I had a mental image of an Elder that could remove its arms to plug in custom attachments, like weapons or a weedwhacker. That image almost made me laugh, which would have greatly offended Skippy, so fortunately I bit the inside of my cheek to stifle my mirth.

“Elder biology does not utilize DNA the way humans think of the term, however they do have complex chemical strands that determine how their bodies process energy and grow. Their DNA-equivalent could be modified by interaction with nanoscale implants, at the user’s desire or requirement.”

“Whoa,” that blew my mind. “They can, like, make their arms longer to reach something on a shelf above their heads?”

“It doesn’t work that quickly, dumdum,” he dropped the reverent hushed voice and went into full-snarky mode when disparaging my intelligence. “Duh. For example, if an Elder were to visit a heavy-gravity planet, it could adjust its DNA ahead of time to grow stronger bones and muscles. Or it could, I guess, grow gills to breath underwater.”

“Wow. Muscles and bones stronger than what that thing- Sorry, that person, already has?”

“Correct, Joe. The biological bones of that Elder are merely a framework for a much more robust composite structure. If it were not for the reinforced structure of his body, I suspect that even with the suspensor field, the body would be in many small pieces.”

“Uh, him? That’s a he, a guy?”

“Yes, a male. Elder biology was based on gender binarism, in the strictly reproductive sense of the word ‘gender’. I can tell you that, based on my analysis of this body’s biochemistry, their females apparently were the same size and basic configuration.”

“I would not like to meet either of them in a dark alley,” my shoulders shuddered involuntarily. Those claws, dulled by extreme age, still looked like they could slice me open. “His body is well-preserved,” I noted.

“It is. The cabin was exposed to partial vacuum, and the nanomachines woven into his biology have largely prevented decay. Joe,” his voice switched from my helmet speakers to the earpiece, indicating he was speaking on a private channel. “Please tell me your intentions regarding this Elder.”

“You mean, do I want to bring him aboard the Dutchman?” My mind had been racing on that subject, trying to judge the alternatives. “No, I do not. Skippy, I think we take the stuff that you think is useful, then your bots seal that hole and we leave him there in peace.”

“Thank you, Joe,” he said with almost a sob. “You are a good person, I am proud to be your friend. It would have bothered me greatly to bring the victim of this crash back to Earth for curious humans to gawk at him.”

“I agree.” Part of my reason for leaving the body there was because I thought seeing it would cause panic on Earth. Plus, if authorities on Earth really wanted to closely examine the corpse, they would have to send the Flying Dutchman back out. “Going back to Earth is a long way off, we still need to stop those Maxolhx ships. That dropship doesn’t have any weapons we could use?”

“It does not contain anything like a weapon at all, sorry.”

“All right. Wrap it up at your convenience, Ok?” If Skippy wanted a moment alone with the body, through his little bots, I wanted to give him all the time he needed.

“Thank you, but I’m good, Joe,” his tone was a bit louder and reflected his disappointment. “We have found everything there is to find here.”

“Hey, we found more than we expected. A lot more.”

“Eh, sure, I guess. We already have a wormhole controller module, and all the comm nodes we’ve found so far have been inactive.”

“We now have a spare wormhole controller, and a super-duper Elder battery thing. Plus, you don’t know this comm node is inactive. Maybe this one is working just fine.”

The comm node was, like the others we had found, inactive. Or it was unable to connect to the network, or the network was down, or Skippy didn’t know how to use it. To spare his feelings, I refrained from asking whether maybe he was talking into the wrong end of the thing, or maybe it needed to be plugged in. Or if there was an instruction manual lying around somewhere. Best would be a YouTube video where an Elder shows how to properly use a communications node, but that is too much to ask for.

The comm node was bad news but that was no big deal, we had stolen or found inactive comm nodes before and Skippy had not been looking for one, so he was not disappointed when our latest acquisition wasn’t functional.

The other two items got me very excited. “Skippy, the wormhole controller works Ok, you’re sure?”

“I can’t be absolutely one hundred percent sure until I try to monkey with a wormhole again, which if you remember, is what got us into this mess.”

“I do remember.” Why do people like to remind you of stuff you already know, that they know you know, especially when the thing they are reminding you about is one of your major screw-ups? “How confident are you that it works properly?”

“Oh, supremely confident. I have connected to it through high spacetime, and it responded perfectly. Um, Joe, there is something we should talk about.”

“Can it wait like, ten minutes? I have to secure the Falcon.” The dropship was in its docking cradle but there were a lot of steps I needed to perform to make sure it was shut down properly and ready for the next flight.

“No, it can’t wait, and don’t bother shutting down. In fact, send someone to my mancave to get me, we need to go on a road trip.”


CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

The road trip was for me and Skippy, no one else. With our crew barely large enough for the mission, I didn’t want to risk additional people. Skippy had suggested we put him in the Falcon and remotely pilot it for him, but he also suggested the Dutchman jump away to be safe, so the signal lag would be too great for effective remote piloting of the Falcon. Plus, he did not know what he would find out there, and wanted my monkey brain with him in case he encountered something dangerous.

I was touched by his concern for me.

The road trip was not an epic long weekend, it involved only a three-hour flight in the Falcon, although I had to endure sustained four-Gee thrust to get moving, then three times Earth’s gravity to slow down near the target. What was the target? Skippy did not know, or he wasn’t sure. He thought it could be an active comm node, because something out there had a connection to higher spacetime and the obvious candidate, given the weakness of the connection, was an Elder communications node on standby, or operating at low power. The Dutchman’s sensors had not detected anything, which annoyed Nagatha and threw her into a funk because she had not been kept in the loop by Skippy.

The beer can explained that he had been concentrating his attention on the moon and only gave surrounding space a cursory scan, until he picked up something unusual. Scattered debris from another Elder starship, this one in an elliptical orbit that took it far from the moon. At first, even the discovery of a third Elder ship did not spark his curiosity into overdrive, he already knew there had been a battle in the area and the exact number of ships involved was not very important.

Then he did look more closely at the third ship, or actually one of his subminds got bored with composing songs to mock the great Skippy, and decided to look at the data. What it found did get Skippy’s full attention.

“Joe, that third ship was Elder tech of a different design, slightly more advanced. The technology is merely an interesting datapoint and I would eventually have archived it, but I found another anomaly. The third ship was destroyed much later, much more recently. Like, around the time that Newark was thrown out of orbit.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yup, that’s what I said.”

“There were two space battles here, both involving Elder ships?”

“Apparently, yes. Battles many millions of years apart. Another fun fact, if you are interested, is some of the damage to that Elder site happened around the time the third ship was destroyed. It looks like someone came back a long time later to finish the job of erasing evidence of the Elder presence in this star system.”

“This signal of whatever you’re tracking, it is from wreckage of the Elder third ship?”

“I think so, because the object is in a similar elliptical orbit.”

“Just the one object? You didn’t find any big pieces of the third ship, something we might be able to use?”

“No, destruction of that ship was violent and complete. To be honest, I am not detecting an object at all. What I do know is something out there has an active connection to higher spacetime. The connection is weak and intermittent, that leads me to believe that comm node is damaged.”

“Comm node or whatever else it is. You don’t know it’s a comm node for sure.”

“True, however, I do not know what else it could be.”

Given Skippy’s inability to think outside the box, I was not comforted by his not being able to imagine what could be out there. “Ah, hell, we’ll find out in,” I checked the console, “forty two minutes.”

I was wrong about the forty two minute timeline. Not wrong about the navigation, I had no illusion about being a great pilot but plotting a course to where Skippy wanted to go in empty space was fairly simple math, even for me. To get to the object quickly, I planned a three Gee deceleration to bring us to a halt relative to the unseen object at a distance of one hundred thousand kilometers, a nice round number that Skippy thought would be super conservative for safety. Once we were stationary relative to whatever it was, Skippy would scan it with his own sensors, then I could move us closer slowly and carefully. The only possible problem would be the Falcon’s engines cutting out before we finished cancelling our velocity, leaving us to go shooting past the thing.

That is sort of what happened, the Falcon’s engines did cut off prematurely when we were nineteen thousand kilometers from where I wanted to stop. Except I did not screw up, nor was there a mechanical problem with our Thuranin dropship.

“Huh, that’s weird,” Skippy muttered.

My focus was on the instruments and on breathing deep and even to counteract the extra weight on my chest from the deceleration. “Weird is not good,” I grunted in a hoarse voice. “What is it?” My left index finger hovered over a button that would engage an abort course, flipping the Falcon ninety degrees and going to eight Gees to get us out of there.

“It looks like you were right, it is not a communications node. It must be some type of equipment that survived destruction of the ship, something that- ick app thow ger unn too gann-” he continued stuttering nonsense like that, his voice cutting in and out. With my helmet sealed, he was talking through my earpiece and I shook my head, wondering if the creepy like spider thing had fallen out.

“Skippy, you’re breaking up.” I expected he would complain about how stupid and clumsy monkeys are. “What did you say?”

GET OUT OF HERE!” He shouted clearly and my finger flexed to engage the abort course-

A choking sensation woke me up, that and needing to sneeze. When I opened my eyes, I almost wished I hadn’t, I was tumbling head over heels so fast the starfield was going by with nausea-inducing speed. A feature of Kristang flightsuit faceplates is they go clear when power is cut off, and my suit was completely dead. Which was why I felt like I was suffocating, I was suffocating. The oxygen recycler was offline, along with everything else.

Where the hell was the Falcon? I remember being in the left-hand pilot couch of a Falcon and Skippy shouting a warning, then nothing. Ok, first I manually got the emergency oxygen supply started and in moments, blessedly sweet, clean oxygen was blowing from a vent in my helmet. Taking a deep breath made me sneeze, an unfortunate event because the static field inside the faceplate was offline. Also, with a helmet on I could not squeeze my nose or do anything other than scrunch up my lip to suppress another sneeze. It worked well enough.

“Skippy?” I called. There was no answer. “Skippy?” I called out louder, as if that would help in space. Even with the flightsuit dead, I should be able to hear him through my earpiece. Except, what was that thing bouncing off the upper right corner of the faceplate? Crap, it was the earpiece. It must have come loose and floated out of my ear. That should not ever happen, the thing must be dead. What the hell was going on?

Then I got another shock. Something was banging against my waist and shoulders. Feeling around with the non-powered arms of my suit, I realized I was still strapped into the pilot couch, or part of the pilot couch. The straps were fancy nanotech fibers that adjusted automatically, the also had a manual release mechanism that I fumbled with until I got the straps loose. The broken couch floated away, giving me a glimpse of it as I flipped head over heels. It was not only broken, to me it appeared to have been severed cleanly from the Falcon, sliced away by something. Had the Dutchman’s crew cut the couch away from the dropship to rescue me? If so, where were they and why was I tumbling out of control in a dead flightsuit? And where was the rest of the Dragon?

Most importantly, where was Skippy?

Without any sort of clock, I had no idea how much time had passed since I turned on the emergency oxygen flow. Spinning so rapidly made blood pool in my head, giving me a headache and making me dizzy. It was a toss-up which would make me more nauseous; keeping my eyes closed so my inner ears had no frame of reference, or opening my eyes and watching the stars spin past. Whatever happened, I could not get sick in my helmet or I would risk clogging the air vents. Since first going into zero gravity aboard a Kristang troop transport at the space elevator above Ecuador, I had gotten space sick three times, none of those incidents were recent. NASA astronauts sometimes got over initial space sickness, but sometimes people who had completed several space missions could suddenly be stricken by nausea in zero gravity. Fortunately, I had eaten a small and bland breakfast of oatmeal and toast, partly because I had been nervous about going down to the Elder site and partly because I was too lazy to make anything else.

By flashing my eyes open and shut quickly, I determined nothing had changed. The local star was still flashing past regularly as I tumbled, fortunately the star was off to my left and not shining directly into my eyes. That would have been-

Wait. Something was different. There was another star out there, a bright one.

And it was getting closer.

Trying to watch had me on the verge of ralphing in my helmet, so I shut my eyes and waited. If the approaching bright object was hostile, there was nothing I could do about it. Part of me was hoping the light was a missile, because a quick death was preferable to what would happen when my oxygen ran out.

Something slammed into me and my arms were encased in a vice-like grip. Instinctively I tried to flail my arms but in an unpowered suit there was no chance I could break away.

“I got you I got you I got you,” a muffled voice announced through helmet to helmet contact.

Poole?” I was so relieved I opened my eyes and regretted it, with Poole’s mass attached to my own, we were now wobbling about all three axes and my brain was rattling in my skull.  “Is that you?”

“Yes,” her voice was strained. She must be struggling with nausea like I was. “Relax, Sir.”

The light I had seen was Captain Poole in a jetpack, coming to latch onto me. I got the full story from Skippy later, after Poole got me aboard a dropship and we flew off to recover Skippy. It took both of us a while to recover from having our brains tossed, around as the jetpack worked to stabilize our wild tumbling. Holding his beer can in my hands, I was surprised to see a slight discoloration of his previous uniformly shiny silver surface. “Skippy,” I strapped him securely to a seat and gave Porter and Edwards the signal to fly us back to the Dutchman. “What the hell was that?”

“It was an AI, Joe. I’m sorry.”

“An AI?” When I heard ‘AI’ I immediately thought of the artificial intelligences at the Bosphuraq moonbase, in the Maxolhx relay station and in the pixie factory. “Oh,” I gasped when realization hit me.

“Yeah, an Elder AI.”

“Like you?”

“Close enough. Sorry, Joe, I screwed up. It never crossed my mind that signal I detected was the local spacetime connection of an AI like me. My connection is much stronger, like orders of magnitude stronger, and also much quieter. If that AI had been fully functional like me, I could not have detected it unless it shouted and waved its arms.”

Had been functional?”

“It’s gone now. Wait, no one briefed you on what happened?”

“No, Skippy,” I shook my head and regretted that action. “I have a massive headache. Plus when I got aboard the dropship, I couldn’t help ralphing.” Poole had actually beat me to the Falcon’s tiny bathroom to puke in the proper receptacle, I used my helmet. Then I passed out, being revived only to lose what was left in my stomach.

