Deep in interstellar space, an aging personnel-carrier ship decorrugated.
Joseph, the third scanner monitor on its bridge, tried to assess what had forced them out of FTL. It wasn't a corrugator failure, or a tuning problem with their artificial gravity, so it had to be external. Yep. There was the blip. The emissions analyzer's automatic report would be coming up in 2.7 seconds. He bit his fingernail. Was it another ship, or a dampener drone, or —
Oh no. Oh. No.
"That's him!" he yelped. "That's the Starlane Destroyer!"
Horrified eyes turned to look at the Grand Tactical Display and watch the encroaching green dot. The acting commander had little time: "Full forcefield over all areas; all batteries prepare to fire!"
Men and women dashed to general quarters amid the sudden klaxons. All their lives depended on their performance during the next sixty seconds. Then again, they would have to perform exceptionally to survive; only one ship, back in the earliest days of the Karthosian blockade, had ever survived attack from the Starlane Destroyer.
That didn't mean that they weren't going to do their damnedest to get past him and through the blockade, though. That was why they'd come this way to begin with. Either they faced death against the Destroyer, or they faced death against starvation.
Across dwindling kilometers of vacuum, cold eyes set in cold steel fixed themselves on the passenger ship. It was a bit smaller than he'd expected it to be. The ship would be armed, of course, and its weapons were doubtlessly as lethal as the mightiest of war vessels; but even the mightiest of war vessels couldn't hit a three-meter-high target if it were more than about two kilometers away. The steel-clad, once living man known as the Starlane Destroyer checked his multifunctional "battle club" (a haft ending in a uniquely bizarre twenty-centimeter mound of twinkling indicators and metal) one last routine time, and waited for the hard part to begin.
Five kilometers. Broadcast voices sounded in his head as they had sounded for the last minute. Their voices. The panic-stricken screams and pleas for help that emanated from the ship. Even with the immeasurable speed of tachyon transmissions, their messages would do them no good. They never did.
Four kilometers. He didn't want to hear their voices anymore. He tuned to a different frequency, one he knew the tachyon radio relays always carried this far from home, and which he liked for its gentle songs. "This is station K1010," the new voice said, "Coming to you direct from Karthos at one-oh-seven point four gigahertz. And have we got some great tunes lined up for you this morning. . . ."
Three kilometers. The main batteries of the ship flowered into life, shooting near but never quite hitting the erratically-weaving humanoid. The Starlane Destroyer took instantaneous inventory of his enemy's armament. Charged particle beams, some neutral particle beams, and a few high-energy (and low-efficiency) lasers scattered about. He would have preferred to come screaming in a lot faster, whizzing through the next gauntlet too fast for any firing opportunity; but his thrusters could only provide 2.3 G's of braking force. If he didn't slow most of the way down by the time he arrived, he'd either zip right past or smash into his target's hull hard enough to mangle them both. No matter. Things were moving right on schedule; in a few instants, he would have to turn on his personal force field.
"Starting with Grenda vil Dift's new collection for 2856," the disembodied announcer continued.
Two kilometers away. Now the ship's accuracy would prove formidable; this was the hard part. He flipped the dial on his battle club's handle to the "deflect" marking, and the massive head shifted configuration ever-so-slightly. Deflect mode was usually sufficient to deal with ship's weapons, but just in case he was overwhelmed . . .
He readied his body for the last standard procedure. At once, an explosion of blinding green light shook free of his metal shell. A residual expanding sphere of harmless green followed the initial surge outward from the steely humanoid, and when the fireworks ceased a second-and-a-half later, what looked like green Cherenkov radiation was left emanating from all points around him. This green fringe produced a haven for him as strong as any ship's shields. And no weapon ever devised by the mind of man could bypass a ship's shields; the only way to get through such a force field was to overwhelm it.
The calmest of melodies and harmonies replaced the announcer in his head. This was his favorite Grenda vil Dift song.
The first wave of electron cannon fire was way off target. Only a few beams at the fringes of its blast radius came close enough to be a threat, and he barely had to alter his course to avoid those. This was followed up by a salvo of proton beams. Good thinking, the Starlane Destroyer figured. By sending out protons right after the electrons, the two assaults would — at least weakly — attract and accelerate each other.
