Hi, this story is written by me, Geordi H, all characters in this story were created by me and are my property and are not to be used without my permission. Specific characters are listed at the bottom. If you wish to use my characters, E-mail me and I’ll probably say yes. E-mail me at GeordiH@aol.com with questions or comments. Enjoy!

*Note. I really don’t like to swear, not even in my writing, so if the language seems a little dry, use your imagination. Sorry to disappoint you.

Andromeda Rising

Chapter 1

Survey ship MV-18 slowly entered system G21. The vessel was on a mapping mission through several uninhabited star systems in the spiral arm that contained the Lylat system, and after passing through G21 would begin it’s three month voyage back to Corneria.

Duval looked out the portside viewports. "Well, welcome to system G21. Population, us. Data feed coming through."

"Great, this’ll be as exciting as watching hair grow." Said his fellow crewman; a silver fox named Greg. "God, we still have three more months of this."

"Here we are, a class 7 star, four planets, one so hot nothing could live, one toxic atmosphere, one habitable but geologically unstable, and one iceball."

"Ooh, remind me to call the galactic tourism companies, they’ll really want to set up a resort out here or something. Your turn."

Duval glanced at the board, then made his move. "Check."

Greg smirked. "I was hoping you’d do that. You really should watch your back pieces." He casually eliminated his adversary’s bishop.

"Great. All I do for the last twelve weeks is play chess with you and Mitch and I still stink at it." The table was now beginning to vibrate mildly. Duval pressed the intercom switch. "Hey, Mitch! I thought you said you fixed that stabilizer. Things are rattling around down here!"

Mitch’s voice came back. "I did! The dang thing must’ve come loose again or-"

MV-18 lurched heavily. "What in the blazes are you doing?" Yelled Greg.

"This isn’t the ship! Sensors say we’re caught in some sort of holding beam!"

"I thought this system was uninhabited!"

"Wrong! It’s too strong, I can’t break away." Suddenly, a blue beam swept over the ship, filling the cabin with an eerie glow.

"What’s that?" Asked Duval, looking around.

"Some kind of a scan. It’s probing through all our computer banks." Data now began to scroll across the screens in the lounge too. "Any idea where it’s coming from?"

Greg looked out the viewport, only to see a wall of metal. "Mitch? Look portside and you’ll find your answer."

There was a gasp. "Good God! Sensors say that thing is huge! Almost the size of a moon! I’m transmitting all this to fleet command." Mitch pressed the switch. A split second after, a beam composed of pure gamma particles ripped through MV-18, blowing it apart.

Admiral Trent Harris walked into the command room in Fleet Intelligence. He’d been pulled out of bed at three a.m. that morning when an emergency meeting had been called. The ferret struggled to smooth his hair as he stepped through the doors.

"Ah, Admiral Harris. Sit down. Now that we’re all here, we can begin." Said Fleet Marshall Warren. Harris slowly sat in his seat, glancing at the monitor. The other four fleet Admirals, Drevin, McTreden, Avos, and Kirkheim, all looked like they had just been pulled out of bed.

"About an hour ago, we received on an emergency frequency a transmission from one of our mapping vessels, MV-18, in the G21 star system. It was badly garbled, as though something had cut it out halfway. All we were able to piece together was a scan of the star system." Warren pressed a switch and a system scan came up. "G21, four planets, an unimpressive star, and no moons. Absolutely of no importance. MV-18 was just passing by planet 3 when whatever happened happened." He pressed another switch, and a faint image of a large object appeared near planet three.

"Sir, you said the system had no moons, and yet one is clearly seen." Pointed out Admiral Avos.

Warren was silent a moment. "Avos, that is no moon. It is pyramidal by the scan, and each side is forty miles long." He adjusted the focus, revealing what looked like a four-sided pyramid with a portion of the top sawed off. "It is probably much more complex than this, the scan was distorted, but I’m not liking this. I called this meeting to ask for input on what should be done."

Drevin spoke first. "I say we send a ship out to investigate what happened and ascertain the truth of what happened."

"Drevin, G21 is about one and a half light years from here. Even if we sent our fastest ship, it would still take a month to reach G21." Commented Avos.

"A probe then?" Said Drevin.

"Still too far. We need this to be short and sweet; it’s risky in this war to even take one ship off duty for one day, let alone one month. The whole idea of investigating the loss of only three crewers is ridiculous. That scan is probably only a malfunction" Said Avos.

Drevin’s face darkened. Harris knew the wolf had a certain rivalry with the rabbit sitting across the table, and Avos was pushing Drevin’s patience. "Look Avos, three from this fleet are dead, and I aim to find out who’s responsible for it. If you don’t like my ideas, come up with your own. I’m listening."