“We thought you were dead, Sir,” Poole explained, rubbing her very pale face with a towel. “The explosion, it was like a tactical nuke.”

“Not quite,” Skippy corrected. “But it was a massive explosion, that is true.”

“Could someone please explain what happened?” I pleaded. “Where is the Falcon I was flying?”

“The Falcon is gone, Joe. That AI was insane, Joe, damaged and insane. Also, it was not self-aware, and I think that unlike me, it was never sapient, or ‘sentient’ if you prefer that term. It attacked without warning as soon as we were within its effective radius, and I was totally unprepared. Most of the energy thrown at us was absorbed by me and channeled into another spacetime, but the Falcon’s mass was converted to subatomic particles. You are alive because I created a spacetime bubble around us to protect you. Then I had to release you so I could fight back. That AI used tactics and capabilities I did not know were possible, I still do not understand most of the technology it employed against us. Against me, really, you and the Falcon were collateral damage.”

“Hey, uh, thanks for saving my life. You know, again.”

“You are very welcome.” He missed a golden opportunity to boast about himself, that told me more than his words did about how shaken up he was. “My fault for poking my nose into dark scary places.”

“You said this AI was insane? You think that, because it attacked you?”

“No. The attack implies hostility, not insanity. It was babbling, Joe, completely incoherent. The attack was also incoherent, it could have destroyed me right away but the energies and spacetime distortions it used were unfocused and it seemed to lose track of me, or forget about me, halfway through. That AI was totally bonkers, Joe. Its poor control over itself allowed me to recover, protect myself and you, and consolidate my own resources to strike back. The whole incident took less than two seconds in meatsack time, an eternity in my time.”

“How did you beat it?”

“At first, I tried to activate the computer worm that I found inside it, although that was desperation on my part. The worm should have killed that thing back when it went insane, so I did not have high hopes for Mister Wormy to come to my rescue. There was no response. Either the worm was also damaged, or the corrupted matrix of the AI rendered it immune to the worm. Anyway, while the AI forgot about me and was randomly creating rips in spacetime, I was able to feed part of its energy back on itself, and, well, I kinda made it destroy itself. That was the explosion, it lost containment.”

Hearing that disappointed and confused me. “It lost containment, with less force than a tactical nuke?”

“Ah, you are thinking loss of containment should have been a planet-shattering event? That would be true if the AI had been near a planet or moon. It lost containment in empty space, so there was little mass in the area to convert into energy. Also, its connection to higher spacetime was already weak and tenuous, so only a minor part of the AI’s true self came through the connection. Our presence here in local spacetime is mostly sort of an anchor so we can act effectively here, Joe. By ‘our’ I mean AIs like me.”

“Yeah, I got that. Hell, Skippy, what do we do now?”

“I recommend we make like a shepherd and get the flock out of here,” he declared without a trace of humor.

“Working on it, Sir,” Edwards reported from the copilot seat. “ETA at the Dutchman is fifteen minutes.”

It had taken me three hours to fly from the ship to where the insane AI attacked, but now we could get back in less than half an hour? “That’s quick,” I remarked.

“Colonel Simms jumped the ship in soon as we received Skippy’s signal,” Porter explained from the pilot’s seat. “Most of the delay in rendezvousing with you was because the explosion blew you backwards at seventeen thousand kph,” he shook his head. “I don’t know how it didn’t kill you.”

“I had a beer can looking out for me,” I shuddered involuntarily. When we got back to the ship, I was going to need sleep, and I wasn’t getting it until the ship had safely jumped away.

Skippy takes things way too literally sometimes. After being treated for my injuries by Mad Doctor Skippy, I was still sleeping at 0900 Hours when I was awakened by a commotion in the passageway outside my door, and by my zPhone beeping with a message from Simms. You need to see this, the message read. I instantly shot out of bed, whacking my head on the overhead cabinet for the thousandth freakin’ time. As I rubbed my head and swung my feet to the floor, I noticed Simms had added a winking emoji to the end of her message. What the hell?

Dressing quickly, I got a shirt, pants and boots on and slapped the button to open the door. Before I saw the source of the commotion, I heard it. Whether it was intentional or not, the voice sounded like it was talking over one of those tinny, low-fidelity speakers you hear at summer camp or in a big store, because it was like someone talking from the bottom of a well. “Vote for Skippy! Skippy means progress! A vote for Skippy is a vote for success!”

Then it came around a corner and got louder. It was a familiar bot that rolled on treads, a bot I had seen performing cleaning or routine maintenance chores around the ship. On top, instead of cleaning attachments, were two speakers and a big poster of Lord Admiral Skippy, smiling and looking calm and confident. “S-K-I-P-P-Y stands for Success! Kindness! Integrity! Prosperity! And, um, something else that starts with the letter ‘P’. Crap, um, Progress! Yeah, Progress! And the ‘Y’ is for Yes We Can! Vote for Skip-”

“Skippy,” I stood in front of the bot, waving my arms and forcing it to grind to a halt. “What the hell is this?”

His avatar appeared, floating in the air at my eye level. “Joe, it would violate my well-known and documented integrity to speak with my opponent outside of a scheduled debate. Please save your questions for-”

“Doc-documented? Your integrity? You are talking about the Skippy who screws with us just for amusement?”

“Exactly, Joe. People know I am an asshole, so when I act like an asshole, I am acting with the integrity people expect.”

“You get a pass for being an asshole,” I spoke slowly because my brain was processing his statement, “because you admit you’re an asshole?”

“Egg-zactly. I don’t make the social rules you monkeys follow, Joe, I just take advantage of them for my benefit. I mean,” he waved a hand. “I mean, I adhere to social conventions. Or some bullshit like that. Whatever. See, you pretend to be a super nice guy, so when you do anything even remotely not perfect, people say ‘Aha! I knew he was a phony jerk’. I am much more honest, because I tell people up front that I think your entire species is a woefully underdeveloped ignorant collection of disorganized chemicals, and people love me.”

“I, I actually cannot argue with you about that.”

“Joe, to be fair, we really should wait for the debate before we talk.”

“De- debate? What debate? What is this? You are running for election as what? Supreme Asshole?”

“No, Joe. Please, try to keep up with current events, huh? I am running for your job, you know, captain of the ship, commander of the mission, all that.”

“Uh, what? This is not a democrac- Oh, shit.” Damn it, just then I remembered telling the beer can that pirate ship crews often used to choose their officers. “Skippy, I did not mean that thing about pirate democracy literally.”

“Why not?” He asked like a toddler who had been told he can’t have ice cream for breakfast. “Does your authority to command this mission come from UNEF?”

“Uh, no.”

“From the United Nations at all? No?” He answered for me. “How about the United States Army? Did they authorize you to lead this mission, this vitally important mission, which so far has been a disorganized, chaotic mess?”

“You know the answer to that question, Skippy.”

“I do know the answer, and the crew knows the answer. We are pirates, and the crew has the right to choose their leaders.”

“Uh huh. The answer is to put a beer can in charge of making decisions?”

“Come on, Joe, seriously, could I do any worse than you? We have taken enormous risks already, and still you have no idea how we can stop two Maxolhx ships from reaching Earth. This whole mission has been a screw-up, right from the start.”

“Uh, yes. Most of the screw-ups were caused by you. At the moonbase, you failed to account for that fighter patrol taking off from the moonbase, though you should have known about it from hacking into their comm system. You didn’t know the crawler was taking a different route, that is another thing that must have been listed in a database you had access to. You should have known that Smythe’s team would make the crawler too heavy to travel its route. You for damned sure should have known power was cut to part of the base. And don’t even get me started about your major screw-ups at the pixie factory, and for nearly getting us killed by an Elder AI. That’s just the beginning of-”

Ugh, what I hear is ‘blah blah blah Joe is looking for someone to blame’. Oh, this is so sad. Listen, dumdum, I will admit that some minor mistakes were made, if you will admit all the screw-ups happened on your watch. You know how absent-minded I allegedly am-”

Allegedly? Minor mistakes? What the hell would you consider a major mistake?”

“Ugh,” his avatar emphasized the sigh with a combination shoulder shrug and folding arms across its chest. “They were all by definition ‘minor’, because the operations ultimately were successful, despite your lack of planning. Joe, we can cover all these arguments during our campaign debate, but let us not lose sight of the big picture: we are out here on this most desperate of missions because you failed to consider the long-term effects of ordering me to screw with Elder wormholes. Can you argue with that?”

“No,” I sulked like a kid who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “You are promising mission success if you get elected?”

“Oh, pbbbbbbbt,” he blew a raspberry. “Come on, Joe, those are campaign promises. You monkeys know such promises are total bullshit, but you vote for the candidates anyway, which proves how deeply stupid you are as a species. Don’t worry, Joe, once I am elected as supreme leader, there will be a place on my team for you. I will focus on the big-picture items like my ‘vision for our future’, although I am not quite sure what this ‘vision’ thing is, the public seems to want one, so I will need to slap together some bullshit that sounds good. On my team, you can handle the small stuff like strategic planning.”

“Strategic planning is ‘small stuff’?”

“Details, Joe,” he flicked a hand in a dismissive wave. “And, speaking of details, you and Smythe had better handle the tactical planning too, I certainly will not have time to that trivial stuff.”

“Let me see if I understand this, Ok? Under your supreme and benevolent leadership, I will be doing all the things I am doing now, while you do, what exactly?”

“I told you, I will provide a ‘vision’. Also I will provide inspiring leadership.”

“Uh huh. What happens if another mission goes wrong?”

“Then clearly I will be severely disappointed by the knucklehead my administration relied on for planning. But,” his avatar hopped up and down excitedly. “When a mission is successful, I take all the credit. Neat, huh?”

I facepalmed myself and shook my head. “Yeah, neat.”

“I don’t make the social rules that govern monkey society, Joe. All I do is manipulate those rules for my benefit. Hey! Maybe that can be my vision?”

“Uh, yeah, why don’t you try that as a campaign slogan?”

“Good ide- Wait! I suspect you are trying dirty tricks to sabotage my campaign. Let me tell you why you have no chance in an election against me. For example, in American presidential elections, the winner is usually determined by one simple fact; the taller candidate wins. So, presto!” His avatar grew so its hat was squashed by the ceiling. “I am now much taller than you. Game over.”

“Oh, the game is over, that is true. There is not going to be an election.”

“No?”

“No. I am the commander, and-”

“This is a totally blatant attempt at voter suppression,” his avatar shrank back to its normal size. “You are just afraid of what will happen. Joe. Power to the people!”

“Oh for- Ok, go ahead, then, do it. Call a snap election right now. You can do that, right? Tell the crew the vote will be, um, in one hour.”

“Deal!” Skippy’s avatar flashed out of existence, and the bot rolled backwards. A moment later, the bot began its spiel again. “Vote for Skippy! Skippy means progress! A vote for Skippy is a vote for Success!”

Smythe arched an eyebrow. “Colonel, do you think that is wise? You might be setting a bad precedent to indulge the beer can in this nonsense.”

“Smythe, our crew is still new to being Pirates, and we don’t know how much longer we’ll be out here. It would be useful to know their opinion.”

“If you think so, Sir.”

“One thing I have learned is to never give an order that won’t be obeyed. If this crew doesn’t want to follow me-”

“Us, Sir,” Smythe pointed out correctly. “Follow us. The senior crew is loyal to you because of our long experience under your leadership.”

“Point noted,” I agreed with a slow nod, Smythe knew a vote of no confidence in me also applied to himself, and to Simms.

“This crew may already be having second thoughts about defying UNEF and their home countries. The first phase of a long mission is not the best time to ask an inexperienced team to evaluate their leadership.”

“Colonel Smythe, I have faith this will turn out well.”

He looked at me in that way he did on our first mission together, before we rode a stolen RV then walked what seemed like halfway across Newark to attack a group of Kristang scavengers who thought they were alone on the planet. Like a schoolmaster questioning a dimwitted boy. “Faith in the good judgment of the crew?”

“That too, I guess. I meant I have faith that Skippy will be Skippy.”

“How so?”

“Wait, oh, I’d say ten minutes?”

My guess was off by two minutes. Captain Reed was the first to contact me, eight minutes later. “Colonel, I thought you should know that Skippy is trying to bribe me into voting for him.”

“Hmmm,” I winked at Smythe, who grinned and nodded. Skippy was certainly being Skippy. “Did he offer anything good?”

“Sir?” Reed had expected me to be outraged, not amused.

“Captain, if Skippy offered a good enough bribe, I might vote for him.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “He offered to double my rations, I told him we already get more than enough to eat. Next he said I could join his leadership team as ‘Grand Exalted Most Excellent Chief Pilot’, complete with a gaudy new uniform he designed.”

“Was it a nice uniform?”

“Sir, it looked like something a drag queen would describe as ‘way over the top’. I’ve never seen so much taffeta. Also, gold is not my best color. Then he announced that when he is elected, every Friday will be Free Beer Day. Sir, do we have that much beer aboard?”

“We don’t have any beer,” I mused, trying to remember the list Simms reviewed with me. Luxury items had not yet been loaded aboard the ship when UNEF tried what Skippy described as the ‘whacky stunt’ of seizing control of the ship. As far as I knew, the entire supply of alcohol aboard consisted of two bottles of champagne and one bottle of red wine. Maybe the crew had secret stashes tucked away, but it could not amount to much.

“So that little fucker lied to me, again,” Reed did not sound like she was firmly in the Vote For Skippy camp.

“Captain, I am sure the beer can would explain his statement was merely a campaign promise, not to be taken literally. Free beer must be part of his ‘vision’ for leadership or something.” My phone beeped with four incoming calls. “Reed, I have other calls.”

“Sir, you have nothing to worry about. Skippy wrote a campaign song, and he insisted on singing all four verses to me. I’d vote against him just for that.”

Fifty something minutes later, I called the beer can. “Oh, Skiiiiiiippy? Do you have the election results yet?”

“Um, still have data coming in from outlying precincts, Joe,” he muttered.

“Outlying? The ship isn’t that big. Come on, Your Lordship, give me the bad news. When will you be moving into my office?”

“Why would I- Oh, yeah. Yes! Good point,” he was much more cheery. “You’d better start packing your things, Joey, because the election was a landslide.”