Duck down below one beam, weave sharply to the right about another. He was right in the middle of the scatter-pack this time. Blue, violet, and ultraviolet quantum spectra flashed by his supersensitive eyes, too fast to follow but not too fast to predict.
Grenda's voice drifted out of the vacuum: "My love, . . ."
A beam came at his center too fast for him to avoid; after all, particle beams typically traveled at over half the speed of light. This was where his battle club's "reaction assist" came in. Following his instinct, the club moved its head between its owner and the incoming beam. The unfathomable matrix there caught the beam and redirected it. The angular change was small — only a few degrees — but it was enough. The proton beam missed its target.
The club shook like thunder in his hands. It would have flown completely out of any ordinary person's grip, but these metal hands made it come back down and smash a second proton beam out of the way. And a third.
". . . The center of my life, . . ."
One kilometer away. This was usually where the ship got desperate. Another hail of particles, this time neutral hydrogen atoms, flashed toward him in compact bunches, glowing with hydrogen emission lines. His club still in Deflect mode, he batted away the onslaught as he pressed forward. An approaching solid body caught his attention; not an impact missile, certainly not, since it exploded five meters away from him and expanded into a sphere of thermonuclear fire.
But his personal forcefield kept the nova-hot fireball at bay, letting the plasma skirt his body without touching it. Fusion bombs with proximity fuses were effective weapons, but only against targets without monstrous amounts of shielding.
". . . Be with me, when I am gone. . . ."
Now the ship was closer to him than it was long. Point-defense weaponry blazed. Through the mist of incoming beams, bullets, and missiles, the cold black eyes scanned the tenuous green layer that guarded the ship. He was looking for faults, for single points in the shield where — ah, there was one!
Club forward, he angled his lower legs opposite to the dark spot his heightened senses had detected, jetted some high-energy helium plasma thrust out though where the soles of his feet should have been, and dove to the force field. Beneath the spot he'd sighted lay a small, open rectangle, bordered in a thick black case and emitting radial rays of green that fed into the battle shield like a lawn sprinkler. A shield generator port; the shielding was always, ironically, weakest over those things.
He braked an instant before he hit the force screen, allowing the rebound to absorb most of his momentum before he sidled up next to the craft. Now mere decimeters from the outer hull of the ship, he was out of the firing arcs of all but the weakest of the ship's weaponry. The node in the shields was right below him; it was time to strike. He pointed the head of his club down and twisted the end of its handle. Vibrating, shining emissions instantly drowned the twinkling of the head's jeweled facets; its Smash mode was active. Raising the club above his head, he swung the shimmering head sideways onto the ship and thrust it through the shields, through the helpless shield-generator port, through the ship's protective armoring, and through the hull to leave a hole big enough for him to enter.
The shield over that area was down, but the force of his own strike sent the three-meter-tall metal humanoid tumbling away. It usually did. The damage-control doors would slap down in seconds, but not before he would make it through. He canceled his tumbling when his legs were pointing away from the hole, and thrusted back into his prey, beating the damage-control barrier by exactly 1.3 seconds.
". . . The warmth of your love can propel me . . ."
Blue-white fluorescent light bathed both his gleaming skin and the white cylindrical hallway he'd entered, an oddly comfortable alternative to the dark of space, he felt, despite the intensity of the ultraviolet. His shielding all but unnecessary here, he reduced it to its minimum setting — a tenth of its full strength — and in so doing took a great strain off himself. Smash mode wouldn't be of much use to him either, until his final strike; he twisted two segments of the handle-bottom in opposite directions, setting it partly back in Deflect mode and partly into what its makers called "Sense mode."
Air was refilling the hallway — or rather, oxygen at a fifth of an atmosphere pressure. He could tell by the barely-perceptible resistance his new environment showed him. A lead was sticking out from the club's handle; he plugged it into a jack in his right hand and immediately got back a direction-and-range signal. The sensor in the club had picked up the ship's main engines — common FTL corrugators sent out a beacon of paragravitational flux in all directions, no matter how well shielded they were — and pointed to them like a compass. A direct course would precipitate moving through several layers of wall. Though he could easily do this, there was no reason not to take his time; the hard part was already over. He looked for the most likely place for a perpendicular shaft.