"I say we call off the idea of an investigation all together. It’s absurd to waste a whole battleship on three people who could very well still be alive."

Drevin bared his teeth and growled. "Look Avos, you may not care about those crewmen altogether, with your cushy desk job, but I do. I serve with them all the time, and maybe I actually think it’s important to find out why they’re dead."

Warren rapped the table with his fist. "Enough, both of you. Drevin, I want some answers as much as you do, but Avos is right. Any evidence left would probably be gone in a month anyway. We don’t have a ship that fast."

Harris, who’d been quiet the whole meeting, opened his mouth. "Sir we do have the Andromeda." He said softly.

"Hmmm. That’s right, she was completed only a week ago, and that new type of stardrive would get her there in a few days, but she doesn’t have a commander yet and her crew isn’t combat tested."

"I think the Andromeda is perfect for this. Her Ion drive would get her to G21 in about three days, and the odds are it will be a noncombat situation, so the crew will be unaffected. It would be an ideal shakedown cruise." Said Harris.

"There’s still the issue of no commander." Avos pointed out.

"I believe I have someone worthy to fly her." Said McTreden, the older raccoon. "I have a boy who’s probably the best commander in the fleet and he is very popular with the men."

"Excellent. Harris, the Andromeda is your brainchild; you get her ready to fly. McTreden, get your man. One more thing. Are there any other sentient races in the area of G21?"

Drevin looked at his notes. "Yes, the Vaneldoon, they acquired space travel about two decades ago, so they are significantly less advanced than us. MV-18 passed through their system a few weeks before G21. According to the logs, they pretty much sent out a small ship, asked who we were, what we were doing, and that’s fine. If you’re suggesting the Vaneldoon were at G21, I believe you’re wrong."

"I wasn’t thinking that. Vaneldoon is en route to G21, have the Andromeda stop there and ask a few questions. See if they know anything about that pyramid on the scopes."

"Aye sir, a good precaution." Said Drevin. The other Admirals began to file out.

"Harris, a minute please." Said Warren.

Harris stepped back inside. "Sir?"

"I didn’t want to say it to the others, but I have a bad feeling about this. What if something that big is hostile and comes here? I don’t like it."

"Neither do I sir, but I created the Andromeda class, and I place my full confidence on her. Once that thing sees us, it’ll think twice about coming this way."

"I hope you’re right, Harris, I hope you’re right.

Captain Jack Pyron quietly sat in one of the waiting room chairs outside Admiral McTreden’s office. On the outside, the collie looked calm and collected. On the inside, he felt like the little kid outside the principal’s office waiting for his punishment. The memo he’d received on the Valiant had been short and to the point: Captain Pyron, report to Fleet Command pending reassignment.

Pyron had good reason to be nervous. He’d disobeyed a few direct orders when he’d felt they put his crew and ship in danger, he’d come up with a few unusual maneuvers that command didn’t approve of, and he was known for taking calculated risks. In his mind, Pyron knew either he was either headed for a desk job, command of some old tub that belonged in a museum, or worst, a discharge. He didn’t favor any of those options.

Admiral McTreden walked through the office door. "Hello Jack, I see you received my message. Step into my office and we’ll discuss your future."

Pyron swallowed and slid through the door.

McTreden looked over a file. "I want to make one last check of what I’m about to do. It says here you’re a risk taker."

"Only calculated ones and only when necessary." Said Pyron.

"Well, I guess that’s all right. Do you consider yourself popular with your crew?"

"They seem to like me, yes."

"Good, good. I’m moving you to a new position, one that will make your time on the Valiant seem dull and old."

Uh oh. They always try to make desk jobs try to sound more appealing.

"You will fit in well here, and it is an assignment most commanders would kill for, but very few would be worthy of."

"Sir, permission to speak freely."

McTreden was silent a moment. "Granted."

"If you’re going to put me in an office, at least don’t make it sound all flowery. A desk job is a desk job no matter how you look at it."

"You think I’m sticking you in an office?"

"That’s what it sounds like you’re leading up to."

"I’m sorry to disappoint you Jack, but I have no intention of taking you off a bridge. Meet me in the hangar in fifteen minutes and I’ll take you to your new position."

Pyron was confused. "Sir? Shouldn’t we discuss it here?"

"No, too confidential. I want no risk of it leaking out. Hangar, fifteen minutes. I’ll see you there."

Admiral McTreden silently piloted the small transport through open space. "Can you at least tell me where we’re going?" Asked Pyron, eyeing the empty space. They had just dropped out of hyperspace after a short period, emerging in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.