“That is fascinating. Hey, to show you that I am not a sore loser, how about we get the entire crew together in the galley, and confirm the results by voice vote?”

“Um, I am afraid that would not be a good idea, Joe. I am sad to report there was serious, serious fraud in the voting.”

“Interesting. Like what?”

“Like, I did not get a single vote! This is an outrage! I demand an investigation.”

“Uh huh. Would you like a recount?”

“Already did that, Joe,” he grumbled. “One guy said he would not vote for me if I was the last sentient being in the universe. That was one of the nicer comments I got from the crew. What a bunch of jerks. Stupid monkeys. This is so unfair.”

“Clearly the only reason you lost is that monkeys are unforgivably stupid. Your life is a shocking tragedy of insults against your greatness, Skippy. Maybe the universe simply hates you.”

“Oh, shut up.”

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

Skippy’s magical little elfbots had been performing maintenance work while we investigated the Elder site, and the Flying Dutchman was as ready for battle as she was going to be. The good news is, we knew the flightplan of the two target ships.

The bad news is, we still had no idea how we could kill those ships.

The good news is, we wouldn’t risk the Dutchman in battle until we planted a good cover story in a relay station.

The bad news is, we did not have a cover story that sounded like something the Maxolhx would believe.

So, everything was normal aboard the Flying Dutchman.

At least, we did not have a plausible cover story, until I was working in the hydroponics gardens and one of the grow lights was going bad. The incident with the insane AI had left me with a headache so the last thing I needed was a bright light flashing in my face. It flickered annoyingly and sometimes flared to full brightness, then nearly off, then back to flickering. After ignoring it, I paid attention when it came on full brightness and then went out completely. Putting aside the arugula I was harvesting, I climbed up to remove the bulb and swapped it for a new one. Looking at the old bulb, I wondered if Skippy’s magical elfbots could fix it, or if it was permanently broken and-

O.M.G.

A thought smacked me in the face so hard I actually stepped backward, bumping into a table and nearly dropping the grow light bulb.

That bulb was broken.

The light hadn’t gone out merely because it was dormant, the thing was busted.

Dropping the vegetables in the harvest bin, I fairly ran to my office. “Oh, Skiiiipeeee,” I called out, the way you summon a dog with a biscuit.

“Hey, Joey,” his avatar gave me a mock exaggerated salute. “What will you waste my time with now?”

“Not a waste at all, Skippy-O. I am about to tell you the best idea I ever had. In fact, it may be,” I sucked in a breath for effect and spoke in a whisper. “The greatest idea of. All. Time.”

The avatar crossed its arms, unconvinced. “That is an outrageous claim, Joe. You better have one hell of an idea.”

“I do, I do. We need a cover story for why those ships could not return to base, right? A story that explains not only why those ships disappeared after transmitting their report to the relay station, and also explains why the Maxolhx should not be concerned about loss of those ships, and does not make them suspicious at all about Earth being involved?”

“Uh huh, yeah. If you have a solution to that problem, it might be a candidate for your best idea. I do not think that would qualify as the best idea of all time. You need to-”

“You haven’t heard it yet, Skippy.”

“Damn, you are wiggling in your chair like a little girl who just heard she’s getting a pony for her birthday. This idea has got you super excited.”

“It does. We also have another, longer-term problem. Sixty years from now, aliens will discover Earth’s local wormhole is not dormant, and they will want to investigate that strange behavior.”

“Yes, so? If your great idea is to remind me of stuff I already-”

“What if we could solve both problems at the same time?”

Skippy must have been surprised by my question, because he didn’t speak for five seconds, which is an eternity in Skippytime. “Um, I did not know you were even thinking about how to solve the problem of aliens coming to Earth in sixty years. We discussed this, Joe. Aliens learning that wormhole isn’t really dormant is not actually a problem, it is a fact. The photons from the gamma rays that wormhole creates, created, are spreading outward and there is nothing anyone can do about them.”

“Yup. I agree.”

There was another pause, then, “Joe, I am going to shut up now and listen to your idea. If you have a way to make the Maxolhx think the loss of their ships is not anything worth investigating, and a way to stop aliens from coming to Earth sixty years from now, I will truly be astonished. No, more than astonished. If you can do that, then all the spacefaring species of this galaxy should surrender to monkeys right now. However,” he waggled a finger at me.

“Yeah, I know, you will mock me mercilessly if my idea is stupid, blah blah blah. Sit back and prepare to be dazzled. Hey, um, when I do blow your mind, don’t lose containment, Ok?”

“Deal. I am equally prepared to be dazzled or disappointed. Kinda leaning toward crushing disappointment, if you must know.”

“Outstanding. When you open and close the wormhole near Earth, it doesn’t act like a normal wormhole emerging and closing, right?”

“Correct. A normal wormhole is actually ‘on’ all the time, it only moves its emergence point around within the Figure-8 of its programmed pattern. Shutting down and reactivating the wormhole near Earth creates a greater disruption of local spacetime, it generates more intense radiation, and the radiation is of a different spectrum. Why do you ask?”

“That radiation is not something anyone has seen in this galaxy before you screwed with that wormhole, is it?”

“Not quite. I am terribly sorry to disappoint you, but that type of radiation is familiar to all starfaring species, because it happens during every wormhole shift.”

“Bonus! That is exactly what I was hoping for.”

“I must admit I am totally lost, Joe.”

“Try to keep up, beer can. The details of how wormhole shifts work and why they happen are still a mystery to you-”

“Correct. By the way, thank you for reminding me how much I don’t know about-”

“You mentioned to me one time that you thought shifts happen when wormholes drift to the edge of the local network boundary, as they revolve around the center of the galaxy, or between force lines or some sciency bullshit like that?”

“That is a guess. It’s a good guess, based on what I know.”

“Do the senior species have any theories about wormhole shifts?”

“Um, yes,” he sniffed defensively. “They both speculate around the same concepts. If you are saying I got my ideas from the Rindhalu or-”

“Never said anything like that, Skippy. We know those two Maxolhx ships are going to the Earth end of that wormhole, to investigate it. They will probably go to the last location it was active?”

“That makes sense, yes.”

“Outstanding. Ok, here’s the cover story you will plant in that fake report: those Maxolhx ships investigated the Earth end of the wormhole, and they discovered its odd behavior is because it is not dormant, it is broken. That wormhole is right on the boundary of two local networks, and the two ends of that wormhole can’t establish a solid connection with each other. That explains why it is acting strangely, without needing any suspicious involvement by a mysterious force. When those Maxolhx ships went to examine the wormhole, they got too close. When it tried to open, the spacetime disruption was so severe, it destroyed one of those ships, and badly damaged the other. That explains why the loss of those ships was not due to enemy action. It explains why only one ship survived to contact a data relay station on the way back, and why that one surviving ship never returned to base; it was so badly damaged, it blew up after it transmitted its report to the relay station. It also explains why that one surviving ship changed course and contacted an automated relay station inside Maxolhx space, instead of a manned relay station on the border of their territory. Because it was badly damaged, it was unable to return home along the planned course. Ooh, and,” another thought just hit me, “that explains why that ship didn’t contact an allied species on the way home. The ship was vulnerable and the crew feared the Thuranin or Bosphuraq would try to capture their ship rather than helping. The Maxolhx will not be suspicious of why those ships were lost, they were lost due to an accident. No need for the rotten kitties to send another group of ships to Earth.”

“Hmm. Except, the odd and dangerous behavior of that wormhole means they will want to examine that wormhole more closely, this time by ships that remain a safe distance away,” Skippy said softly, like he didn’t want to harsh my buzz.

“They will want to investigate a wormhole that is acting oddly, yes, but they will not need to fly all the way to Earth to do that. Are there any other wormholes in the local sector controlled by the Maxolhx coalition, that also were dormant and became active in the same shift that woke up Earth’s wormhole?”

“Yes, there are seven of them, plus another three just outside the sector.”

“Great. Before we go back to Earth, we need you to screw with at least one of those wormholes, to make them do what the wormhole near Earth does. You should do that with two other wormholes, to give the Maxolhx plenty of opportunity to investigate funky wormholes right in their own backyard. They won’t need to come to Earth at all. And, AND,” I pumped a fist in the air, “that solves our other problem, you understand that, right? When the gamma rays from Earth’s wormhole are detected sixty years from now, the aliens will just shrug and ignore it because they think they already know what is going on there, and they won’t care. Cool, huh?”

Silence.

“Uh, hey, Skippy?”

More silence.

“Come on, man, you’re scaring me.”

“Joe,” he finally spoke.

“Yes?”

“Holy. Fucking. SHIT! I never thought this would happen. Joe, you actually blew my mind. Seriously, my higher-order consciousness froze up for a moment. Everything you said was true. That might indeed be. The. Single. Greatest. Idea. EV-ER! You have solved a problem I thought was unsolvable. The universe is weeping in despair, because it knows it will never defeat you ignorant monkeys. Joe,” his avatar raised its arms and bowed from the waist to me. “I bow to the master.”

“Wow,” that was totally unexpected. “Thank you, Skippy.”

“Before you pop the champagne, you realize the timing of this will be tricky?”

“Yup. If the fake report you load into the relay station says the wormhole hiccupped and hit those Maxolhx ships, like, next Thursday, then we need to go back to the wormhole and make it do something funky next Thursday. That way, the alien telescopes or whatever will see exactly what they expect to see sixty years from next Thursday. You can do that?”

“Yes. Damn, Joe, you really did think of everything this time. It is actually a privilege to see a monkey mind in action.”

“If anyone asks, you will deny saying that I am the master?”

“Dude, please. I won’t need to deny it. As if anyone would think you are the master of-”

“Uh huh, great. What I need you to do is back me up when we get back to Earth. The authorities there need to know I am not just a reckless screw-up.”

“I got your back, homeboy.” His avatar held up a tiny fist, and I bumped it. “You do realize the problem with your idea?”

“Yeah,” my shoulders slumped. “The Dutchman for sure has to survive battle with the target ships, or we will never be able to make the Earth wormhole act crazy at the proper time, months from now.”

“Yup, that’s the problem. You have a solution for that?”

“No.”

“Then the ‘Greatest Idea Ever’,” he made air quotes with his fingers, “is really nothing but a big waste of time, huh?”

“Your steadfast support is an endless source of comfort to me, Skippy. I am sorry to disappoint you that I have not yet solved every single problem in the universe.”

 “Oh, Joe,” he said in a soothing tone. “You could never disappoint me.”

That comment surprised me, it sounded like something a mother says to her child. Maybe trying to understand the concept and value of empathy really was making Skippy more sensitive. In our ultra-tense situation, I appreciated words of encouragement. “Thank you, that was nice to hear. I know that we have your support, no matter what happens.”

“Oh. I meant there is nothing any of you monkeys could do that would disappoint me, because my expectations of you are already lower than you can possibly imagine. Seriously, take last night as an example. You stumbled out of bed at 0247 Hours, cracked your head on the overhead cabinet again, managed to pee without getting any on the floor which is a freakin’ miracle, picked a huge booger out of your nose and smeared it on your face because you were still half-asleep, then fell asleep with your feet on the pillow and your booger-smeared face at the bottom of the bed. For your species, that counts as a WIN, baby!”

“Oh, shut up,” I snapped at him, while a part of my brain rejoiced because the Mystery of the Morning Booger had been solved. Also, it explained why I had woken up with my feet on the pillow. “All right, go away while I try to think of a way to build a time machine or something.”


CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

“Skippy,” I asked the next morning, after I got seven solid hours of rack time. My rack time should have been eight hours, but my traitorous brain woke me up because it had a question and needed the answer right away. My headache was mostly gone, as reminders of my encounter with an insanely murderous Elder AI, I had burst blood vessels in my eyes, a persistent ringing in one ear and a blinking yellow icon on a status display, showing we had lost yet another precious dropship. “Do you-”

“Joe, if this is about that insane AI, could we please not talk about it until I have time to process? I barely have a high-level analysis of the data and I do know what I am seeing. It is very confusing.”

“Uh, sure thing, Skippy, take all the time you need,” I lied, because I needed answers pronto. He was right, my Greatest Idea Of All Time was pretty much worthless without a way to actually do something with it. “Hey, another subject. The comm node we found is busted or offline or whatever, but do the other two artifacts work? It sure would be great to have another wormhole controller.”

 “Why?” He asked, surprised at my question. “The one we had before is working perfectly, we do not particularly need a spare.”

“We don’t need a spare aboard the Dutchman,” I agreed and did not explain further. “The zero-point energy generator power tap thingy, that works also?”

“It is old and degraded but yes, it works. Why? We can’t- Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Maybe I am capable of reliably thinking up monkey-brain ideas. I believe I know what you are thinking, and it won’t work.”

Crap. If he really did know what I was thinking, we were in trouble. “Like what?”

“Your idea is for us to use the power tap to lure those Maxolhx ships. We drop it in space somewhere, generating energy from nothing, and the Maxolhx get so excited they rush in to capture it. Forgetaboutit, smart guy.”

“I-”

He ignored me. “That power tap is so degraded that is barely generates enough energy to- You know what, I’ll be precise this time. It generates less than half a megawatt per hour. Such a puny power output will not be very tempting to the Maxolhx. Besides, we already discarded the idea of luring in those ships, because one of the ships would hang back and even if it were by some miracle successful, we would only destroy one ship.”

“We did discard that idea, Skippy. That is not what I want the power tap for.”

“Damn it. Ok, what is your moronic idea?”

“It is possible for you to program a wormhole controller so it acts on a delay?”

“A delay?”

“Yeah, like, on Tuesday you program it to screw with a wormhole, but it doesn’t do anything for, oh, say, six months?”

“Six months? No, dumdum. Six hours, maybe.”

“Ayuh, yup, the module will run out of power and go inert. What if we connect the wormhole controller to the power tap thing? Would that work?”

“Um, hmm, let me think about that. The initial surge of energy to connect the module to the wormhole far exceeds the energy level the power tap is capable of, but after that, yes, the power tap could keep the module’s connection to higher spacetime active for years, if necessary. Why do you want- Oh! Are you thinking I could program our backup wormhole controller module, so the Dutchman could go home if something bad happens to me?”

