Strangen, Samuel, Hali, Flor, and a handful of others milled about in the low gravity of a small, seldom-used meeting room, furiously scribbling on wall-sized touchscreens and manual whiteboards. This meeting room had become their grand planning room overnight.
Getting the word out to the other colonies had been pretty easy. It was getting word to the inner worlds that was proving tough. Tachyon radio could reach pretty far, but even tight-beamed transmissions fizzled out after a few light-years. Interstellar communication absolutely required relays at regular intervals throughout space. Trouble was, all the relays between the colonies on this side of the Karthosian blockade, and the inner worlds on the other side, were currently controlled by Karthos.
And they needed the inner worlds.
There wasn't much they, or any of the other colonies, could do on their own. Local space militaries were practically non-existent this far from the cradle of humanity. The inner worlds, on the other hand, had the people and the infrastructure necessary to mount an interstellar war. If they could get Strangen's message to them, and if the inner worlds could convince themselves to unite against Karthos, they might just stand a chance.
Flor practically gasped as she looked up from a display. She addressed the room: "We just got word from Xiaoshen's Star b. They're a pretty big colony about twenty-three light years from here. Apparently, they have some talented hacker there who's managed to break into the Karthosian tachyon relay network. They've sent a message to the inner worlds, about the Starlane Destroyer's defection and the need to unite and pounce on Karthos while the iron is hot."
Samuel seemed positively jubilant. "So the inner worlds know now!"
"Uh . . ." Flor looked back at her display and took a deep breath. "Not necessarily. They're pretty sure the message has been sent. There's no way for them to tell for sure if it made it all the way to the other side of the relay network, or if it was picked up by anyone in a position to act on it. And even if it was, there's no way for the inner worlds to send a reply."
Hali sighed. "Well, better than nothing, I suppose."
Strangen transmitted to the room's tranceiver, "Like we've said before, the easiest way to convince the inner worlds that the Starlane Destroyer is on their side would be for me to show up on their doorstep." They'd discussed this possibility at length. He could hand over the Artifact, let 'em see how he was put together, and maybe even talk them into letting him lead the charge. Even if they didn't believe him and blew him out of space, they would at least know that the Starlane Destroyer couldn't stand against them any more. That alone might give them sufficient impetus to bring the fight to Karthos.
It was a chance, and a sacrifice, that Strangen was willing to make.
Except . . . there was one thing Karthos could still hold over Strangen's head, one thing that still threatened to break his will. Now, he made up his mind. He had to eliminate this risk first.
"The Karthosian government might not know I'm still in love with Dorsa," Strangen transmitted to the room's transceiver, "But they're sure going to suspect it. And they will use that against me. I need to get her off of Karthos, before I can do anything else."
"That sounds impossible," Flor replied. "Karthos is gonna know you're their enemy now. They'll blast you to fragments before you could even reach the surface of the planet. And . . . your girlfriend isn't a cyborg too, is she?"
"No," Strangen transmitted. "As far as I know, I'm unique."
"So even if you did make it to Karthos," Flor continued, "Even if that metal body and that alien club of yours could make it through their planetary defenses and you somehow managed to find your old mate before the Karthosians grabbed her, she can't breathe in space like you can. You'd need a spacecraft to carry her, which would be even harder to protect than your own hide."
"I know," Strangen transmitted. "But I also know that I'm not strong enough to let her die. If they arrest her and threaten to kill her, there's a very, very good chance I'll crack."
Samuel rubbed his chin. "Are there other ways of getting onto Karthos besides a frontal assault?"
Strangen shrugged. "Obviously I can't sneak in undetected. You can't hide thermal emissions. I suppose I could take over a small Karthosian military vessel and try to fly it in. Karthosian military ships take off and land on Karthos all the time." He paused. "But their coming and going is strictly monitored, and they'd notice any unscheduled arrivals immediately."
"What about Karthosian civilian shipping?" Samuel asked. "You could hide aboard my cargo ship. I'd have to pilot us in, since the controls aren't sized for giant metal hands like yours, but you could tell me what to say on the radio."
Strangen shook his head. "There hasn't been any civilan shipping since the blockade started. Karthos is pretty much under martial law with regard to space travel. Non-Karthosian ships that appear in-system are arrested on sight, or just destroyed if they're even remotely threatening. Except . . ."