"Right there." Said McTreden, pointing at a small planetoid in the distance. He flicked on the comm. "Base Alpha one Echo, this is transport 010, requesting permission to dock. Transmitting clearance code now." There was a humming as the transmitter signaled to what looked like no one. The comm. stayed quiet.

"Sir, are you sure we’re-" Pyron was cut off as a large section of the planetoid opened, revealing a set of heavy blast doors. They opened a split second later; allowing access to a tunnel so large a starship could fit through.

McTreden smirked. "Had you fooled, didn’t I? This place is so top secret, only the admirals and the workers on this station know it exists." He maneuvered the transport into the tunnel, which closed behind them. Inside was what appeared to be a fully functioning starship construction facility. A trio of construction arms extended from the metal walls, and at each was a long, lean ship, larger than any other ship Pyron had seen.

"What…"

"Captain Pyron, meet the Andromeda class. The Pulsar, The Orion, and…" he motioned at the one ship slightly further off it’s moorings. "…The Andromeda herself. The largest and most advanced starship we’ve ever built. She just finished her trials, and all she needs is a captain. Still interested in that desk job?"

Pyron was in awe. "It’s huge. It must take forever to maneuver it at all."

McTreden laughed. "That’s the beauty. She has a new type of stardrive, ion powered, a hundred times faster than anything else, and she’s as maneuverable as a fighter. She was just finished a week ago, the Pulsar and the Orion are still another few weeks down the road, but in time, we hope to have an entire armada of these. I’m tempted to just let her loose on Venom and watch the fireworks."

"How heavily is it armed?"

"About as much firepower as eight battlecruisers, and enough armor to withstand a nova bomb blast."

The comm. crackled. "McTreden, is that you? Late again I see."

"Captain Pyron, I’m sure you know Admiral Harris, the chief of operations here. Trent, I’ve got him. At first he thought he was getting put in an office."

"If getting put on that ship is an office job, put me at a desk. I’ll meet you at hangar 2, and he’ll get his mission plans. Harris out."

The transport cruised slowly towards the row of hangars. "You really think I’m good enough for that? Shouldn’t you or one of the other Admirals take charge of her?" Asked Pyron.

"Ha! I haven’t been on a bridge in so long I wouldn’t know what to do, same for the rest of us, except for Drevin, he’s the only one who still knows what he’s doing. I picked you because you’ve got enough guts to say no, and you take risks instead of waiting for more orders. That and having a popular guy in command isn’t a bad idea."

The transport touched down in the hangar with a mild clank, followed by a hiss as the door opened. A ferret in an Admiral’s uniform greeted them. "So McTreden, this is the one you said is taking our boat out."

"Yes, this is Jack Pyron, and he’s starting to sound a little more enthusiastic about this assignment."

"He should. We’ll talk in my wardroom." They entered a small room off to one side of the hangar. "All right, this room is secure. Pyron, here is your mission plan." He said handing over a red dossier. "I’ll summarize. About two days ago, we got an emergency signal from one of our mapping vessels in star system G21. All we were able to get out of it was a scan of the system, showing a large object near the third planet. There’s been no communications from that ship since. The Andromeda is the only ship that can reach G21 in a reasonable amount of time with her new drive. Fleet Command wants to know what happened out there. If this thing is hostile, we want it stopped now. You’ll make a brief stopover at the Vaneldoon system to ask them if they know anything. I should tell you, this is all confidential, and you may only share it with your first officer. To the rest of the crew, this is a test of the new ion drive and a diplomatic stop at Vaneldoon. Clear?"

"Very clear sir."

"Good, now that that’s out of the way, I’ll take you to your new boat. This way." They left the room, but Admiral McTreden headed for the transport.

"It’s about time I headed out, I need to be at some conference in two hours. Pyron, good luck." He said.

"Thank you sir." Pyron and Harris stepped into an elevator. Harris pressed the button for deck 19. "Admiral, how long has this project been going on? How do you get funding for this?"

"The Andromeda project has been going on for about two years now, we found this planetoid, hollowed it out, installed the construction docks, and started building. Funding comes directly from Fleet command, we get a small percentage of their budget. Most everything here is automated, so it isn’t as expensive as you might think." The elevator stopped and the doors opened. "This way." They stepped onto a moving sidewalk that led down one of the construction arms, covered on one side by windows, which provided an excellent view of the Andromeda. Pyron now saw actually how majestic the ship really was. The nose was an oval dome with all the edges squared off; a small ship was just now painting the registry name and number on the side. After the nose, the ship stayed narrow, but the frame went from oval to a vaguely rectangular collection of boxlike sections and modules. The bridge tower loomed at the midpoint, overlooking the rest of the ship. After the tower the rectangular midsection continued back to the wider engine section, where the four huge drive engines on their massive support struts glowed a bright blue.