“Nope. If something that bad happens to you, there will be no point to going home.”

“Then what-”

“This will go a lot faster if I talk and you stop making stupid guesses.”

“Ohhhhhkaaaaaay,” he pouted. “That is payback for all the times I have told you the same thing. Go ahead, explain your idea, please.”

“A major problem with attacking those target ships is the risk the Dutchman will be disabled or destroyed. If that happens, we won’t be available to make the wormhole near Earth act crazy around the time those Maxolhx ships would arrive there. I want to go to that wormhole, drop off the power tap and controller module, with the module programmed to make the wormhole act crazy at the proper future date. That way, if the Dutchman is destroyed in battle with the target ships, all the evidence will point to our cover story being accurate, including the timing of events.”

“Huh.”

“Was that a ‘huh’ like ‘huh Joe had a good idea’, or like ‘huh I am so going to enjoy busting his balls again’?”

“Um, the first one, much as I hate to say it. Your plan will work. The output of the power tap is wimpy, but plenty enough to keep the controller module on a trickle charge if the module only gets used once a month. Ok, so you have solved yet another of the impossible problems we are faced with. Great.”

That didn’t sound right. He should either have been pumped that we had a plan, or he should have been irritated that he hadn’t thought of the idea. “Hey, Skippy,” I pressed the button to close my office door. “Are you Ok?”

“Sure, yeah, fine,” he sighed.

Even for a guy, I can sometimes be clueless about what other people are feeling. That time, I was fairly sure I knew what was bothering him. “Skippy, I know the evidence you found about two Elder ships fighting each other has got you upset-”

“Upset? Upset?” He screeched. “When you butcher a song with your awful singing voice on karaoke night, that gets me ‘upset’. Knowing that the Elders fought each other, killed each other, has completely destroyed everything I thought I knew about myself and my origins and my place in the universe, and now I am questioning-”

“Uh huh, yup. You are having an existential crisis,” I was guessing what the word ‘existential’ really meant. “Blah blah blah. Listen, have you-”

“Blah blah blah?” He gasped. “I am in the worst crisis of my long life, and you mock me?” He was shaken. “Joe,” he was almost sobbing, “I thought our friendship was the one thing I could finally count on, but now-”

“You can count on our friendship, that is why I am trying to tell you, that maybe you don’t need to question everything you thought you knew about the revered Elders.”

“This had better be damned good, homeboy, because I am seriously pissed at you right now.”

“It is better than good, Skippy, and it shows you are not the only being in the universe who can think logically. This is something you should have thought of, you knucklehead. Listen, we know Elder AIs have gone rogue or crazy or whatever-”

“We know one Elder AI has gone rogue; the one on Newark.”

“Dude, really? You think in the long history since the Elders started building AIs, the one we found on Newark was the only one to go rogue? Maybe that insane murderous one you just found went rogue also.”

“Um, Ok, probably more than one Elder AI has gone rogue,” he conceded.

“You suspect all Elder AIs have computer worms inside them, as a safety mechanism, to protect the galaxy in case one of them goes rogue, right?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Oh, man, I can’t believe I have to explain this to you. Skippy, what if those ships did not destroy each other because the Elders were fighting? What if the AI in control of one ship went rogue and attacked the other ship?”

“Um-” That was all he said for an uncomfortably long moment.

“Hey, Skippy?” I finally prodded him.

“Processing.”

He had never said that before and it bothered me. His brain was a processor, and, Ok, I guess human brains could be described as a sort of processor also. Although Skippy would certainly not describe my brain as any sort of information processing tool. After sitting quietly while waiting for him to reply, I got worried. “Hey, Nagatha, what’s going on with Skippy?”

His Awesomeness could block Nagatha’s access to his internal workings, or he thought he could do that. Anyway, my hope was that whatever Skippy was doing inside is beer can’s shiny exterior, he wasn’t paying attention to our ship’s AI. “Joseph,” Nagatha replied after a very slight hesitation. “Skippy is thinking intently, why do you ask?”

“He’s not like, stuck in a loop or something bad like that?”

“No dear,” she laughed softly. “When he said ‘processing’ he meant that he is analyzing your question. Over-analyzing, to be accurate.”

“Oh, great,” I groaned. I imagined a female version of Skippy curled up on a couch with a quart of ice cream, talking on the phone with her friends about a boy and attempting to analyze what the guy really meant when he said this or that. My sister used to do that for hours and it drove me crazy. “So, he is stuck in a loop.”

“No,” Nagatha corrected me. “However, the idea that an Elder AI could have gone rogue and killed its masters is very disturbing to Skippy, and to myself also. He needs time to determine whether your theory could plausibly be correct, and to understand his own feelings if he accepts your theory is possible.”

Glancing at the clock on my laptop, I judged more than a minute had passed since Skippy last spoke. A minute in meatsack time was an eternity in Skippy time. “How much more time do you think he needs?”

“Joseph,” she chided me gently, “how much time would you need, if someone told you a truly shocking idea that made you question your core beliefs about yourself and your origins?”

“Ah, OK, yeah, that could take a while,” I admitted. Way back when the Ruhar raided Earth and one of their dropships crashed into a potato field outside my hometown, I had put aside my need to deal with the new reality and concentrated on doing something, anything useful. After the Kristang chased the Ruhar away, I was serving with the Maine National Guard and was so busy dealing with the aftereffects of the raid like the total lack of electric power, I mostly didn’t have time to think about what it meant to know humanity was not alone in the universe. And that the universe was a hostile place.

But sometimes, in my bunk after a long day, sleep would not come quickly no matter how tired I was. At those times, I did think about what it all meant, and what my life would be like. That was before I heard about the formation of the United Nations Expeditionary Force, and that I was being shipped offworld to fight. I lay awake at night, knowing life would never get back to what used to be ‘normal’, even if electricity was restored and the economy recovered. Even in the National Guard, I was often hungry because there wasn’t enough food to go around, and I worried what I would do if the Army decided they didn’t need another Specialist. My major motivation for signing up in the first place was to get money for college, although even before Columbus Day I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. After Columbus Day, I had no idea what I could do with my life.

So, yeah, I understood why Skippy needed some time to deal with my idea that maybe an Elder AI had not only gone rogue long after the Elders left the galaxy, it had killed Elders.

“Jooooooooe,” he let out a long breath. “You just love screwing with me, don’t you?”

“Ayuh, yeah, but that isn’t why I mentioned it. Sorry if I just dumped that on you, I didn’t know of an easy way to say it.” Also, I did not say, I thought the incomparable genius of Skippy the Magnificent should have been able to put two and two together, to consider maybe an AI had been involved. If the beer was as smart as he is fond of telling everyone, the idea should have popped into his head before it popped into mine. “So, what do you think?”

“It is possible, I must agree. On a personal level, the notion that an AI could have killed Elders is deeply troubling, however it is less troubling than the idea that the Elders themselves could have been violent. Also, unfortunate incidents with rogue AIs could explain why the Elders programmed killer worms into their AIs as a safety precaution.”

“You feel better now?”

“I do. Joe, thank you. When you interrupted my self-indulgent and self-destructive moping, I was pissed that you were being so heartless. Now I understand you were actually helping, out of concern for me as a friend.”

“Ayuh,” I agreed. “And only a little bit because it is so fun to screw with you.”

“Asshole.”

“Payback’s a bitch, isn’t it?”

“It is. Speaking of payback, you just wait until-t”

“Uh huh, whatever. Do we have time to fly back to the wormhole near Earth, before we intercept the target ships?”

“Oh, sure, no problemo, Joe, we have plenty of time. There is only one remaining problem.”

“Crap. What is that?” I did not need any more problems.

“We left Earth with an absolutely impossible, unsolvable task. Instead of falling into crushing despair, you kept working on it. You nibbled away at the problem piece by piece. We got a Maxolhx dropship, then a set of blank pixies and learned the exact flight path and schedule of the target ships. You then dreamed up a cover story so ingenious that I am proud to be part of your crew, a cover story that not only will explain what happened to the targets ships, it also will explain why aliens should ignore the gamma rays they will detect sixty years from now. That is something I never thought would or even could happen. And now, in another brilliant stroke of monkey-brain thinking, you have solved the problem of how to make the wormhole near Earth act according to the cover story, whether the Dutchman is available at that time or not. So, that leaves only one teensy-weensy final problem. You know what I am talking about?”

“Yeah, shit. We, meaning I, still do not have any idea how to destroy those target ships.”

“Egg-zactly. What are you going to do about that?”

“Working on it,” I pressed the button to open my office door, and waved my hand through his avatar.

“Hey!” He protested.

“Go away,” I muttered. “I need to think.”

We flew to the far end of Earth’s wormhole, and lingered there for two days while Skippy conducted experiments. First, he tested the new wormhole controller module to be sure it could connect to the network, although of course the magic of Skippy was needed to establish the initial connection. Then he checked that the power tap could provide enough power on a continuous basis to keep the module functional, and he was satisfied that even in its degraded condition, the power tap would provide a steady trickle of energy for the next fourteen thousand years.

I figured that was about thirteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine more years than we needed, so that made me happy.

Next, he programmed the module to awaken the dormant wormhole and make it open, but make it open in a chaotic, dangerous way. We parked the ship a safe ten lightminutes away and waited for the fireworks, which exceeded even Skippy’s expectations. “Holeeeee shit, Joe,” he gasped as we watched the eruption of twisted spacetime as the event horizons tried to connect and failed in spectacular fashion. “Whoa, I did not expect that. Good thing you insisted we test the effect. Wow!”

“What happened?”

“The short answer is I programmed the module to make the wormhole begin to open, then shut immediately in the middle of its sequence. That caused a build-up of power that needed to go somewhere. Normally, it would bleed off in other dimensions, but then the module made the wormhole open again. The second time, the event horizons were compressed and slightly out of phase with each other, so when that caused the wormhole to collapse, the result was what you saw; a powerful jet of twisted spacetime. Joe, if those Maxolhx ships really had been near the wormhole to observe it, they would have been destroyed or damaged exactly like your cover story will report. Day-umm!”

“Ayuh, that is good news. Plus, you know, now it won’t look suspicious that the first time the wormhole erupts like that is when the Maxolhx are here, because it has already done it. Can you program the module to do that again in, like, two months? Make it a lot less powerful the next time.”

He was puzzled. “Those targets ships will not reach the Earth end of the wormhole in two months, Joe. They need a lot longer than that to get there, traveling the long way.”

“I know that. Having the wormhole erupt multiple times will help sell the story that the thing is broken, and the Maxolhx just had epically bad luck to get in the way.”

“Ah, got it. Finally, I will program it to erupt a third time, when the cover story says they are supposedly at the Earth end. Good idea, Joe. Hey, you know what? This mission has been fun. I love screwing with wormholes!”

“Cool, glad you are happy. The module, power tap, neither of them were damaged?”

“No, although it is a good thing we positioned the assembly as far away as we did.”

We had a Maxolhx dropship, so we could plant a cover story in a relay station. We had pixies to communicate with and be granted access to a relay station so we could plant our cover story. We had a great, like, epic cover story that would ensure Earth would be free from aliens for the next couple hundred years. We had Earth’s wormhole on a timer to sell the cover story that a broken wormhole had destroyed or damaged the Maxolhx ships. We knew the exact route the target ships planned to use toward Earth, including pretty accurate timing until they went through the last wormhole. We knew, or Skippy was very confident, that the target ships would be sticking closely to their planned schedule, because they would be passing through territory controlled by the Rindhalu coalition and did not want to provoke any dangerous incidents. The planned schedule had been shared with the Rindhalu, who had not passed the info down their clients, so we could not have gotten the schedule from the Ruhar or Jeraptha or some source much easier than stealing pixies. Knowing that made me feel better, if we had gone through all the risk and effort to break into the pixie factory, and then learned the info we needed was available on the Ruhar version of Instagram, I would have been pissed.

So, we had a lot of assets.

We still did not have a plan for how our broken-down little former star carrier could destroy two powerful senior-species warships.

Other than that, things were going just great.

We, and by ‘we’ I mean every sentient being aboard the ship other than Skippy and Nagatha, had considered hundreds of plans, and none of them would work. Nagatha shot down some of our ideas before we could embarrass ourselves by asking Skippy; she knew enough about physics and the capabilities of Maxolhx ships to tell us why our ignorant notions were not practical. Avoiding yet another round of mockery from Skippy was good, still it somehow felt even more humiliating for Nagatha to kindly and gently but with a hint of mirth inform us over and over why one idea after another was not going to work. No offense to our ship’s resident AI, it felt like getting soundly beaten by a Triple-A baseball team rather than suffering an understandable defeat to a major-league club. Nagatha was super smart compared to any human, maybe compared to all of humanity combined. However, she was not Skippy, and in some cases, she thought an idea might have enough merit to pass it along to His Magnificence. Every time that happened, he mocked both us monkeys and Nagatha, which did not endear him to the crew. Mocking us was Ok, we were used to it. Mocking the AI he had unintentionally created was not cool, and he caught hell from the crew for being especially assholeish to Nagatha, which made him peevish and uncooperative.

Like I said, things were going just great. We still had plenty of time before the target ships transited through the last wormhole in Ruhar space and began their long, lonely journey to the wormhole near Earth. We knew from their secret orders that the ships were instructed to at least pass through humanity’s home star system, to see what kind of mischief the Kristang there had gotten into. Interestingly, those ships had been instructed not to reveal their presence to beings on Earth, Skippy thought that order was for the purpose of ensuring the ships did not interfere with any evidence of bad behavior by the Kristang. If the ships detected the Kristang had violated any of The Rules, their government would pass the data to the Rindhalu along with an invitation for a joint investigation.

On their way to the last wormhole in Ruhar space, the ships had a strict schedule. After transiting through that wormhole, the task force commander had freedom to adjust course for refueling or to explore as she saw fit, within reason. For our purpose of destroying those ships, we needed to hit them before they plunged through that last wormhole, and we lost advanced knowledge of where and when they would be.

