The universe was a contorted mess.
Samuel and Dorsa still clung to each other like acrophobes to the side of a skyscraper. They had passed through the walls of that quite-solid building and now spiraled across the surface of Karthos through a squished atmosphere that should have burned them to cinders but didn't. They were too rarefied, too tenuous to feel the non-corrugated world, but substantial enough to be tossed around by it all the same.
It took almost half a minute for the panic to wear off and for Samuel to notice that they were oscillating.
They bounded up into the air on an arch that must have been ten kilometers long. Then, they plowed right through the ground. A few seconds later, the ground spit them back up into the air like a grape between its fingertips; and so the cycle continued, weaving their path through air and ground like sewing thread.
"So this is what happens when you corrugate in gravity," Samuel commented dumbly.
"Oscillating, yeah," Dorsa shouted back. As if this whole experience wasn't bad enough, the roaring wind was doing its best to drown out their voices. "Gravity draws us down, solid-matter repulsion forces us back up. I read up on it when I heard they'd turned Strangen into that cyborg."
"I read up on a lot of things. Had lots of time."
The sense of weightlessness wasn't helping Samuel much, either. He was gasping for breath, more out of fear than exhaustion. "Wh-what's gonna happen to us?"
"Nothing, as long as we stay corrugated."
Samuel had to abort his next question to clench his eyes shut. The ground rushed up to greet them, swallowed them, and spit them back into the air once again. Each time felt like it added fifty years to Samuel's life. "And what happens when we stop being corrugated?"
"We'll . . . we'll turn back into normal matter, I guess. If we're in the air, we'll fall, and if we're under the ground we'll be instantly killed."
Dorsa watched the ground approach and started counting when they entered it. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thous— four-and-a-half seconds. That was how long the "down"-side of one oscillation took. They had to come out of it while going up, and as close to the ground as possible without being beneath it. She turned to Samuel.
"When I tell you to," she told him, "Turn off the corrugation."
"What?" he replied, having heard most of her words through the background din but wanting to make absolutely certain.
"On my signal, turn off —" She stopped and counted again as they plowed through the ground. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousa— four-and-a-half seconds, again. Good. "Get ready to turn off the corrugator."
Samuel breathed an "Okay" in between gasps.
Their ride bottomed out yet again. One thousand one, Dorsa counted, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one — "NOW!"
Samuel released the trigger. The universe froze back into stark reality.
And they were too high up. Damn it, Dorsa cursed herself, you forgot that Outsiders have longer reaction times than Karthosians do. "Oh no," she panicked, "Now what?!"
Samuel saw it too. This time, that ground coming toward them would splatter them to pieces. He had about four seconds before they both became street pancakes. Dorsa clung to him since he was the only thing around; he in turn clung to the Artifact's handle. What was it that Strangen had taught him about it?
Three seconds to impact. . . .
Burn mode. That was it. Burn mode. The Artifact could fire a jet of plasma. His trembling left hand, its voluntary control already waning to the overwhelming Primal Fear of Falling, twisted the far end of the handle until the indicator clicked on Burn.
Two seconds. . . .
His right hand was even worse. He needed to grab the trigger, and the fool thing kept skipping out of his grasp. Finally, he clutched the club against his body and hooked his right trigger-finger where it belonged.
One second. . . .
He pushed the club out as far in front of himself as his arms would reach, clenched his eyes shut, barked out, "Hold on tight!", and squeezed the trigger all in the same instant. Thunder and heat washed over them from below as the kick of the plasma jet hammered them back against the sky. He barely held on; even Dorsa, with her Karthosian reflexes and muscles, fumbled for her grip. But the column of flame slowed them, and when the ground finally did meet up with them —
"Oof!" Samuel rolled as he hit the ground. The club bounded out of his grasp. Dorsa pushed herself free of him at the last instant and landed, catlike, on all four limbs, then leapt for the club and recovered it. "You okay?" she asked.