He drifted lazily forward for about five meters, then the security troopers made their grand entrance from his rear. A little ahead of schedule; this crew was more aware of how much trouble it was in than most. He could see them gasp in panic and mouth cries of, "It's him!" in what he figured must be loud voices. And just as they normally did, no matter how futile, they opened fire with their pathetic portable weapons.
His club, though only partly still in Deflect mode, was more than sufficient against their first barrage. Batting away low-energy lasers and tiny high-speed projectiles was far easier than redirecting near-light proton beams. He deflected their feeble attempts for about five seconds, then grew bored and advanced toward where his club's Sense mode had pointed him. The troopers in his way scattered.
". . . past the deepest darkness, and on. . . ."
His only opposition behind him, the Destroyer wafted toward the perpendicular ladder shaft at the end of the corridor. Despite the zero-gravity situation the spacecraft now experienced, it was engineered so that "down" pointed toward the back of the ship, for whenever it accelerated. The ladder was for going "up" and "down," so — down he went.
Not by holding on to the rungs or anything, of course. He merely angled toward the bottom, grabbed one rail, and flung himself engineward. He hadn't flown without his impellers like this for quite a while; it would have been exhilarating if he were still fully human. Nevertheless, he was headed in the right direction: the Sense mode signals strengthened with each passing deck.
". . . My love, the beacon in my nights, . . ."
The bottom was more like an arena than a deck. Red-labeled access hatches filled the center of the floor — or rear wall, depending on how you looked at it — all leading straight to the main engines. Unfortunately, between the ladder and the engine hatches stood three nervous armspeople, manning what looked vaguely like a mortar cannon.
'A portable plasma gun,' the Starlane Destroyer thought. 'Won't these people ever learn?'
He could have taken the plasma blast, or deflected it easily; nothing this small was a tenth as strong as a ship's main weapons. But his patience was running out, so instead he switched his club to its least-used mode. A reddish halo rose up from the head like jets of flame; he pointed it at the plasma gun and pushed a switch. Thunderous orange waves of energy leapt from the club's head and melted the plasma mortar into a fused stump. The three armspeople made themselves as scarce as their allies.
". . . Don't let your thoughts of me despair. . . ."
Contentedly, he switched the club back from Burn mode to Sense mode, just to assure himself that the engines hadn't moved since he last looked. Burn mode was one of those early experiments they'd tried with the club, no longer very useful but still nice to have around.
He moved to one of the hatches and ripped it from its housing with his left hand. The reading from his club's Sense mode jumped to triple; this was the place. He pulled himself through.
The innermost floor of the spacecraft lay but a few meters ahead. Indicator lights, graphic displays, and tiny windows to the cabin beyond all lit up the dark steel barrier like a children's game. And in the middle of it all, holding desperately onto the wall and shivering with fright, was a lone female mechanic. The Starlane Destroyer could have brushed her out of the way with the back of his hand, yet he just stood and studied her. Long brown hair. Somewhat muscular of build. She was short — only two meters tall, like nearly all Outsiders — yet she still reminded the Destroyer, somewhat, — of . . .
"Oh, what difference does it make," the mechanic's belt transceiver suddenly barked. The voice was metallic and almost a monotone, yet it still rang with a heavy Karthosian accent. "You'd just die with the rest of them anyway."
And with that, the Starlane Destroyer collapsed her ribcage as he smashed her across the cabin.
". . . My love! You're all the difference I need . . ."
Now to overload the engines. There was probably a half meter of hardened steel between himself and the corrugational-gravity generators; there always was. They armor-plated corrugation drives to protect them from exactly what he was about to do. He checked his Sense mode's readings once more to be certain — he had to hit it in just the right place for the ship to implode — then switched the club back to Smash mode and burst through the final wall.