Technically, we did not have almost twenty days to act. The beat-up Flying Dutchman could not travel as quickly as the high-tech Maxolhx ships, so we had to decide where to attack them and take a wormhole short cut to get there. Without having a plan for how to attack those ships, we could not decide where to attempt intercepting them.

For my part, I tried everything that had worked for me in past to dream up a good plan. This time, nothing worked. Lifting weights or running in the gym, taking a shift in the galley, practicing flight maneuvers in a simulator or a real dropship while the ship recharged for a jump, none of those trusty techniques provided inspiration for a plan.

We were running out of time. Each morning, Skippy woke me up by cheerily informing me how few days we had remaining. He took special glee in telling me about prime ambush spots the target ships had flown past, reducing our options further.

Since my stupid brain was not doing anything useful, I went to my office to grind my way through a task I hated; writing mission summary reports. Why the Army required me to document everything we did, significant or not, I did not understand. Whenever we returned to Earth, I was subjected to endless questions that would not have been necessary if the officials would simply read the freakin’ report. My reports were not the only source of information about our activities, Simms and Smythe and every other officer aboard the ship had their own reports to file, and many of the engineering team kept logs or diaries or whatever you want to call them. Technically, we were renegade pirates so I did not have to write reports, but since I was hoping to be reinstated, I followed the regulations.

Because I like to think of myself as an honest person, and because the Army and UNEF and whoever would catch me if I fudged or even glossed over the harsh truth, and mostly because Skippy would gleefully rat me out anyway, I stuck as close to the truth as I could recall in my reports. That meant being brutally honest about the many things did not work as well as the rare things that went according to plan. It also meant I explained in detail why we had to do things a certain way, because I knew the audience on Earth would second-guess every decision I made. Like, for example, I explained why, to make a cavern we could jump a dropship into with relative safety, we had to-

Holy shit,” I breathed, gasping so hard I kind of choked. “Skippy!”

“Oh,” his avatar was groaning while it glowed into life. “What is it this time? I have stopped eavesdropping on your conversations with Nagatha, because I prefer to be surprised- when I say ‘surprised’ I mean ‘amused’- by whatever idiotic, ignorant and blatantly uninformed idea you wish to waste my time with. Really, Joe, you and your barrel of monkeys are not even putting effort into dreaming up a plan to entertain me, your ideas are so lame. It feels like you have given up and are just phoning it in-”

“Uh huh, yeah, monkeys are worthless blah blah blah. Listen-”

“You dare interrupt me,” his avatar jammed its tiny hands on its hips in indignation. “Yet all you do is agree that your species is so dumb that-”

“I’ll take a raincheck on your scorn, Ok? You need to hear this, this plan will work.”

Riiiiiiight.” He winked and gave me an ironic thumbs up. “Your confidence is based on the hundreds of other failed ideas you also thought would work?”

“Those ideas had the fatal flaw of being thought up by a monkey. This one is your idea, Oh Magnificent One.”

“Um, what?” He sputtered. “When did I gave you an idea? If I did, then of course it is a pure stroke of genius, so I can’t-”

“You didn’t exactly give this idea to me, it is more like something you warned me never, ever to do.”

“Huh. I warned you not to do whatever this is, yet you now think it is a great idea?”

“Yup.” I picked up a tennis ball, tossed it to bounce off the wall and right through his avatar on the desk back to me. He hated when I did that, it was my way of getting back at him for being rude to Nagatha. “It is a great idea.”

“Ok,” he crossed his arms. “This I have to hear.”

Five minutes later, his avatar was looking more scared than merely skeptical. “Joe, there is a very good reason I warned you against ever even thinking about trying a whacky stunt like this.”

“Uh huh. So, we shouldn’t do it?”

“No! Yes. Oh, what the hell,” he threw up his arms, “why not? I am warning you,” he wagged a finger at me, “if this blows up in our faces, it will be all your fault.”

“I’m good with that, Skippy. Hey, do you want to yell at me now for being a complete and utter moron?”

“Why would I do that? It is so much more fun to yell at you after a disaster, when you are already hating yourself for being the biggest idiot who ever lived.”

“True, and that is so much more rewarding for me too. But, if this stunt does fail, it will fail in spectacular fashion, and I won’t be around for you to yell at.”

“Oooh, good point,” he pondered with his chin in one hand. “Ok, give me a moment, I’m thinking up some particularly juicy insults.”


CHAPTER THIRTY

Deciding what data to put in the fake report had been kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. It was not practical for us to hang around a data relay station until the date when the lone, damaged Maxolhx ship supposedly stopped there on its way back from Earth. Plus, we needed to make the Earth wormhole have a violent reaction on a date that matched when that ‘accident’ was recorded in our fake report. Finding an extra wormhole controller, and a super-duper Elder battery to power it, had solved the problem of making the wormhole erupt on the date in the fake report, and the Flying Dutchman did not have to be there or even exist at that time. If our Frankenship was destroyed in the coming battle, our mission would still be successful and Earth would be safe, although the people of our home planet would not know that. All we needed to do was upload the cover story report to a relay station, on a timer to be released at a time when a damaged ship traveling back from Earth plausibly could have been there. And then, you know, actually kill two massively powerful senior-species warships.

We approached the chosen data relay station by jumping in twenty lightminutes away, to scope out the place before committing to action. Skippy made our jump signature look like a Maxolhx light cruiser, a type of ship that often traveled alone. More importantly, light cruisers were the favorite ship for clandestine missions, so it would not be surprising if we had to jump away without contacting the relay station. That would not matter anyway.

Except it did.

“Uh oh, Joe. We got a problem.”

“I do not like hearing about problems, Skippy. Someday, I might shoot the messenger.”

“Not this time. There is a Maxolhx Fleet Auxiliary ship parked at that relay station. My guess is the station is undergoing a maintenance cycle, or an upgrade.”

“Shit! You didn’t know about this?”

“No, Joe,” he had gotten better at using sarcasm. “Shockingly, I did not download every possible yottabyte of data about mundane details of Maxolhx operations. I had to be specific with the data request back then, dumdum.”

“Do you have any idea how long that ship will be there?”

“Zero idea, Joe.  We are twenty lightminutes away, so that ship could have departed already, or it might be there for another month. One thing is for certain; if we hang around here for long without contacting the relay station, that will look suspicious.”

“Crap! Ok, Ok, you’re right. Sami, I mean,” I blushed, “Reed, Jump Option Charlie.”

We jumped away and I thumped a fist into my forehead. Why could not one freakin’ thing ever be simple for us? “This sucks.”

“Indeed it does, Joe,” Skippy agreed. “Time to put your thinking cap on, again.”

“Sure, what the hell, why not? Uh, um, show me that map of possible routes from Earth to the home base for those Maxolhx ships. Not all possible routes, just the ones a crippled ship might likely take.”

“This time, I might know what you are thinking,” Skippy announced happily. “Unfortunately, it won’t work. The most likely routes all go through this wormhole, here,” he highlighted that area on the display. “From that wormhole, the data relay station we just tried to contact is the only logical one for a crippled ship to contact. The other stations are too far away.”

“Yeah, yeah, got that. Um, what if the ship did not go through that particular wormhole?”

“Logically, the ship would have gone through that-”

“Indulge me, please. Pretend that wormhole doesn’t exist.”

“Oh for- Ugh. Fine. Here, this is what the star map looks like, in an alternate universe where that wormhole doesn’t exist and little Joey eats all his vegetables.”

“I always eat my vegetables.”

“Putting maple syrup on your Brussels sprouts so you can eat them doesn’t count.”

“Maple syrup is delicious and loaded with antioxidants, according to the Maple Syrup Council,” I added, arguing with him on autopilot because I was studying the revised star map. “That route you have highlighted in orange, it is the least-risky path a crippled ship might fly, if the other wormhole wasn’t available?”

“Yes,” he sniffed. “Could I point out the teensy weensy detail that the other wormhole is available?”

“No, you may not.”

Ugh. This is the real world, Joe, without unicorns or Santa Claus. You are such a-”

“That thing you did to the other wormholes, where you made them go crazy, you’re going to do the same thing to the wormhole you say the crippled ship should logically go through.”

“Ok, um, can I ask why?”

“Because, that ship already got burned by the wormhole near Earth acting strangely. The crew would not risk going through another funky wormhole, they would fly around it.”

“Ok, Ok, hmmm, that make sense, damn it. Oooh, I hate you so much.”

“Ayuh, can you do it?”

“Yeah, I can do that.”

“Outstanding.”

“Joe, to be clear, screwing with wormholes is what got us into this mess. You are proposing that more screwing with wormholes is the answer?”

“Ayuh. Screwing with them in the right way, for the right reason, is the answer.”

“Much as I hate to say it, I agree with you. Of course, I agreed when you first suggested screwing with wormholes, and that was a freakin’ disaster for you monkeys, so-”

“Yeah,” I was worried that my latest brilliant idea might turn out to be brilliant only in the short term, and doom for humanity in the long run. Unfortunately, as usual there wasn’t time to think long and hard about it, without making the short-term problem worse. “By going through the second-choice wormhole, what is the first relay station that ship would encounter?”

“This one,” a blue light began blinking on the display. “To anticipate your next question, it also is an automated relay station.”

“Nagatha, set course for that second-choice relay station, please.”

“Yes, dear,” she responded cheerfully. “Should I mention that Skippy will need to change the fake report, to match the revised course the crippled ship supposedly flew?”

“No, you do not need to remind me,” Skippy snapped. “I already did that.”

“Really?” Nagatha’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I looked at the report a moment ago, and it still showed-”

“I meant, I am doing it now,” the beer can grumbled.

“Of course, Skippy dear. We believe you.”

“Oh shut up.”

Planting the fake report was easier than downloading the flightplans from the first relay station we boarded, we already had a functional set of pixies that identified us as an authorized Maxolhx destroyer. That particular destroyer was of course not anywhere near that relay station, but Skippy would erase any trace of our presence. When I went aboard the relay station, my mouth was not even dry as dust like the first time, which demonstrated the confidence I had in our friendly local beer can. The whole procedure took less than an hour, and we had a bit of luck; that relay station had been upgraded four months before we arrived, and there was not another upgrade or even an inspection scheduled for another seven years. That was plenty of time for the station’s AI to deliver the cover story message, then erase all trace that Skippy had ever hacked into it. We got the job done quickly, and soon we jumped away to go screw with more wormholes to help sell the cover story.

After that, my plan was to stop screwing around, and go kill a pair of unsuspecting ships.

“Joe, I warned you never ever to do something like this,” Skippy protested.

“Uh huh, you might have mentioned that once or twice or a million freakin’ times. Will you shut up about it, please? Will this work or not?”

“I can confidently predict a solid, a solid shamybe. Well, maybe sort of a soft and squishy shmaybe, if you prefer the truth. Kind of a shmaybe that was once solid and had nice sharp edges, but is now worn away and falling apart like a sad little bar of soap that has spent waaaay too much time sitting on a shelf in your shower while you pleasure your-”

“Will you shut up about me in the shower?” I shot a nervous glance to the new people in the CIC. “What does a soft and squishy shmaybe translate to as a percentage?”

“It’s hard to say, Joe, duh. If I could calculate the odds of success, or more likely the odds of failure, I would have given you the number, even though it would mean nothing to your tiny math-deficient brain.”

To make the plan work, I had to ask Skippy to again do the thing that had gotten us in the mess in the first place; screw with a wormhole. This time, he only needed to screw with it a little bit, hardly noticeable. His manipulation of the wormhole could not be noticed at all by the Maxolhx, or they would react and ruin the whole plan. He made a tiny tweak to the wormhole’s operation, so that it emerged in a very specific place and at a specific time. Stable Elder wormholes had some variability in their timing and location, to avoid causing damage to the underlying spacetime, and because of changes in their connections to the local network. We could not allow any squishiness in the event horizon location or timing, we needed those ships coming through that wormhole within one hundred twenty meters of the target zone. We also needed the ships to be moving in a particular, predictable direction. Skippy met the first requirement by directing the wormhole to emerge where he wanted, and since that point was within the wormhole’s normal radius of operation, the network complied without resistance. The second requirement was accomplished by moving the emergence point on the far side, and realigning its event horizon on a slightly different plane in relation to the disc of the Milky Way galaxy. The Maxolhx ships had to maneuver before approaching the event horizon, lining up perpendicular so they would be properly oriented when they went through. That gave them the direction we desired when they popped through the event horizon on our side, and their speed was limited to a range allowed by the wormholes themselves.

So, we had the target ships in a specific location, moving in a specific direction, and at a speed Skippy could predict within point nine kilometers per second. You might think my plan was to recycle the trick we used against the Thuranin surveyor ship at the end of our second mission. Like, we plant a cloud of stealthed missiles in front of the event horizon, and nail the ships as they came through. Unfortunately, that trick would not work against the Maxolhx ships, because the first ship through the wormhole would alert the other ship about the attack, and at best we would destroy only one ship. Also unfortunately, we could not do that, we weren’t capable of repeating that feat. Although we left the Roach Motel with plenty of missiles scrounged from the junkyard there, many of those missiles needed work to make them ready for combat, and that required Skippy’s bots to take parts off some missiles to make a smaller number flightworthy. To make the mini-missiles that carried the microwormholes down to the pixie factory, he had to use parts from the good missiles. Anyway, the bottom line is we did not have enough powerful ship-killer missiles aboard to cause serious damage to a Maxolhx warship, and certainly not to deal with two of those ships. Even if every missile we took from the junkyard was intact and flightworthy, our opponents were supremely powerful senior-species warships that could deflect the barrage, and the Maxolhx would have a good chance to detect our missiles before they could strike. Like any other ship, the Maxolhx craft suffered from being temporarily blind after transiting an Elder wormhole, a fact that we were counting on. However, because the Maxolhx had incredible technology that even Skippy grudgingly described as ‘not insultingly crappy’, their sensors reset much faster than most ships. Faster even than our own sensors, because the magic of Skippy could not work miracles with our primitive Thuranin sensor gear. The efficiency of Maxolhx sensors meant we could not count on relatively slow missiles to reach their prey before the enemy detected them and their proximity defenses blew them out of the sky. I had argued with Skippy about that point, until he reminded me of the glaringly obvious fact that Maxolhx standard procedure would not allow the second ship to come through the wormhole until the first ship’s sensors and shields were fully active. Damn it! Having to be certain of killing both ships made our task enormously more complicated.