Strangen looked Samuel in the eye. "Wait a minute. That's right. There are a handful of colonies that Karthos has already brought to heel. They call 'em subject colonies. Each of them is expected to maintain its production at pre-blockade levels, and is taxed ruthlessly. They have to ship all products not needed for their own immediate operation directly to Karthos." He spoke deliberately. "And they use their own shipping fleets to do it."
Samuel frowned. "I don't know if I could pass off my cargo ship as belonging to another colony. Each colony's ships are pretty distinctive."
Strangen transmitted, "I don't think they pay attention to the differences. I've listened in on intrasystem comm traffic before. If a ship identifies itself as carrying a tax shipment from Sania Chalon f or New New Holland, they just believe them. And tax shipments are usually offloaded at civilian spaceports, not military ones. Sure, they'll scan you for nukes and other known threats before you enter orbit, but they won't even know what kind of cargo you're carrying until you set down and their inspectors get around to looking inside. Is your ship atmosphere capable?"
Samuel smirked. "It's old, but it's not that old. It's got antigrav. I can set it down on the surface."
"Then all we'd need to fix is your ship's callsign and transponder code," Strangen transmitted, "In case that picket cruiser managed to sniff them while you were running the Blockade."
Samuel frowned. "Karthos is a pretty big planet, isn't it? Do you know precisely where to go to find Dorsa?"
Strangen transmitted, "Every time I leave for a mission, I make it a point to find out where she is — behind the government's back, of course. She's been in the same place the last four times. Hopefully, she's still there now." He hefted the alien artifact club in his hand. "The sooner we free her, the sooner I can wage open war on the Karthosian blockade. Let's go."
Samuel blinked, caught off guard. Then he blinked again, inhaled, and said, "Okay then!", as the two of them bounded out of the room.
"All right," Flor's voice came from behind them before the door closed, "Now in the meantime, for the rest of us, does anyone have any ideas for finding out if the inner worlds heard us?"
Samuel's ship decorrugated a safe distance away from Karthos; he made the expected radio calls immediately, and all seemed well. As far as the local authorities knew, the only items aboard were tax payment cargo from Trovo Trovogo d, and himself — certainly not the Starlane Destroyer and his alien artifact.
Samuel brought up a map of the planet's surface. "So where do we need to set down?"
Strangen pointed at a small continent sitting alone, dead-center on the Karthosian equator. "There. In Australia. Dorsa is living near the westernmost spaceport."
"Austral . . ." Samuel puzzled. "Isn't Australia the island where your government puts its unpatriotic troublemakers?"
Strangen nodded. "They named it for a penal colony on Earth. And it's about as desirable a piece of real estate as its namesake. Over half of it's a desert wasteland. But the 'undesirables' there need food and supplies too, so a colony tribute hauler landing there shouldn't set off any alarm bells."
Strangen paused. "Believe it or not, Dorsa's not on Australia because of her relationship to me. She was arrested eight months ago, because she took part in a protest against the Karthosian Blockade." He paused again. "Such protests are rare. Most of the public wants Karthos to rule the galaxy. There's no chance a local rebellion could succeed. If Karthos is to be stopped, they're going to have to be beaten back from the outside."
Samuel looked up the call sign for the big island's west spaceport and called it in. "Karthos ingress control, this is —" he glanced at his newly made-up callsign "— Trovo Trovogo d hauler 4875 November, request for atmo and land at Tango Mike Golf 45."
A moment later, a voice came back over standard radio: "75 November, Tango Mike Golf 45 approved, follow beacon at 127.5. Advise that atmo ingress above three kps is prohibited."
"Roger ingress control," Samuel replied, "Will retroburn to one kps before entry interface." He stopped transmitting. "Now we just have to hope the spaceport doesn't detain us."
The spaceport didn't detain them. It would, in fact, be several hours before anyone could get around to offloading their cargo, in part because it would be a while before the day shift started. Dawn wouldn't arrive for an hour or two. It was the perfect opportunity to retrieve Dorsa.