Samuel blinked twice, panting hard, then said with relieved surprise, "Yeah! I don't even think I broke any bones."
Dorsa lifted him up unceremoniously by one arm to get him back on his feet. "Come on, we've got to hide. It won't take 'em long to figure out where we went. Here." She held out the club for him to take.
Samuel took it, but it felt unusually heavy now. He had to hold it with both hands just to keep from dropping it. He felt . . . fatigued, all over, more than even his recent panic could account for. He hadn't time to argue with his body, though; Dorsa was running ahead and dragging him by one arm, forcing him to keep up. She was only jogging, but with those long Karthosian legs it may as well have been a sprint, and Samuel could barely keep from stumbling.
"Wait, wait," he insisted. He crouched to catch his breath, then thrust the club out handle first. "You hold it. It's —" he forced two quick breaths to assuage his laboring lungs — "Something happened when I used the club's Burn Mode just now. It's like it drained me. I can't" — more panting — "I don't know if I can keep using it."
Dorsa took the club, and glared at it for half a second. Then her eyes opened a bit wider in understanding. "Biological energy," she muttered. "That's what he meant. The alien artifact must be powered by . . . by its wielder. Directly."
Samuel was only half listening. There were buildings in front of them, big concrete ones, and they looked abandoned. "Can we hide in there?"
Dorsa noticed the buildings for the first time. "I think I know where we are. This must be Cargan City. Hasn't been inhabited in over a decade. Yeah. Yeah, those old office buildings will do. Let's go."
Samuel made himself run with her, into the nearest doorway.
Strangen may have been unconscious for a few minutes or a few days; there was no way to tell. In any event, his arms and legs would only move a few millimeters before they hit shackles. His video camera eyes sent him crude images with pixels the size of playing cards. When the fuzziness finally resolved into the sharp outlines of the real world, he found that he was clasped to a wall in a crucifix position, his arms out to both sides and his feet together beneath him.
Beneath him. There was gravity. Down still had some meaning. Then he must still be on Karthos. Or on a space station opulent enough to afford artificial gravity. There wasn't much the blank gray wall in front of him could tell him, except that it had a sliding door. That sliding door opened a second-and-a-half later to pass the most spiteful creature he could think of at the moment: Joden.
But Joden wasn't alone. He stood aside like a stiff Lieutenant, and Strangen was greeted by a face he'd hoped he'd never have to see again. "So you've finally cracked, have you?" Bourne the Third sneered into his own walkie-talkie.
"I've finally come to my senses, if that's what you mean." Strangen's voice came from a tachyon walkie-talkie on Joden's belt.
Bourne was unfazed. "That was a heck of a stunt you pulled, Destroyer. The Artifact is one-of-a-kind, and now we'll have to find it on Karthos all over again. But don't worry, that won't take nearly as long as it took to dig it up the first time. Your co-conspirators shouldn't be that hard to track down, assuming they didn't rematerialize inside the planet's crust. Two of our orbital early-warning stations even picked up their corrugator emissions, and have triangulated their position to within a hundred kilometers."
Dorsa would be killed the moment they caught up with her, Strangen thought. And Samuel . . . what kind of a public display would they make out of him? What kind of torture would they put him through so that the fanatics on Karthos could laugh at the squirming Outsider?
Bourne went on. "You know, the biggest mistake we made with the Artifact was allowing its biological energy source to control it. The mode selector, the data jack, the trigger — none of those controls actually need you to work them at all. We won't make that mistake again. We're already building Starlane Destroyer Mark II as I speak. It's going to be an entire cruiser, built around the Artifact. The Artifact's Deflect mode alone would make any ship practically invincible." He grinned wolfishly. "It's also going to be built around you. Instead of feeding the system from a pale little fusion furnace tiny enough to fit in a man-sized torso, you'll be powered by the full fury of a starship's fusion power plant." He shot Strangen a vengeful glare. "And best of all, your will won't matter. You'll be nothing more than the Artifact's power source." He paced slowly to one side. "Operation of the Artifact will be carried out by a hand-picked cadre fiercely loyal to Karthos. The best and brightest Karthosians will compete to be among the ship's elite crew."