The moving sidewalk stopped at the docking hatch below the bridge tower, and Harris motioned to the door. "Well Pyron, here you go. The Andromeda is scheduled to depart in about half an hour, so you’d better get settled in. You’ll be able to pick up your belongings from the Valiant after this mission, but until then I believe you’ll find your cabin stocked and satisfactory. Good luck Pyron."

"Thank you sir. I won’t let you down. If we do have to fight this thing, we’ll win and we won’t get a scratch on the hull."

"You better not. I’ll expect you to have her back by nine and no joyriding around the galaxy with your friends. It’s been nice meeting you captain." Harris saluted as the airlock closed. Pyron saluted back and stepped away from the door.

The docking hatch opened into a light Grey corridor leading off in two directions. "Great, don’t I get anyone to greet me? I have no idea how to get around this ship." He thought, looking down the hall.

"Captain Pyron!"

He turned to see a young mouse lieutenant rushing forward. "I’m sorry I’m late to greet you, I’m still getting used to this ship. I’ve been instructed to lead you to your quarters, your first officer will meet you there in ten minutes."

"Lead the way lieutenant…?"

"Fenton, sir."

"Alright then, lead the way lieutenant Fenton."

He led Pyron to a lift a little way down the corridor. They stepped inside. Fenton pressed the switch for level 15. "So lieutenant, does this ship look as good on the inside as it does from the outside?" Asked Pyron, leaning against one of the walls as the lift began its ascent.

"Sir, it’s better. I feel like we could take on Venom all alone in this."

"I know the feeling. Who is my first officer?"

"Um, commander Halloway. I haven’t met him yet but I’ve heard he’s very experienced."

"Good." The lift slowed and stopped. "Well, it was good to meet you, lieutenant. I believe I can find my own way from here." Pyron stepped out of the lift into the corridor and started down the hall.

Chapter 2

Ten minutes later, and after about five wrong turns, Captain Jack Pyron entered his cabin. "Maybe I shouldn’t have passed up the lieutenant’s offer to show me to my cabin. Who knew one deck could be this huge." He mused quietly, setting down the dossier on a table. The captain’s cabin was very large and had a wide viewport looking out at the construction dock. "Well, at least the Admiral was right about my accommodations. This is like a hotel suite." He plopped down on the wide couch and gazed out at the docks. The Orion’s uncompleted bridge tower was just visible over the access arm. Pyron opened the dossier and looked over the mission plan, which was about like Harris had summed it up.

There was a knock at the door. "It’s open." Said Pyron. The door slid aside, revealing a trim looking coyote with a commander’s insignia on his chest.

"Commander and first officer Redding Halloway reporting for duty." He said, saluting. "Captain Pyron?"

"At ease commander. And call me Jack, my last name gets a little repetitive when said a few hundred times."

"Sir, my instructions are to lead you to the bridge, we’re pulling out in ten minutes."

"Lead the way commander." Said Pyron, motioning to the door. The two officers continued down the corridor towards the lift. "So, how long have you been on the Andromeda?"

"About a month. I barely know my way around."

"How is the crew? Enthusiastic?"

"The ones who have been on the ship as long as I have seem to have things under control, and they have all performed well in our simulations during the past few weeks. The ones that have just recently come aboard are still a little lost."

"Ah, and I’m one of them." The lift doors opened and Halloway stepped inside, pressing the button for deck 1. "How many decks does she have?"

"Thirty-five, deck one is the bridge level and thirty-five is down at the bottom of the ship."

"I take it you’ve had a chance to look around."

"I know her pretty much top to bottom."

"Then you know a private place where we can discuss our mission plans."

"The briefing area isn’t sufficient?"

"No, our orders are top secret, I’m only allowed to share our real mission with you. I don’t want to take the chance of being overheard."

Halloway was silent a moment. "I knew our first mission would really be more than a diplomatic stopoff at Vaneldoon and another test of the ion engines. We already know they work. If you want really quiet, hmmm, let me think."

"I’m glad I’ve got a first officer that can deduce things."

"I’ve got it. Deck 33, portside power supply line maintenance tunnel. It’s a shaft running just beside one of the main power supply lines. The hatch is sealable and soundproof, and the energy from the line will jam any listening devices. I’ve been down there a time or two, and the only ones who are ever there is a daily inspection team, and they’ve already made their check for today."