Strangen, determined as ever, trudged right out with Samuel in tow. Samuel kept his transceiver on short-range transmit with the volume turned down low in case they had to talk to each other. After several kilometers of walking and keeping a lookout, they'd had to duck out of sight of passersby more often than they could count.
"Maybe I should have stayed back in my ship," Samuel said. "I'm a meter shorter than everybody here. I stick out like a sore thumb."
"A little late for that now," the transceiver replied.
"You kinda stick out too, you know," Samuel said. "It doesn't help that you clank so loudly when you walk."
The transceiver answered, "I keep forgetting." Strangen pointed to the side of his head. "No ears, y'know."
All they had to do was sneak the most recognized metal celebrity on Karthos, and a tiny Outsider who clearly didn't belong there, to Dorsa's locale; and then sneak all three of them back before anyone noticed something amiss. Piece of cake.
As they made their way toward an empty street, Strangen lingered for a few seconds, his artificial eyes fixed on his companion. Then as he resumed walking, he briefly plugged the base of his palm into the bottom of his club, then unplugged and kept going as though nothing had happened. Samuel almost didn't notice it. "What was that about?" Samuel asked.
"Pre-programming the Artifact," Strangen transmitted. "Just in case the worst happens. Hopefully I won't have to use this setting."
Fortunately, there were a lot of back alleys and less-travelled neighborhoods they could stick to. Between the cities, they avoided the roadways altogether and cut across undeveloped land — something Australia had quite a lot of. Terrestrial trees and grasses blanketed the countryside. They'd been brought there from Earth by the early settlers, and had all but completely displaced the planet's native flora. But here and there, they could make out little knots of dark blue vegetation, the plantlike organisms which had once overspread the whole continent. Strangen wondered, briefly, what mighty herds of native fauna might have feasted on those blue leaves before humans had arrived.
In the end, they managed to make it to Dorsa's last known residence. Strangen was pretty confident that they hadn't been seen. He walked up to her door and pressed the chime.
Samuel pressed the transmit stud on his transceiver to say "Let's hope she's home." When he did, Strangen heard the doorchime playing in the background underneath Samuel's voice. If Strangen had still had a heart, it would have skipped a beat. The chime was playing Dorsa's favorite song.
The door opened a moment later, and the Starlane Destroyer beheld the most beautiful sight in all of his universe.
"Dorsa!" the transceiver cried. Strangen clanked toward her.
"Strangen!" she yelped in her own Karthosian accent, eyes wide with a mix of joy and surprise.
"Oh, Dorsa!" the transceiver cooed. He rushed through her front door and, with amazing gentleness, folded his arms about her. She shrugged off the shock and returned his embrace as best she could.
He realized this wasn't having the effect he wanted, and backed off two seconds later, head hung low. What's the use, he thought, I can't hug her with zinc-plated arms.
Dorsa stared into his metal face. "Is . . . is it really you in there, Strangen? They've never let you visit me before." She noticed Samuel coming in behind him and shutting the door. "And . . . and why is there an Outsider with you?"
He held her hands as tenderly as his cybernetic metal mittens could manage. "I came to get you off Karthos."
Her expression fell, dumbfounded. "Off Karthos?"
Strangen paused. Maybe she didn't know. "What have you heard about me? In the last week or two, I mean."
Dorsa shook her head. "I haven't heard anything about the Starlane Destroyer in over a week. Which is kind of odd. Normally, there's news about your exploits every couple of days. I figured you were on some kind of dull patrol mission or something."
Strangen's voice came out of the transceiver flatly. "I've defected."
All she could do was gasp.
"I'm fighting against Karthos now," Strangen went on. "I already disabled a picket cruiser, days ago, when I got this Outsider through the Blockade. The colony he resupplied was on the brink of extinction. They're all hurting, worse than either of us suspected. If I can get you off Karthos, we can —"
"Whoa, whoa," she said. "This is all a lot to take in. I can't, I can't just uproot myself and abandon the friends I've made here. We have our own plans for stopping the Blockade, from the inside. If I stay, I can spread the word about you to them, and —"
"No!" Strangen's voice barked from the transceiver. "You can't tell anybody here anything. They can't know. Someone will tell the government. They'd know I visited you. And if you stayed here, or stayed anywhere they could get their hands on you, they wouldn't hesitate to use you as leverage. Against me. They'd threaten to kill you, or worse, if I didn't surrender myself."