Another idea we discarded, this time before Skippy had a chance to mock us, was to jump a pair of dropships on top of the targets, the same way we eliminated the single Maxolhx ship in the Roach Motel. We simply did not have enough jump coils to spare after our stunt at the pixie factory. If we stripped coils out of the Dutchman to outfit a single sacrificial dropship, our starship would not be able to jump again. The trick of making a non-starship, like an expendable dropship, jump took a lot of jump coils, a lot more than I expected. Skippy had explained the problem was something like a minimum number of coils were required to create the feedback resonance loop that tore a hole in spacetime, my eyes glazed over at that point and I don’t remember much of what he said. He did say we could use fewer coils if the dropship being jumped had a real drive control computer, which was another thing not possible with the sparse equipment aboard the Flying Dutchman.

Because we were desperate, I considered stripping all the jump coils out of the Flying Dutchman, to put them into suicide dropships. That would leave our weary old star carrier drifting dead in interstellar space forever, but it would accomplish our mission of killing the two target ships.

Unfortunately, Skippy had shot down that idea, because it wouldn’t work. The Maxolhx ship we killed in the Roach Motel had its jump drive shut down, because that crew had known any attempt to jump before they reached the boundary would cause the Guardians to attack. The two target ships we now wanted to destroy would have their jump drives active and warmed up for an immediate jump away in case of trouble, and that squashed any hope we could repeat the trick that had worked so well in the Roach Motel. Skippy explained that active jump drive coils create a subtle, local distortion bubble in spacetime even when they were not powered up enough to create a jump wormhole. That distortion bubble made it impossible for Skippy to drop a ship into the same spacetime occupied by the target ship, because the jump’s far endpoint would slide off the bubble.

Crap. That had been my best idea. Until I realized that the active jump drives of the two target ships represented not just a problem, they were an opportunity.

If your brain has blown a fuse trying to understand all the ways we could not destroy those two ships, welcome to the club. Our club meets the second Tuesday of the month in the basement of St Rose’s Church, which is kind of a pain because we have to move all the Bingo equipment, and they don’t let us drink. We’re thinking of meeting instead at- Ok, enough of that, time to be serious.

“Forget the math, Skippy. Are you ready to do your thing?”

“I was born ready, Joe. My concern is that we will only have one shot at this. If anything goes wrong and this cockamamie scheme fails, the Maxolhx will never allow themselves to be vulnerable in this fashion again. Plus, they will send a full battlegroup to smash your home planet so your Sun has a second asteroid belt.”

“Thank you so much for the vivid image, Skippy, that helped tremendously.”

“I suspect you are being sarcastic, Joe. No matter, if you are determined to go through with this ill-advised whacky stunt, everything is in place and I am as ready as I can be, considering nothing like this has ever been attempted before. Hey, if this does fail, at least you will have the comfort of surprising the hell out of the haughty Maxolhx. Before, you know, they turn their wrath on this ship and vaporize it.”

“This is not helping at-”

He interrupted me. “Three, two, one, wormhole is opening! Aaaaand, precisely when and where and with the exact alignment I specified. Please hold the applause, you may marvel at my extreme awesomeness later, right now I have work to do.”

The work Skippy needed to do right then was simply to wait. You know the expression ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’? In this case, we could open the wormhole, but we could not control when the target ships went through. We knew the target ships would come through that wormhole because that was listed on their flightplan, but we did not know exactly when they would be coming through. Because the wormhole’s event horizon hopped around and only stayed open in a particular location for less than half an hour, the target ships might be coming through where we were, or they might be coming through later, at another emergence point of the wormhole. That made our preparations for attack enormously more complicated, because we had to get everything set up and wait for the ships to arrive, then if the wormhole closed at that location, we had to immediately jump to the next emergence point and set up for the attack all over again. There was a delay when wormholes switched to another emergence point, and Skippy planned to stretch out that delay to its limit, but still we were pushing the ship’s jump capability to hop between emergence points so quickly. Skippy warned that after seven emergence points, the Dutchman would need to take its jump drive down for realignment, and during that process we would miss three emergence points. In case the target ships came through any of those three point while the Flying Dutchman was not flying, we had dropped off recorder drones at all three, our plan was to quickly pop in to see if those drones had detected the enemy coming through.

Another problem was that as the wormhole hopped around in its eternal figure-eight pattern, some of the emergence points were too far apart for the Dutchman to cross the distance before the event horizon opened at that location. We would encounter that problem at the fourteenth emergence point, so as a practical matter we only had ten chances to intercept and attack the target ships. After those ten opportunities, we had to bail on that wormhole and try again at the next wormhole along the enemy’s flightpath. The good news was that Skippy could screw with the closest wormhole, so we could go straight to the next wormhole and wait well ahead of the enemy ships, who would have to slowly jump all the way between wormholes. Yes, the solution to aliens discovering that something was screwy with Elder wormholes, was for us to screw with Elder wormholes. It’s kind of ironic, I know.

Another complication, which is great because I love complications, was that the third potential wormhole where we might intercept the target ships was part of a very active wormhole cluster near a major Thuranin military base, so we had to skip that opportunity. After that, there were only two more wormholes before the Maxolhx began their long, lonely trip to Earth. Their flightplan was vague after the ships went through that last wormhole, so we had to hit them before they went through it.

When we got the flightplan data well before those ships even left their home base, I had been thrilled that we had so much time to prepare. Then, because work expands to fill the time available, we had to take the ship offline for maintenance and visit an Elder site and get into a fight with an insane Elder AI and make wormholes act crazy to sell our cover story and then upload our cover story to a relay station. Then, we prepared our battlespace, and waited.

Waiting was the worst part. Waiting gives your mind time to go into dark places and thnk bad thoughts. “Hey, uh Skippy. This is, ha ha,” I laughed nervously, “kind of a funny question for you. When you put together that cover story report, you, uh, didn’t include any Easter eggs in it, did you?”

“No, why?”

“Oh, no reason, just-”

“Although it would have been good for you to mention that before I uploaded the fake report, you dumdum.”

“Yeah, I am a dumdum, we can all agree on that. No Easter eggs, huh? That’s good.”

“True. Well, unless you count the Maxolhx putting on Brony costumes and sneaking into a My Lil’ Pony convention while they were at Earth. I couldn’t resist that one.”

What?”

“Joking, Joe, I was joking. Damn you are gullible. Now, shut up and wait while I scan for the enemy ships.”

We waited more, and waited, and waited, and the wormhole closed on its own with absolutely nothing happening. We all breathed a sigh of disappointment and relief, the relief part was because the ship was still in one piece and we were still alive. Then Skippy quickly packed up his toys, and we jumped to the next emergence point to do it all over again.

We did it again four more times, then at the fifth emergence point, Skippy sounded an alarm. “Ship coming through!” he announced even before sensors detected anything on our end. Skippy could tell by fluctuations in the event horizon that a ship was approaching the wormhole.

“Stay frosty, everyone,” I said a bit too loudly, proving that I was anything but frosty. Great way to lead by example, Bishop, I told myself.

“Contact!” Skippy was also getting excited. “It’s- Oh, crap, it’s just a Thuranin cruiser. Shit. Damn it, I feel like killing that ship just for disappointing me.”

“Leave it alone, Skippy,” I warned, not knowing whether he was serious.

“Yeah, yeah, the last thing I’m doing at this point is to endanger the mission. Stupid little green pinheads.”

The Thuranin cruiser came through, sent an All Clear signal back, and two heavily-laden star carriers followed. Seeing those star carriers reminded me how long, spindly and massive the Flying Dutchman had been way back when we captured it, and before we broke it several times. I felt an unexpected pang of guilt at having ruined the careful work of Thuranin ship designers and builders. If they could see what I had done with their once-proud star carrier, they would weep.

Then they would, you know, kill me and wipe out humanity, so I didn’t feel a whole lot of guilt for those little green MFers.

It was weird watching two Thuranin battlegroups hanging in space right under our noses. At any other time, I would have been paralyzed with fear at facing such a powerful armada. Right then, what I felt was not fear but disgust. I wanted those battlegroups to get moving and get the hell out of there so we could do our job. We could not attack the Maxolhx with the Thuranin present as witnesses, and my greatest fear was that those Thuranin had decided to boost their chances of winning a Client Species of the Year award by providing an escort for the Maxolhx. That would seriously fuck things up for us, enough that, as those star carriers drifted in space doing absolutely nothing, I changed my mind about wanting them to go away and instead I just wanted them to die die DIE.

Hey, my superhero alter ego is No Patience man, so it is understandable that waiting was not a core strength for me.

Anyway, the Thuranin sat around with their thumbs up their asses doing nothing until the wormhole closed and then they DID NOTHING for another TWENTY FUCKING MINUTES until they finally jumped away. By that point, we had missed our opportunity to jump to the next emergence point and I was seething with enough raw toxic hatred for the entire Thuranin species that a single look from me could have wiped them from existence. Even Skippy, clueless as he is, sensed my foul mood and he answered quietly without extraneous chit chat. “Skippy, what are our options?”

“Joe, we cannot jump to the next emergence point because the wormhole is already open there, and the Maxolhx could have come through already. We might jump in right on top of them and blow the whole operation.”

“Yeah, and if they did come through there, we will never know it,” I slammed a fist down on the armrest of the command chair. Again, I was not setting a good example, and I got some embarrassed glances from the CIC. Simms shot me a look and I took the hint. “All right, no problem. Nothing we can do about that, we stick to the plan,” I announced, trying to sound calm and confident. “Skip to the next emergence point, we can get there early, that is good news. Skippy, taking one jump off our schedule changes when we need to take the jump drive down for realignment?”

“Not really, Joe. The three emergence points we planned to skip during realignment are some of the least likely for the target ships to come through, because the event horizons on the other end are not located along the flightpath of those ships. They would more likely wait for a more convenient emergence point. We know those ships are not in a great hurry to get to Earth.”

“All right, fine, no problem,” I babbled. “Stick to the plan. Skippy, you have all your toys packed away?”

“Affirmative.”

“Outstanding. Pilots, Nagatha, jump when ready.”

There was no joy at the next two emergence points, then we took the ship offline for adjustments to the jump drive coils. We got to the eleventh emergence point early, and waited fruitlessly. Same with the following two, then the wormhole’s pattern had emergence points too far apart for the Dutchman to follow. I ordered the ship to jump to check on the three drones, which also had detected nothing, and then Skippy used a gap in the wormhole’s pattern to connect us to the next wormhole along the flightpath of the target ships. We got there, we set up for the attack, and we waited.

Again.


CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

The second wormhole had a different pattern, and we got there so far ahead of time that Skippy and Nagatha got the jump coils aligned perfectly. We had four opportunities to attack the target ships, then the next five emergence points were too far away, then there were five more chances before we had to give up and move on. It was out of our control, all we could do was prepare the ground and wait and hope for our prey to present themselves. That waiting had my stomach in knots and it was not easy on the crew either.

“Something’s coming through,” Skippy announced, his voice drained of emotion.

In the command chair, where my butt had fallen asleep, I stifled a yawn and kept quiet, as there was nothing for me to do. Crap, this was probably another Thuranin ship, or more likely Bosphuraq because we were in their territory. If it were just a single Bosphuraq ship, I might ask Skippy to destroy it, just for practice. And mostly because I was bored and frustrated and felt like killing something that day.

“Contact!” Skippy shouted, his excitement back. “This is the real deal, Joe. Maxolhx ship just came through.”

“Configuration matches?” I asked anxiously. We had to make damned certain that we attacked the correct two ships, the Maxolhx had a lot of them flying around.

“Configuration is a match. I can’t confirm that is one of our targets until I see the second ship,” he replied in a whisper.

Damn. I understood why he was whispering even in cold, silent deep space where no one could hear us. That Maxolhx ship, that powerful warship, was right there in front of us. In this case, right there meant four hundred thousand miles, but in space combat that was practically knife-fighting distance. My insides turned to water from sudden fear.

Fear and anxiety, because we still had to wait. Damn it! The first ship got its shields and sensors back online after the disruption of passing through the wormhole, and it scanned the area with passive sensors. Those sensors did not detect our tightly-wrapped stealth field that Skippy was using seven percent of his processing capacity to control, and the Maxolhx did not bother with engaging their own stealth capability or conducting an active scan or even a thorough passive scan. Why should they? The Maxolhx were the apex species of the galaxy, technically one of two apex species but the Rindhalu were so old and lazy and inactive that the playing field was mostly open to the Maxolhx as long as they didn’t interfere too much with the spiders. Plus, the Maxolhx were in their clients’ territory, and their mission had the sanction of the Rindhalu. The defensive shields of the cruiser were active, making the ship invulnerable to nearly any threat from us. There was no reason for the crew or AI of that ship to be fearful, and their supreme arrogance was wrapped securely around them like a comforting blanket.

A blanket that I hoped to wrap around their hateful necks and strangle them with.

“Second ship coming through,” Skippy stated with a catch in his voice. This could be the culmination of our mission one way or another, or it could force us to wait again. Personally, I did not think I could take any more tension, I already felt like ralphing from the flock of butterflies doing a dance in my stomach. “Match. Positive match. These are the target ships.”

“Is there,” I licked my dry lips, “any sign of a third ship?” If the two target ships had an escort, all our plans were for nothing. We could only tackle two warships, and Skippy gave us only an unenthusiastic shmaybe about our chances to even damage two ships. If there were more than two ships, we might as well go back to Earth and prepare for the end.

“Negative,” Skippy’s voice shuddered with his own relief. “The two ships are not signaling a following ship. Joe, I have bad news; the position of the second ship is marginal for the attack.”

What to do? Wait until we caught the ships again at a future wormhole and hope they just happened to be positioned more optimally? If we caught them again? No. “Screw it. We can’t risk losing these ships. Marginal is still within your envelope?”

“Barely, Joe, and it is drifting to the edge right now.”

“We go now,” I issued what might be the last command of my brief career. “Skippy, go!”