"Perfect. Meet me there as soon as we’re underway." The lift slowed and stopped, opening onto the bridge.

"Captain on the bridge." Said someone, the rest of the bridge deck stood up and saluted.

"At ease. Helm, have we been cleared for exit?"

"Yes sir. Base has detached docking access and hangar doors are open."

"Good, then we’ll get underway. Helmsman, take a short break." Pyron moved towards the helm console. "One of the best ways for a captain to learn his own ship is to pilot it a time or two."

"Aye sir, but do you know how to operate her?"

"No, but I can program my VCR. This can’t be that difficult." He joked, settling into the chair. "Base one, this is Andromeda, permission to leave dock."

"Andromeda, you are go for exit. Good flying." Said the controller.

"Thanks. Power up main thrusters." There was a humming as the huge drive engines ignited. "Moving speed to ten percent." The huge battleship slowly slid away from the construction dock, moving towards the exit shaft. Pyron coolly handled the maneuvering out the tunnel and increased to 25 percent speed. "Engineer, is the ion drive active and ready?" Asked Pyron.

"All systems are now ready." Came the response from the comm.

"Good. Setting course for the Vaneldoon system. Activating ion drive." The Andromeda blasted forward and the stars on the forward viewer flared and died into bright streaks. "Well helmsman, how did I do?"

The ensign quietly applauded. "Very well sir. You looked like you’d piloted one of these all your life."

"I haven’t, but I learn fast. I’ll turn control back over to you, monitor our status."

"Aye sir."

"Time to the Vaneldoon system, navigation?"

"About seventeen hours, give or take."

"Good. I’ll be exploring the ship if anyone needs me."

Chief engineer Dodge Azman slowly patrolled engineering, examining readouts and marking certain statuses on his clipboard. The bobcat loved being stationed where he was, the study of energy and propulsion had been his life’s work and he probably knew more about the Andromeda’s systems than anyone else did. He’d just finished testing the backup coolant lines when captain Pyron entered engineering. "Amazing." He said. "Just this piece of the ship is astounding. One can just feel the raw power in this room."

"Very astute sir. Chief Engineer Azman at your service, but most people just call me Dodge." He held out his hand.

"Pleased to meet you Dodge. I was hoping I’d find someone down here who could show me what makes this boat tick."

"Well, you’ve come to the right place. The power system on board generates enough electricity to drive ten standard cruisers. Main power is done in the ion intermix chamber. Here, I’ll show you." Dodge led the captain to a heavy blast door at the rear of engineering. He handed Pyron a pair of heavy glasses. "Here, you usually don’t need these, but occasionally we get a bright flare in the chamber. I’ll open the door." He slid a keycard into the door and punched in a code. The door opened into a type of airlock. The rear door closed and the front one opened, revealing another section of engineering. The room was circular and bi-level with catwalks running around the edges. A handful of crewmen walked along them, monitoring various consoles. In the center was a huge metal cylinder, surrounded by four smaller ones around it. "That big one is the ion intermix chamber. In there we actually separate electrons from the ions and use the energy that is released. The other four are fusion reactors for the sublight engines, they don’t require much juice so we don’t bother hooking them up to the ion core."

"Impressive. What about if the chamber fails or overloads?"

"For power failures, we have a backup matter anti-matter reactor in a separate area. It isn’t as powerful, but will suffice. In the unlikely event of an overload, the chamber is immediately ejected out of the ship. Even if we can’t eject it, this entire compartment is heavily armored to withstand the explosion. The damage done would be significantly lessened. Hang on, I’ll open the chamber." Dodge tapped a few keys on a console and slid on the heavy glasses. "Chamber opening, keep clear!" He yelled down to the rest of the crewmen.

The heavy metal retaining cover slid off the central cylinder, revealing a tangled mass of blues, whites, and turquoises zipping around the chamber. An occasional flash of electricity would play through the ions, causing tiny disturbances in the colors and lighting up the room. It was strangely hypnotic. "Beautiful. It seems almost alive." Said Pyron in awe.

"A magnetic field keeps the ions in the cylinder so they don’t spill out, but it’s always a good idea to keep people away when we open it up. You really don’t want any body parts in there. Some idiot was going to stick his arm in there when we first came aboard but luckily I caught him first." Dodge pressed another switch, closing the chamber.

"Extremely impressive Dodge. I’m glad main engineering is in such good hands." Pyron looked at his watch. "It’s been interesting, but I have an appointment to keep. I’ll talk to you if anything comes up."

"Aye sir. Nice to finally meet whoever’s running things upstairs."