She started to protest, but Strangen cut her off. "And I. Would. Comply."
"Strangen!" Dorsa seemed positively shocked. "What in heck?! You'd let the Blockade continue, just to keep me alive? I'm not worth the millions or billions of lives you'd be cutting short!"
"It wouldn't matter," Strangen transmitted. He looked away. "I couldn't do it. I know I couldn't. You're the one thing that's kept the spark alive in me since they turned me into a cyborg. They say a man's got to know his limitations, well . . . that's mine. You're my limitation. Even if you told me right now that you'd gotten over me, that you've found a new mate, that you don't have any feelings left for me at all, I still wouldn't have the courage to let you die."
Dorsa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "And if I told you those things, I'd . . . I'd be lying." She looked at the small Outsider. "I'm guessing Strangen brought you along because it's your spacecraft we'll be using?"
He nodded. "I'm Samuel, by the way. My ship's parked at the TMG45 spaceport."
"Well," she said slowly. "Guess I'm not going to get to say goodbye, then." She sighed. "That's kind of too b. . ." Her voice trailed off and she turned to face her double front doors.
Samuel and Strangen both looked where she was looking. Strangen wondered what had drawn her attention for a moment, then recalled that the transceiver wasn't good at picking up distant sounds.
"Someone's coming this way," she said.
"Sounds like a bunch of someones," Samuel added.
Dorsa said, "It's awfully early in the morning for —"
Both doors burst open. A gaggle of armed men, clad in riot armor, rushed in. They shouted unintelligibly, pointing their guns at the three of them. Strangen raised his Artifact club and kicked in his force shields.
Samuel yelped and held his ears. He'd seen Strangen turn on his shields in space before, but until this moment had no idea just how loud activating a ship-defense-grade force field could be. For a second, the sound completely drowned out the shouting of the invaders.
As the noise abated and his shields settled into their normal operation, the small platoon parted and a brightly uniformed officer stepped to the front.
"Stand down, Destroyer," the officer spoke into his own walkie-talkie to ensure Strangen would hear him. "Unless you want us to open fire on your friends."
Strangen recognized him. "Brigadier Joden!"
"Dammit," Samuel cursed, "They lured us into a trap!"
"Nothing quite so elaborate," Joden said with an air of smug calm. "One of our space traffic controllers thought it was a little suspicious than a tribute hauler made straight for Australia, instead of going through cargo triage in Brunswick, so she reported it to her C.O.. Then after a couple of sporadic tall-tales were called in, of the Starlane Destroyer in the company of an Outsider, one of my lieutenants put two and two together; and now, I get all the credit for bringing you in."
With one swift motion, Strangen twisted his club's handle to Warp mode, thrust it into Samuel's hand, and curled Samuel's fingers around its trigger. "Go!" his voice barked from the speaker.
Samuel squeezed the trigger before he could think. Instantly, he and Dorsa flashed into to a thin vertical haze and vanished.
"You moron!" Joden yelled.
Strangen drew back a metal fist. His force field glowed a baleful green. "I don't need the Artifact to kill you."
Joden didn't flinch. He pointed at the Starlane Destroyer and, in a cold voice, ordered: "Code forty-seven."
His men drew strange-looking weapons from their belts. Strangen ignored them. Tiny hand-held guns like these didn't have a prayer of breaching his sh—
Lightning crackled from their weapons and hit the Starlane Destroyer squarely . . . and he doubled over in shock.
"Uuung," the transceiver barked. Blue-white arcs tore at the Starlane Destroyer's metal skin, and his shields weren't stopping any of it. His metal form jittered and fell to its knees. "My . . . force field. . . . What's . . . wrong?! . . ."
Joden shook his head. "I was afraid it would come to this. You didn't think we'd make you totally invincible, did you? When we installed your shield generators, we purposely flawed them for exactly this sort of occasion. Your battle screens are useless against 30 Hertz alternating current; electricity of that frequency goes right through them as though they didn't exist."
"Oh . . . no . . ." the transceiver moaned.
Those were his last words before he passed out.