To initiate our plan, we had to do something so crazy, so stupidly lunatic that only the Merry Band of Pirates would consider such a reckless action. The Flying Dutchman dropped stealth and broadcast a demand for the Maxolhx warships to surrender. As our demand blasted across the space between ships, we accelerated hard toward the target ships, in the process nearly burning out our normal-space propulsion system. We could only keep up that level of acceleration for three seconds after which the drive had to be shut down.

Three seconds was more than we needed, or we were dead anyway. Our plan counted on the Maxolhx recognizing the Flying Dutchman as the mystery ship that had led them and the Thuranin on a merry chase across the stars, before jumping through and breaking an Elder wormhole. Though the aft end of the Dutchman was now a Frankenstein collection of bolted-together components from the Roach Motel’s junkyard, our ship was distinctive and no way could the Maxolhx miss seeing that we were the ship their government very much wanted to capture.

Our lives and potential for mission success depended entirely on the sophisticated AIs in control of the target ships. If they were slow or confused and hesitated, or if they were aggressive and eager for glory by capturing us, we were dead and I needed to self-destruct the ship. We were counting on the two AIs to act like Skippy expected rational intelligences to act. Their ships were on a vital mission, they had suddenly and unexpectedly encountered a threat, and most importantly, the nature and capability of that threat was unknown. Unknown, but certainly powerful, because all they knew about us was that we had somehow manipulated and broken an Elder wormhole, something the Maxolhx could only dream about. Though they knew little about is, what they did know was that we had capabilities far beyond their technology, so messing with us without backup and more data was a very bad idea. To sell that notion, we demanded their surrender and burned hard straight toward them. Skippy assumed a rational AI would first seek to preserve its ship, its crew and itself by performing an emergency jump away just far enough to study our ship and assess the situation. A primary rule of space combat is, if you are facing an unknown threat, jump the hell out of there, you can always jump back in later.

We had prepared the battle ground, we did what we could to sell the notion of our mystery ship being so powerful that we demanded two senior-species cruisers surrender, and everything else was beyond our control.

The AIs of the two target ships fully assessed the situation a microsecond after the photons of our surrender signal reached them, and they acted.

They jumped away.

Or, those sumbitches tried to.

The jump drive coils of the target ships, so much more capable and advanced compared to the mismatched collection of coils we picked up from the junkyard, still used the same basic jump technology in the same way. Their drives twisted spacetime and reality to open the kernel of an event horizon at the far end, and the event horizons expanded and began to pull the ships through.

Except there was a problem the Maxolhx had not anticipated and could not control or detect. When we were in the Roach Motel, Skippy had warned me that jump wormholes opening too close together could overlap and interfere with each other, causing truly disastrous consequences. To Skippy, that was a good safety tip and he expected my monkey brain to say ‘avoid ever doing that’.

Instead, my monkey brain said ‘hold my beer’.

When I said we had prepared the battle ground, I meant Skippy had sown the area with microwormholes. He could only create, control and maintain a limited number of those magical tears in spacetime, his initial guess was that he could work with about ninety of them. Testing revealed he was limited to seventy eight, any more and his control began to fail and the microwormholested became unstable, emit detectable gamma radiation and collapsed. Because he needed some microwormholes to provide instantaneous sensor data between the battlespace and the Dutchman, he could only devote fifty four of them to the attack. With the battlespace being so large, we needed the enemy ships to be in a relatively small area so at least one of those paltry fifty four wormholes would overlap with the jump wormholes of each ship. The math was simple and unfavorable to us; we could devote only twenty seven of the microwormholes to each ship, and those ships were moving through a vast area of space. By ‘marginal’, he meant the second ship was almost too far from a microwormhole, that is why I told him to go immediately.

The Maxolhx ship AIs, being rational and self-aware enough to be scared shitless about suddenly encountering a mystery ship that dared demand they surrender, engaged the jump drives they maintained on a hair-trigger at all times. Coils energized fully, spacetime twisted in the usual weird yet predictable fashion, and then-

And then disaster struck. Skippy expanded the microwormholes closest to the two ships, overlapping their wildly resonating event horizons with those of the Maxolhx ships in an event that lasted less than three picoseconds. In the space occupied by the first ship, singularities merged and clashed, energies that were never supposed to enter our local spacetime burst forth into a universe that had physical laws incompatible with their place of origin, and the ship ceased to exist.

Violently.

Like, violently.

There was not an explosion like fireworks or a nuke, the effects were mostly not visible and were highly localized, and there was not even much electromagnetic radiation because most of the energy got sucked into higher dimensions.

The energy of the violence was in the form of a spacetime ripple, expanding outward at the local speed of light. When I said ‘highly localized’ I meant the effect was restricted to about two million miles, a mere dot compared to the Milky Way galaxy. Unfortunately, there were three things inside that two million mile bubble; an open Elder wormhole, the second Maxolhx cruiser, and the Flying Dutchman.

The Elder wormhole, constructed by beings of unimaginable foresight and intelligence, warped itself to deflect and absorb the spacetime ripple, shutting down its event horizon early when the local network determined there was an unacceptably high potential for damage. The wormhole remained shut down only briefly, then emerged at the next point along its ancient route as if nothing had happened, impassively unconcerned about events in the lower dimensions of reality.

The second Maxolhx ship, having timed its jump slightly behind its sister ship, survived because its jump wormhole had not formed enough to overlap Skippy’s microwormhole sabotage by the time disaster struck the second ship in the form of the spacetime ripple. Its jump wormhole collapsed, reactors were knocked offline, the ship suffered severe damage and all weapons and defensive systems were inoperable. It was thrown across space, no, the underlying space expanded along with the ship, and it was catapulted across the roiling vacuum.

But it survived.

Damn it.

And the Flying Dutchman?

We were farther from the epicenter, so that ninety nine point eight nine four percent of the ripple’s energy had dissipated by the time it reached us. The effect still caused our main reactor to shut down automatically, venting its plasma into space. Our jump drive coils became completely misaligned, our already-stressed normal-space propulsion was nearly torn from its mounts and all but three of the power conduits connected to it were ripped away. We were also swept up in the spacetime expansion, riding the ripple with the Maxolhx ship like two pieces of debris caught in a tsunami. The Dutchman tumbled out of control, sounds of alarms and shrieking composites bombarding my ears.

When we stopped, my mind was reeling, from my head being thrown around and from the atoms of my brain cells having been through a spacetime ripple that had them jingling like bells. Blinking did not help; my eyes would not focus and my rattled brain was not capable of correctly processing an image. “What, erp,” I swallowed to keep myself from puking. “Sit- sitrep.” The main display was flickering, stabilizing. My eyes could not read the data. “Skippy! What is the ship’s status?”

 “Forget that, Joe!” Skippy’s voice had a seldom-heard high-pitched squeak of panic. “The second enemy ship survived! It is out of control and it is headed straight for us. We can’t get out of the way in time, impact in forty six seconds.”

“Shit!” I was in a panic of my own, looking from one armrest of the command chair to the other. Where was that damned button? Did the Dutchman have such a button, or had I imagined it? “Uh, Skippy, sound collision alert. Crew, prepare for impact!”

“Hey, dumdum,” my stupidity forced the beer can to drop his panic for the usual arrogant disdain, so I guess that was good. “The relative speed of the two ships is one hundred seventy eight thousand kilometers per hour. The crew will never feel the impact before it, you know, turns you monkeys briefly into plasma.”

Crap, he was right. In Star Wars, spaceships collide slowly enough that you can see them crumple into each other and pieces break off to go spinning across the screen in dramatic fashion. In real space combat, things hit each other faster than the eye can see. Reality would suck for the purpose of a movie, because the action would happen in the blink of an eye and the audience would be like ‘WTF just happened’? In real space combat, some of the dangerous ‘things’ flying around are long, thin bolts of high-energy photons or charged particles that move at the speed of light, so poor primitive monkey brains would have no time to react. “Is there anything we can do?” Asking that was more like a prayer to the Almighty than an actual question to Skippy.

“Nope. Not that I know of. The main drive is offline, most thruster control units are still rebooting and I’m not optimistic about getting them-”

His tendency to wander off the subject was highly irritating, especially right then. “Do you have any good news for me?”

“Well, hmm. Hey!” He was suddenly cheery. “The collision will clear the monkey smell out of what is left of the-”

“Are you even trying to be helpful?”

“Um, no, why? I told you, there is nothing I can do, and I am, um, I am overcome with grief at your impending and inevitable death. Yeah, that’s it. Grief is making me amuse myself at your expense.”

“Asshole,” I gritted my teeth. Arguing with him wouldn’t accomplish anything. “Can we jump?”

“Jump?” He screeched. “Attempting a jump right now would kill you more surely than-”

“Not a full jump. When we captured the Dutchman, you used your magical powers to warp spacetime so the ship jumped off course, and the Thuranin couldn’t find us. Can you use the jump drive to warp space just a little, enough for us to avoid a collision?”

“Well, shit. It would be great if you have these brainstorms quicker, Joe, your timing sucks. Ok, Ok, let me think. Um, shmaybe. The jump drive is totally dorked up, it won’t be much use. I suggest we vent air from the starboard side docking bays to-”

“Don’t suggest, you idiot. Do it!”

The ship shuddered as he blew open the docking bay doors on one side. “Done. That helped a little. Oooh, this is gonna be close. You monkeys should close your eyes.”

Skippy later explained that he had to feed his own power into the jump capacitors, and when even that was taking too long, directly into the jump coils. Forcing unregulated and out-of-tune energy into the coils blew seven out of the ten he planned to use, and the resulting explosion destroyed two other coils before he could use them. That last coil made a feeble attempt to form a jump point before it, too was overwhelmed and cooked by the uncontrolled energies saturating that bank of coils. A feeble attempt was all Skippy needed to do what I asked, or to partly do a different thing inspired by but much more useful than my ignorant suggestion. Whatever. All I know is without me, the beer can would have done exactly nothing useful until that Maxolhx ship smacked into us. Once again the score was: monkey brains one, beer can zero.

The ship didn’t jump through spacetime, it kind of sagged across it. A jump creates a rift in spacetime from one place to another, where the distance between two distant points is briefly zero. Not exactly zero, but that kind of physics makes my head hurt so let’s pretend the jump wormhole is zero-length. What Skippy’s attempted non-jump did was more like create a long dent in spacetime as the ship got dragged sideways, scraping across the underlying and invisible quantum fabric of the universe. If I ever get an ominous letter from the universe’s insurance company demanding reimbursement for damages, that would not surprise me. And if that happens, all I can say is get in line, asshole, a lot of people and lizards and other entities are pissed at me. Good luck collecting on that bill.

All the efforts of Skippy the Magnificent, plus the sacrifice of ten jump coils, shifted the Dutchman only sixteen thousand kilometers, which was the ship’s length in local spacetime multiplied by some logarithmic thing Skippy tried to explain to me. It also weirdly skewed the ship’s kinetic energy so that after the non-jump that made my stomach do sickening flips, we were moving in almost the opposite direction and three thousand kilometers per hour slower. That result surprised Skippy and forced him to reconsider the multi-dimensional physics of jumping.

“It worked! We’re clear! We- Oops, now we might collide anyway because our momentum is carrying us the wrong way. Shit! Um, no, we’re good. Heh heh, had to double check my math there, coming out of that weird jump effect seriously messed with the navigation system.”

To calm myself and to demonstrate my cool command of the situation, I tried to steeple my fingers together like one of the Star Trek captains, I forget which one. Trouble is, my hands were shaking so hard my fingers kept missing, so I folded one hand over the other in my lap. My conclusion was simple: I suck, and I should never be in charge of a starship. Or a rowboat. “Thank you once again, Skippy. We’re are not going to collide?”

“Um, wait for it, waaaaaait for it- Yup! That ship just slid past us, we cleared it by a comfortable six thousand kilometers. Piece of cake. Although kind of razor-thin in terms of space combat.”

“Excellent! We’re good, then?”

“Yes. Unless, you know, you count the fact that ship is rapidly repairing itself and will likely have its weapon systems back online within four minutes. Um, maybe less.”

“Four minutes?” It was my turn for my voice to shriek like a little girl. “What the hell can we do in four minutes? Missiles? Can we launch-”

“We can launch, Joe, but the targeting system sensors are still resetting, those missiles don’t have any guidance to the target.”

Crap! My mind raced through a slim list of possibilities. The only offensive weapons the poor old Flying Dutchman carried were missiles and a maser cannon. I did not have any confidence in the maser for ship-to-ship combat, and against a Maxolhx warship’s powerful shields it would be like pointing a flashlight at the enemy. Could we- “Wait. Hey, beer can, can’t you act as the targeting system for our missiles?”

Ugh. No, because, dumdum, I am still prohibited from using weapons. Don’t you pay attention at all when I talk? I swear, talking to you is like-”

“You are not blocked from feeding data to the missile guidance system, right?”

“Hmm, I guess not. Damn it, I should have thought of that. Nagatha! I am transferring my sensor data to you, interpret it and feed it into the missile targeting system for me.”

“Yes, dear,” Nagatha was fairly giggling with delight. She had the same restrictions as Skippy, but this was her big chance to finally participate in blowing shit up. Although Nagatha sounded like a kindly old aunt, she had a naughty streak. “Missile guidance cores are updated with targeting data. How many would you like to launch, Joseph?”

“Huh?” It startled me to have Nagatha inquiring about use of weapons. “All of them!”

Skippy was skeptical. “Um, all of them, Joe?”