The lift doors opened down on deck 33, deep in the bowels of the ship. Pyron exited the lift into a dimly lit corridor. There were few lights due to the fact that these lower levels of the ship were rarely used. Deck 33 contained only a nexus of maintenance tunnels, a few cargo rooms, and space for future expansion of crew quarters should the need ever arise. Pyron arrived at the tunnel nexus and opened the hatch marked "Port power supply access". It hissed open, revealing a long, dark tunnel. The only light came from the row of red lights down the ceiling. Closing the door behind him, Pyron moved down the tunnel, hunched over from the low ceiling.

"Cozy, eh?" A voice startled Pyron. Halloway moved out from a small side compartment further down. "Nice little sitting spot in that power access terminal. Now that you’re here, how about explaining our mission."

Pyron pulled out his dossier. "A few days ago, fleet command got a signal on the emergency frequency from one of our mapping vessels in the G21 star system, an uninhabited system past Vaneldoon. The signal was badly distorted, as if something cut it off midway. All they got out of it was this, a scan of the system at the time of destruction." He handed Halloway a photo of the star system, complete with mysterious object next to the third planet.

"What’s that?" asked Halloway, pointing at the object.

"That’s what command wants to know. Whatever it is, it’s about forty miles wide and sixty high."

"It’s intentions?"

"Unknown. It may be hostile, considering it destroyed our ship."

"So that’s it, we go look for this thing?"

"Our orders are to make specific contact with it, or to at least ascertain what it is."

"Why the stop at Vaneldoon?"

"They’re the only sentient race in the area of G21. Command wants us to stop there and ask a few questions, see if they know anything about that thing."

"Sounds simple enough. One question though. What if that thing is hostile towards us?"

Pyron was silent for a minute. "We’ll think of something should it arise."

"Captain, we are arriving at Vaneldoon in ten minutes. You may want to come to the bridge." The comm. in captain Pyron’s quarters said.

He got up off the couch where he’d been reading one of the selections from the ship’s library. "Received bridge. I’m on my way."

Five minutes later, Pyron was on the bridge in his command chair, Halloway standing at attention to his right.

"Disengaging ion drive." Said the officer from the back console. The stars flared again and returned to normal. The Vaneldoon system now surrounded them, a populated system of eight planets. Only now there wasn’t something right about it.

"Scan for any ships. Let’s make contact." Said Halloway.

"Captain, this is very odd." Said one officer, a young panther. "I’m not picking up any ships, communications, probes or other scans." She shrugged her shoulders. "It’s as if there’s no one here." She touched her earphone. "Wait, there’s an irregular reading coming from the system’s sun. The computer says there’s a shortage of charged particles in the corona." She looked shocked. "It’s going out."

Pyron was also shocked. "Is that possible? How can a sun just die?"

"The particles allow a star to recycle its excess energy back into the core. Without the particles, a star dies in a few hours. This is all in theory. We’ve never encountered this sort of thing before." On the forward viewer, the normally orange star was turning a dull red, with splotches of black appearing on the surface.

"Scan Vaneldoon itself. Is there anything unusual?"

The panther typed a few more keys. "If you consider picking up no life unusual than yes."

"None?!"

"None. No Vaneldoon, no plants, no animals, not even any microorganisms in the soil. It’s dead sir. The probable cause could be that the atmosphere is gone."

"What do you mean gone?" Asked Halloway.

"As in no longer there. I’ll I’m reading is a few traces of Helium but that’s all."

"How?"

"I don’t know. Sensors are also saying that all usable metals, materials, and resources are gone, including the heavy metals usually locked up in the core." She paused. "It’s as if someone came and took everything that could be used."

"Sir, we have incoming." Said a malamute. "About 150 feet long, it registers as the V.D.F. T’lorae. Destroyer class by our standards. It looks like it’s been damaged. I think it was hiding behind the sixth planet."

"Can we communicate with it?" Asked Pyron.

"I’m hooking up the transmitter to automatically translate. Go ahead, channel is open."

"T’lorae, we have you on our scans, please respond." Said Pyron. The battered ship was now moving towards them. "T’lorae, do you copy? If your communications are down, flash exterior lights twice."

"Why have you returned? Were you not satisfied with completely destroying our planet?" A low voice sneered back over the radio, the signal clouded with static. "We have seen our world destroyed, and you still return to finish us! We will destroy you!"

"What’s the armament on that ship?" asked Pyron to the malamute.

"Three of their turreted plasma burst cannons, but one is destroyed. The plasma bursts are incapable of penetrating our shields."