The force of his impact carried well beyond the half-meter steel floor; he followed through until he hit the yellow, glowing gravity-generator at its critical point, wrecking the gravity bottle that was its only safety valve. He could barely see the flashing klaxon lights against the ultraviolet glare of the doomed gravity generator. It was time to get out.
The antigravity generator in his groin carried him through the hole he'd just made and the hatch above. Antigrav would serve until the sucking of the gravity generator he'd just hit overwhelmed it; then he would have to kick in the thrusters in his feet. Or rather his calves. He was all thruster from the knees down. They could just as well have planted his central thermonuclear furnace in his calves, for Karthos' sake.
". . . Our lives' pure light shall dare! . . ."
He whizzed past levels full of crewpeople who were too terrified over the ship's imminent destruction to worry about him anymore. He kept from concerning himself over them; he'd killed people before. His death count must be in the thousands by now. He told himself for the fiftieth time this was the only way: if they were rescued, they could detonate the ship and take out a few units of the home fleet in the process. Besides, they were only Outsiders anyway.
At last he reached the original hole he'd made in the ship's hull and exited the same way he'd entered. He could already see the hull of the ship begin to heave. As his anti-gravity coils carried him away from the doomed craft, he twisted the handle of his club past Smash mode, past Burn mode, past Scan and Sense modes, even past Deflect mode, until it reached its final setting: Warp mode. From there, the same prong that had appeared in the end of the handle for Scan and Sense modes once again popped out to receive his interface; he plugged it into the base of his right palm so that he could program the final stage of his escape.
". . . I still recall a time . . . "
Warp mode had always seemed like a stupid name for that setting. Oh, sure, that was what it did to the space he occupied and all, but the equivalent device had been called a "corrugation unit" on spacecraft since before he had been born. Maybe the Karthosian engineers who'd built the club couldn't fit "Corrugation" onto one of its mode labels. . . . In any event, he glanced down at the squarish LED display at the base of the handle to make sure it was programming itself right. The display briefly flashed, "WAIT G-," "CF 450K," and finally "PROGRAMMED." It was ready.
The gravity was getting too strong for his gravity-control coils to counter. He turned off his gravity coils, switched on the thrusters in his lower legs, pointed his club away from the collapsing ship, and pulled the activator trigger. The gravity produced by the overloaded gravity-generator on the ship was much too strong for the club to engage its corrugator now — it had plenty of safety catches to prevent spinning him off in some wild, unpredictable direction — but the ship wouldn't be producing that gravity for long. Not for long at all.
". . . before you turned my night to day, . . ."
The ship rolled itself up into a little ball. Most of the Outsiders on board it were doubtlessly killed by now. The midsection folded inward the most severely, giving the crumpling ship a barbell-like appearance for a few seconds. Then, the craft reversed its seemingly endless collapse as the deuterium in its fuel tanks reached fusion pressure and blew the ship apart.
". . . And I wondered then, as I wonder now, . . ."
And the instant the ship flowered into that gamma-ray fireball, its artificial gravity generator disintegrated. That was all the Starlane Destroyer's club needed to know. Before the first wave of gamma rays had passed him by, the club courrugated the space occupied by the Starlane Destroyer four hundred fifty thousand fold, and he shot off at eight hundred times the speed of light.
". . . How could it have been any other way?"
Tachyon noise buzzed in his head where Grenda's soothing voice had just been. That always happened whenever he set off a ship; uncontrolled fusion explosions produced damn near as many tachyons as they did neutrinos. But the tachyons were as harmless as the neutrinos, and neither the neutrinos nor the dangerous gamma rays could reach him now. Like all his other successful missions, everything that star ship ever was was behind him now.
He tuned in to his Karthosian military frequency. There wasn't much tachyon noise on that band. "Mission accomplished," he transmitted. "Headed back to rendezvous with Karthos Orbital Port One."
It always took a few seconds for them to clear his voice patterns and make sure it was him. Then, a dull voice replied simply, "Copy."
'Yeah, another mission accomplished,' he thought as he flew on. 'Another shipload of suffering people vanquished for the greater glory of Karthos. Yeah. Right.'