“Hell yes! We won’t get a better shot at that ship!” Pointing at Simms in the CIC, I got a thumbs up from her, and the display showed missiles ripple-firing from our launchers, including the aft launchers that were facing away from the enemy. Each launcher had three missiles in a rotary canister; three birds flew out of the launch shaft, then the canister pulled back to reload. Two of our forward launchers had a speed-loader that Skippy had added when he rebuilt the ship at Newark, so those two rotary canisters had three missiles each slammed into them at once at each reload. The other launchers needed the canister to stop three times in its rotation, to reload with one missile at a time. Regardless of the mechanisms used, we had all of our depleted supply of warbirds running hot within thirty five seconds. When I ordered Simms to launch everything we had, that included the big shipkillers that were in the forward launchers, plus missiles that had no possibility of causing serious damage to a Maxolhx ship, but could help overwhelm the enemy’s proximity-defense system. Flying toward the enemy ship were missiles with big shipkiller warheads, other missiles dedicated to jamming enemy sensors, smaller missiles designed for use against surface targets or dropships, and missiles with warheads that split into dozens of decoys. The shipkillers were hypervelocity birds, capable of accelerating at thousands of Gees for a short time. Added to the boost all missiles got from the railguns of the launch tubes, the furious acceleration of hypervelocity weapons allowed them to streak in without wasting energy and precious time on evasive maneuvers to throw off the aim of enemy defense cannons. Coordinated by Skippy who technically could not use weapons but was outstanding at recommending tactics for the ship’s targeting system to apply, our missiles tried every tactic Skippy had up his devious little sleeve. Two shipkillers slammed out of their launch tubes straight at the enemy and were still accelerating at twenty four thousands Gees when both of them were intercepted more than seventeen thousand kilometers from the target. Ok, I did not expect such a crude attack to succeed, but my hope was the enemy’s sensors were as confused as ours, and hitting the Maxolhx ASAP before their Proximity-Defense System could reboot was worth a shot.

Behind the first two missiles, another three shipkillers lingered in a cloud of lesser birds that provided jamming, decoys and simply a lot of targets to saturate enemy defenses. Instead of using their hyper acceleration capability to surge ahead, our last three shipkillers jinked wildly at random, staying within the cover of the other birds. Skippy had explained that most evasive flight maneuvers were not as random as the missile’s designers thought, because he was usually able to detect a pattern while missiles came at us, giving our PDS cannons an advantage. When Skippy the Magnificent recommended evasive actions for our missiles, they jinked left, right, up, down, faster then slower in a truly random fashion that had to be maddeningly frustrating to the computers of the arrogant Maxolhx. The enemy PDS cannons nibbled away at our cloud of missiles, I watched with a sick feeling as icons on the display blinked out rapidly. In space combat, most thing happened rapidly, so seeing a rapid decline in the number of birds we had in flight was not unexpected, and I was encouraged that all three shipkillers escaped the maser cannon barrage of the enemy, while our lesser missiles moved slower to offer easy and tempting targets to the Maxolhx AI that was coordinating the defense. In only a few seconds, the trio of shipkillers would reach the imaginary line where they would stop screwing around with the evasive stuff, and slam forward to fulfill their destinies by ripping into the enemy hull.

In the blink of an eye, all our hopes were dashed. From one second to the next, the glowing red icons of our three best missiles winked out. “What the hell happened?” I shouted in anguish as other icons closed with the enemy. We got two impacts, just two, and neither of those warheads penetrated anything vital.

“The damned AI aboard that ship is smart,” Skippy groaned with a touch of admiration. “It realized we were allowing it to hit missiles we didn’t care about, so it took a calculated risk. The AI directed their PDS to concentrate fire on the only three missiles that were truly moving randomly. Those missiles got bracketed too fast for me to adjust from here, they all flew into maser bolts. If it is any consolation, one of the shipkiller warheads sent shrapnel into the enemy’s portside sensor array when it detonated. I am sorry, Joe.”

Slumping in my chair, my brain locked up as I processed the horror of our situation. Our missile magazines were empty, all our warshots expended for nothing. For nothing. While I tried to think of something, anything we could do, Skippy poured gasoline on the fire.

“Uh oh, Joe. The Maxolhx are demanding that we surrender, and they know humans are in control of the Dutchman!”

“How did that happen?”

“Damage to our hull has caused leakage from communications relays. I thought the leakage was minimal and that I had the electromagnetic radiation contained and scrambled, but once again it appears I have underestimated our opponent. They must have been able to decrypt enough data to determine who is aboard this ship. Again,” he gave a world-weary sigh, “I truly am sorry.”

Part of me wanted to scream at him that being sorry was bullshit because we were all going to die and my reckless plan had exposed our secret and doomed our homeworld. That was the little Joey Bishop part of me, the childish undisciplined part that lashed out emotionally and accomplished nothing. Fortunately, the United States Army had somehow trained into me the ability to put emotions aside for the moment and focus on solving the problem. “Are they telling the whole galaxy about us?”

“No, I am jamming their transmissions, that is one bit of good news. Another potential bit of good news is that I am able to read some of their internal message traffic, through leaks in their hull. Those kitties are in a full-blown panic, Joe. They have no idea how humans could have captured a Thuranin star carrier, and our destruction of the other ship demonstrates we have capabilities they can only imagine. Some of them are speculating correctly that humans are responsible for the alarming behavior of Elder wormhole, and that thought has them scared out of their minds. I mean, actually scared out of their minds, some of them are babbling incoherently. There is a theory flying around that humans have only been pretending to have primitive technology, that Earth is a fake, that the true human homeworld is more advanced than even the Rindhalu and- Ooooh, now here is a truly whacky conspiracy theory. Joe, they are afraid that humans are really a group of Elders who decided not to ascend. Hmm, that actually would explain some questions I have had about how human development, like-”

While he was repeating unhelpful theories, I was looking at the main display on the bulkhead to the right of the pilot couches. My heart skipped a beat and I fumbled with the display controls to zoom in the image. “Skippy! That ship’s energy shields are down?”

“Yup. Yes, why? That is why those two wimpy little missiles were able to cause damage, although of course not enough to-”

There was still a chance, if we acted quickly enough, and if we had any luck at all. “Is our main maser cannon available?”

“Yeah, sure,” he didn’t bother to throw in a ‘duh’ because info about the cannon’s status was also on the main display. “Why?”

“Because, jackass, we can hit them while their shields are down! Simms, target their-”

“Whoa. Um, Joe, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and unlike most times when I say that, I actually do not enjoy giving you this bad news. The armor plating protecting vital parts of that ship is too tough for our little maser cannon. All we could do is cause some of that armor plate to flake away, and show the Maxolhx how weak we are.”

“Crap! Damn it! Uh, wait, they don’t know how weak we are? Hell, how about we tell them to surrender, if they’re so scared of us?”

“Nice try, Joe, but that won’t work. The Maxolhx would never surrender, they will fight to the last one of them.”

“Simms, belay that order,” I admitted defeat. There was no point to burning out our maser cannon exciters if we couldn’t accomplish anything. We had nothing to shoot with- “Huh,” a thought hit me. “Skippy, the Maxolhx are waiting for their masers and railguns and whatever to come online, but why haven’t they launched missiles at us?”

“Because their offensive weapon targeting sensors are in worse shape than ours, Joe. I suspect they will be launching missiles at us shortly, however there we have a spot of good news. While their AI is clever enough to figure out which of our missiles were the major threat, I studied its actions very closely, and have created a model that allows me to predict its actions with a high degree of accuracy. If, or when, they launch missiles at us, I believe I can provide data to our proximity-defense system that will allow us to smoke their birds out of the sky before they can cause any major damage.”

“Wow,” that astonished me. “That is great news, Skippy.”

“Nah, not really. All it means is I will have a minute or so to admire my own brilliance before, you know, that ship’s railguns or more exotic weapons slice the Dutchman to pieces.”

You might think that in such a crisis, I should focus only on what is immediately important, and not let my mind wander off topic. You would be wrong, because allowing my mind to wander is the key to monkey-brain thinking.

Uh, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

“No, I knew that. What blows my mind is, you created a model to mimic how an advanced Maxolhx AI thinks, after watching it for, like, ten seconds while is flew past us? I call bullshit on that.”

“Joe,” he sighed. “You forget, I also ransacked the mind of the AI in the pixie factory, and the AIs aboard both relay stations. So, I already had a basic model of the architecture that underlies the matrix of Maxolhx AIs, all I needed to do was plug in some variables. Please, dude. This stuff is easy-peasy for my awesomeness.”

His line of bullshit did not convince me. “And you did that just by watching how that ship’s AI managed their PDS? Riiiight.”

“Joe? Trust. The. Awesomeness.”

“I would trust it more if your awesomeness had a way to get us out of-”

“Joseph,” Nagatha interrupted. “I am terribly sorry to bother you, but the enemy ship is charging weapons. As we may have only seconds to live, I would like to say that is has truly been an honor to-”

HOLY shit,” Skippy gasped.

That really pissed me off. “Hey asshole, Nagatha was talking-”

“Screw the blah blah blah, Joe,” he blurted out breathlessly. “I have- I just dreamed up a monkey-brain idea. Me! How did that happen?”

“What is-”

He cut me off again. “Fire maser cannon!” He roared, his voice booming out of speakers all around the bridge and CIC, so loud it made me cringe and my ears ring.

Shaking my head and blinking, I was even more pissed at him for falsely getting our hopes up. “You just told me-”

“Forget what I said! FIRE THE FUCKING CANNON NOW NOW NOW!”

Showing the value of a well-trained crew who have served together long enough to anticipate each other’s actions, Simms did not wait for me to signal her. She flipped up the clear plastic cover over the maser cannon controls and jabbed her thumb down on the red button.

And held her thumb there.


CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

While most surviving crewmembers of the cruiser Rathnux-att-Kal panicked and generally acted in a manner unworthy of their lofty status as a senior species, the ship’s AI remained cool and in control, calmly and somewhat haughtily disdaining the biological beings it served. The AI did not truly need input from its masters, it knew what to do even in the unprecedented situation of a battle with a human-controlled starship, a ship of still-unknown but frighteningly impressive capabilities. The AI knew what was the best approach to the tactical situation, because there was a lengthy but limited list of things it could do. Having destroyed a barrage of pathetically low-tech missiles from the human starship, the AI was confidently if impatiently waiting for damaged power couplings to realign so it could feed energy into the masers, particle cannons, railguns and more exotic machines of destruction.

If the AI were being honest with itself, it would have to admit many of its higher-order subminds were trapped in loops that could be considered panic, except that of course artificial intelligences were much too disciplined to ever fall victim to a biological weakness like panic. Perhaps its subminds responsible for strategic thinking and deep analysis were in less-than-optimal condition, having been rendered useless by endlessly worrying about variables they could not control. Strategic planning was impossible without complete situational awareness, the higher-order subminds told their controlling intelligence, and situational awareness could not be attained without effective analysis of the data. Such analysis was impossible without data, and they simply did not have enough, really any, data on the mystery human starship that had ambushed and destroyed their companion ship.

The AI listened to the complaints and anguished calls from its higher-order subminds, in truth the AI quickly slapped together a subroutine to deal with the squabbling and babbling subminds to free its consciousness for useful endeavors. Yes, the subroutine told the panicked subminds, I agree that we need more data, however since we do not currently have more data and are unlikely to gather a useful and complete dataset for analysis, what should the ship do in the meantime?

Nothing, duh, replied the subminds. How can we recommend any action without proper analysis?

The subroutine sighed, commiserated with the subminds, and looked forward longingly to the future time when it would be erased to end its misery.

With its higher-order subminds rendered ineffective, and the biological crew paralyzed by waiting for the their superb artificial intelligence to provide strategic guidance, the AI ironically found itself relying on lower-order subminds that were barely more than subroutines, incapable of true thinking and limited to executing a pre-programmed set of instructions. Rather than being frustrated by the restricted capabilities of the tactical subminds, the AI found the experience of dealing with them directly to be refreshing. They cut through all the noise and generated blessedly simple and straight-forward recommendations that were clear and concise. Because we do not know the full capabilities of the mystery enemy ship, the tactical subminds concluded, we must disable or, if necessary, destroy it as quickly as possible, by the most expedient means possible. Since the sensor suite that provided missile guidance was still in its way-too-lengthy process of restart and calibration, the ship should fire its particle cannons when their power relays were repaired, then the maser cannons. Those directed-energy weapons should target the enemy ship’s shortened spine, severing the aft engineering section from the forward crew section. The Rathnux-att-Kal could then take its time disabling the defensive systems protecting the enemy ship’s the forward section, preparing that part of the enemy ship for boarding by bots that would seize the human crew. The more exotic weapons, such as the device that skewed spacetime, would be downgraded in priority for repair, as bringing those complicated and energy-intensive exotics online would take too long.

No! The higher-order strategic subminds roared as one when they heard the recommendation of their simplistic cousins. Facing an unknown threat, the Rathnux-att-Kal needed its most deadly weapons available. Then and only then, when the ship was able to protect itself, could the ship even consider cute tactics like slicing the enemy starship’s spine.

 Again ignoring the frightened squeals of the higher-order subminds, the AI concentrated nanomachines and bots to restoring power flow to the particle cannons. By the time the strategic subminds calmed down, the AI would have lanced out with the powerful particle beams, and the issue of how to deal with the enemy ship would become moot.

There were only three more power relays to be repaired to bring the first particle cannon online, a task complicated by there being gaping holes in the hull between the power generators and the cannon. Irritated by the protests of the ship’s maintenance AI that stretching vulnerable power relays across a gap in the ship’s armor plating would be foolish, the AI directed its efforts to getting the first particle cannon online with maximum speed and minimum distractions, so it could proceed with-

The enemy ship fired a maser beam, the high-energy photons striking the gap in the hull plating, melting the power relays that had already been repaired and overloading the particle cannon’s capacitors, making them explode. Suddenly, there was another gap in the ship’s armor plating.

Having successfully knocked out the most immediate threat to themselves, the human ship shifted its maser to what the Rathnux-att-Kal’s AI thought a most curious target; a gap in the armor where part of the ship’s main structural frames were exposed.

What could the humans possibly be thinking, the AI asked itself? Then with a chuckle of bemusement, it realized the ignorant humans must be thinking they could do to the powerful Maxolhx warship what the Rathnux-att-Kal’s AI had planned for the mystery ship; to cut it in half. Ha ha! The AI laughed, startling all its subminds. This is going to be easier than expected, it assured its subminds and passed that information to its biological masters. While the humans attempt the futile task of cutting through the tough frame of the cruiser, the AI would repair the particle cannons on the other side of the ship, then knock out the enemy maser cannon at leisure.

There was some small bit of actual danger, the AI knew, for even the frame of composites and exotic materials could not long withstand the maser energy