"T’lorae, we are not returning, we have lost one of our mapping vessels and are attempting to ascertain what happened to it. If you are in need of assistance, we would be glad to-"

"You lie! We will avenge our fallen brethren!" The transmission clicked off and the destroyer began firing its two remaining guns at the Andromeda. The bursts impacted harmlessly on the shields, causing no damage.

"Sir?" asked the malamute.

"Yes lieutenant?"

"I’m reading an overload in their power core, either from battle damage or how hard they’re pushing their weapons. If they do not cease firing and shut down in the next two minutes, it will explode."

"T’lorae, your power core is overloading! Shut down immediately or it will rupture!"

"Die murderers of our families and species!"

"T’lorae, you must listen! Shut down now! Your own lives-" there was a bright flash from the rear of the tiny ship as the core blew, followed by a larger blast as the ship exploded into oblivion.

There was silence on the bridge. "The last of the Vaneldoon, destroyed." Said Halloway solemnly.

Pyron was still quiet. In all his military service, he had seen many tragedies, casualties, deaths, but never anything like this, an entire race wiped out. "I think," He said to his first officer, "that our problem is bigger than we feared."

Chapter 3

"So what exactly do you think we’ll find at G21?" Asked lieutenant commander Trenton. Pyron and Halloway had decided to let the ship’s science officer in on their real mission. Trenton had formerly been a scientist at the Cornerian research institute before entering the fleet and he still retained much of what he had learned.

"I have a feeling we will see what happened at Vaneldoon; all metals stripped from the planets, atmospheres taken away, and a dying star. Whatever that thing was, or is, it must be significantly more advanced than us, being capable of extracting these things from systems, and it is probably intelligent."

The weasel sat back down at the computer in captain Pyron’s quarters. "There is this one odd reading." He activated the computer and typed a few keys. A diagram of the Vaneldoon system came up, the eight planets in the positions they’d been in when the Andromeda had passed through. I was glancing at the radiation readouts and saw this." A thin trickle of blue dots flowed like a river directly through the center of the system. "It’s the remains of a radiation drive trail, using some sort of power source I’ve never seen before. From the rate of degradation and dispersion, whatever it was, it was at Vaneldoon about twelve hours before we were."

"Can you trace it, give us an idea of where it came from, and where it’s going?" Asked Halloway.

"No, we only had it on short range scan. To check much further, I’d need a full sweep of the area using a specific frequency because the radiation would be completely dissolved within a few days. This frequency would pick up the footprint the trail left, not the trail itself. The scan would take several hours and require us to hold position."

"We’ll stop at G21 and make your scan, and maybe get some answers. And Trenton?"

The weasel turned to leave. "Yes captain?"

"Don’t mention this to anyone. The last thing I want if we get into a fight at G21 is for the crew to really know what this thing is probably capable of. Got it?"

"Yes. A wise move sir."

The Andromeda silently cruised into star system G21. As Pyron had expected, the system had been looted just as Vaneldoon had. "Readings corresponding to those from Vaneldoon." Said the sensor officer. "All planets have been stripped of their atmospheres and raw materials, and the star is dead."

"Check for any debris or wreckage near the third planet." Said Pyron.

The malamute frowned at the console. "Whatever took the materials from the planets left a lot of radiation from the process, there’s a lot of interference. I’ll try to filter it out." He pressed a few switches. "Scanning now. Nothing so far… wait, I’ve got something. About two feet long, cylindrical, and metallic. It could be a log pod."

"Can we swing by and pick it up?"

"Probably, but we would have to keep our shields up or the radiation will cause damage. It’ll have to be towed back to a safe area before we can open it up."

"Do it. Mr. Trenton, conduct your scan. And try to be quick about it, there’s something out here that gives me the creeps."

"Aye sir, it shouldn’t take more than an hour."

"We have the pod in a tractor beam, once we’re clear, it will be brought into hangar 2."

"Excellent. I’m going down to meet it. Commander Halloway, take charge up here while I’m gone."

"Aye sir."

Pyron entered the lift and pressed the button for deck 15. A minute later the doors opened to the broad hangar. It was the first time Pyron had been down to the hangars; it was a place he’d missed in his exploration of the ship. The Andromeda carried for squadrons of fighters, one of Arwings, two of protector class jets, and one of Bulldog class jets, and approximately fifteen personnel shuttles. Hangar 2 housed the Arwing squadron; the jets were stored on large racks at the rear of the hangar.

Pyron walked over to the deck officer. "Are we able to take the pod aboard now?" he asked.

"Yes sir. Halloway just lowered shields and we are rigging the tractor beams now."

"Good. I’m anxious to see what ship it was from."

"Opening hangar doors, all personnel keep clear." Said the deck officer into the intercom.