He smirked. "We won't even need to hook up your senses."
Strangen transmitted, "You don't even know if the Artifact can handle that much power."
"Maybe it can," Bourne said, "Maybe it can't. In either case, you'll be out of the way for good."
Strangen snapped on his force field. Joden, and the soldier he caught half a glimpse of past the doorway, both covered their ears from the noise. Bourne, though, didn't flinch. When his shields had settled into normal operation and the tumult subsided, Bourne said, "Your force field won't help you. You'll find those bonds are just as secure around your wrists and ankles now as they were when you awoke." He turned to leave. "You'll be prepped for cybernetic surgery shortly. We have no intention of keeping you hooked up to any of that expensive military hardware you're wearing. A simple life support harness should suffice to keep you alive . . . and conscious. I'm going to love watching your brain activity squirm."
He walked out through the sliding doorway, with Joden on his heels, and the wall slid shut behind them. Just before it did, though, Strangen caught a glimpse of a sign in the corridor beyond that read "Level 26."
Cybernetic surgery, Strangen thought. He must still be on Karthos, probably in the cyborg program facility or some military base nearby. Signage that said "Level", rather than "Floor", was standard in underground complexes throughout Karthos. He tried to pry his arms loose from the wall, but they wouldn't budge. Neither would his legs. He turned down his force field to its minimum setting to save power, and pushed again with the full combined 50-ton force of his four robotic limbs. Still nothing. Whatever these bindings were made of, it was stronger than he was.
The fact that he'd been strung up in a crucifix pose hadn't escaped him, either. Bourne was probably reveling in the symbolism.
In fact . . . Bourne probably did it deliberately. This rig holding him to the wall had to have been thrown together quickly. They couldn't possibly have built these bonds carefully, with the weeks or months of proper safeguard planning and testing that such an engineering project would require. Quick meant dirty, and that always meant security holes. If there was a way to clamp him here, there had to be a way to release those clamps, too. There were no visible keyholes for mechanical locks, which meant they probably had some radio-controlled combination lock keeping them shut.
Radio . . .
Then he remembered. He'd never told any of them about his modifications to his internal transceiver. The arrogant bastards might not even suspect them. They probably thought they could chatter away on channels besides his official military frequency, and he'd never hear them. He'd have grinned wolfishly if he still had a mouth. He retuned his receiver, scanning up and down the military band, listening for — there!
"The cyber surgery weenies should arrive in about half an hour." It was a voice Strangen didn't recognize. Probably one of Joden's lieutenants.
A second voice: "Surprised they could get a whole team together on such short notice."
The first voice: "Just 'cause we only heard about the Destroyer going rogue today, doesn't mean they didn't know about it earlier."
The second voice: "Oh yeah."
The first voice: "When they get here, they're probably gonna want to be sure the S.D. is unconscious. You think Joden'll just have us zap him again?"
The second voice: "That's what I hear."
Inwardly, Strangen winced, remembering the pain that had knocked him out.
The first voice: "They'll also want him loose, of course. Couldja gimmie the combo now, so I can have it handy?"
The second voice: "I texted it to you earlier."
The frequency went silent. Damn. The "combo" almost certainly meant the code digits that would open Strangen's bonds. He'd only ever managed to modify his radio transceiver for standard audio traffic, not text messages.
The first voice piped back up again a moment later: "Well, I can't find your text. Could you just read me the code and I'll copy it down?"
The second voice: "Uh, this isn't an encrypted channel."
The first voice: "C'mon, it's not like the S.D. can hear us."
The second voice: "True enough. The code is one one seven seven foxtrot tango four nine golf seven six."
Bingo. 1177FT49G76. Those were the characters he had to send to his shackles. Now . . . what frequency and encoding scheme did a standard combination lock use, again? If he was lucky, it was just a regular smart device, using the same communications protocols that had gone unchanged for centuries. He couldn't use his modified transceiver to talk to it, but he had a low level data I/O system sitting in his cybernetic innards that he'd never had occasion to try out before. And it was under conscious control.
Okay. Open broadcast connection. Send request for nearby addresses. He got back three responses — the first two probably belonged to personal transceivers carried by the guards just outside the door. But the third . . . he opened a direct connection to the address, and sent the 11-character code.
The clamps holding his hands and feet to the wall popped open.
He stepped free of the wall, and listened for chatter on his transceiver. All was quiet. Getting unlocked must not have set off any alarms. Well, that calm wouldn't last long. He ramped his force field up to full power — not nearly as noisy an operation as activating it in the first place — then lowered his shoulder, ran toward the door, and smashed into it with his full strength.
This turned out to be overkill. It was an ordinary, non-reinforced door. It crumpled instantly and snapped out of the way, sending him stumbling through the opening. It took him a second or two to regain his bearings, and to notice a startled lieutenant looking up from the walkie-talkie he'd been conversing into.
"YOU!" the lieutenant pointed. "You're not supposed to get loose!"
Strangen recognized the voice. This was the same one who'd just asked for the codes to his manacles a moment ago. The Starlane Destroyer's mechanical voice crackled from the transceiver in the lieutenant's hand: "O fain to ye, who underestimate the living spirit!"
Strangen planted his right foot firmly against the floor, pointed the sole of his left foot at the lieutenant, and fired his left thruster. The blast shoved the man backward through the hallway behind him, knocking him to the floor and leaving him senseless and badly singed. The transceiver had dropped from his grasp almost the moment Strangen's exhaust him him; it clattered to the floor right in front of Strangen and spun to a stop.
That could come in handy, Strangen thought. He scooped up the transceiver in one metal mitten-hand, stuck it onto his left hip, and switched it to permanent short-range transmit. The ambient echoes of the room played with his senses. It was almost like having ears again, though with only one mike he couldn't tell the direction any sounds were coming from.
Now, to get out of this place. Corridors branched off in three directions. This might be a maze, stretching outward for kilometers. It could take hours just to find his way off this level — if he went through a normal exit. It was time for him to make an exit of his own.
With a leap and an antigrav assist, he smashed into the ceiling and pounded upward through it with his bare metal hands. It would have been easier with his club's Smash mode, but his robotic arms were more than strong enough by themselves. He shot up onto the next floor, and found himself in a hallway almost identical to the one he'd just been in. Only three people were in this hall, and all of them froze or cowered in fear at his sudden arrival. Good. He smashed up through the ceiling again, onto the floor above. And again to the floor above that.
Up. Up. Always up. Up. He was sure he was underground on Karthos, but even if he wasn't, even if they'd transported him to some deep space station, there was still gravity. Wherever "down" and "up" had meaning, there had to be a top to it somewhere.
With every break through another ceiling, the transceiver on his hip relayed the crashing noise to him. It was more a liability right now. He re-tuned his internal transceiver to other, broader-use military frequencies. Maybe some of the chatter would tell him what was happening with Samuel and Dorsa.
In fact, apart from his own escape mere moments ago, Samuel and Dorsa were all they seemed to be talking about. They'd pinpointed where their corrugator had shut off. Troops were on the move toward Cargan City right now. They were already setting up a perimeter to ensure that the two of them — and more importantly to Karthos, the Artifact — couldn't slip away.
This gave him even more determination. He brutalized the ceilings of floor after floor, until at last he broke out into a three-story lobby with glass walls reaching to a glass roof.
He leapt off the floor under full antigrav, engaged his thrusters for an extra push, and crashed through the three-centimeter plate glass. Transmissions on military frequencies could guide him to Samuel and Dorsa the rest of the way.
He only hoped he was in time.