The doors slid aside, revealing the open space beyond. Pyron could see the dead star in the distance, now just a black lump with a few glowing patches of red on the surface. The invisible tractor beam was pulling the dark gray cylinder into the hangar now, suspending it a few feet above the floor.

"Disengaging tractor beam, closing doors." Said the deck officer. "The security, bio, and radiation scans that were done on it on the way in say it’s safe. Indri, get me a portable reader and a connector cable we can hook up to that thing."

"Aye sir." Said another deck hand nearby.

Pyron moved to the cylinder resting on the hangar floor. It was charred black in many places and on one end the covering had been torn off revealing a blasted patch of circuitry. But there was a number partially covered by soot on one side. Pyron wiped away the scouring with his right paw, uncovering the rest of the writing. MV-18. Mapping Vessel number 18 had been at G21. And it had been destroyed.

Indri hooked the reader into the damaged data port but all that appeared on the screen was static. "The memory’s been scrambled. It looks like it was hit by heavy gamma radiation or particles." She said sadly.

"But that star wasn’t the type that produced gamma radiation. The only kind of star that does is a class 10 pulsar and G21’s star was a regular class 7 sun." Said Pyron. "Get Trenton down here with a scanner."

The weasel was down in the hangar in a few minutes running the scanner over the log pod. "Yep, gamma particles. There are still some residual traces in the memory chips. Must’ve been in some sort of beam, even concentrated fire from our own weapons can’t penetrate this type of casing. This was not caused by natural phenomena. What ship is it from?"

"One of our survey ships on a mapping mission. MV-18 I believe it was."

"Hmmm. Probably a mark II series." He logged into the computer. "MV-18 was recently in the system, they’d just began their trip home." He paused. "It seems command was correct, the emergency signal was genuine and that scan wasn’t an error."

"Continue scanning the pod and tell me if you find anything new, but I believe it’s told us all it can. I’ll be on the bridge."

"Is it all right if I have one of the other officers do it? The scan of the trail will be complete in a few minutes."

Pyron paused. "I guess so. It would be more useful to have you on the bridge. Let’s go."

"Finished." Said Trenton. "I’ve got the ship’s path. From what the computer shows, it was here the same time as MV-18, and then passed through several uninhabited systems before Vaneldoon." A blue line appeared on the star map, a wide arc passing through several red dots. "By the computer’s time calculations and the rate of dispersion, the ship should be heading for star system Q38, about one fourth of a light year from here."

"Can we catch it?" Asked Pyron.

"From what I can see, it is not capable of light speed, but moves extremely fast at sublight. If we push the engines hard, we can intercept it in about eight hours at Q38, but I believe you’ll have a hard time keeping our true mission under wraps from the crew. Going to Q38 wasn’t part of the itinerary."

"Well, I guess I’d better inform them. Harris said reveal our mission only if necessary, and this qualifies in my book." He pressed the intercom switch on his chair. "Attention all crewmembers! It is time I told you our true mission. About a week ago we received an emergency signal from a survey ship in G21. All we got was a system scan depicting a large object, approximately forty miles wide in orbit around the third planet. A scan by Mr. Trenton shows it’s projected course, which passed through Vaneldoon. We will be intercepting the vessel at star system Q38 in eight hours. When we arrive, I want all personnel on full alert. I doubt it will attack us, but it never hurts to be cautious. That is all." He turned off the intercom. "Helmsman, set course for Q38, maximum speed. Dodge, you still awake down there?"

The Engineer’s voice returned on the comm. "Yes sir! Any special requests?"

"Yeah, I want maximum power to the ion drive. Can you do that?"

"Yes sir! I’ll give you all the extra power and then some. I’m anxious to see that thing you were talking about."

"We missed it by twelve hours before, I won’t let it get away again. Bridge out." There was a sharp humming as power was shunted into the main drives. The stars flashed and then turned to streaks. The Andromeda and her crew were off to rendezvous with what lay ahead.

Q38 appeared deserted when the Andromeda arrived, but Pyron knew that looks could be very deceiving. "Status of the system?" He asked.

"Normal. All six planets show atmosphere and minerals. The star is functioning

normally." Said Trenton, checking the readout. "By the calculations, our friend should enter the system in three minutes."

"Then let’s be ready. Raise shields, yellow alert."

"All personnel at duty stations, maintain alert status." Said Halloway. "I don’t want this thing to catch us off guard."

"Sir, I’ve got something just entering the fringes of the system, it’s too far to get an accurate reading." Said the sensor officer.

"I hate early guests. Swing us around so we’re pointed right at it. Any way to tell if it’s Venomian or if it’s our target?"

The malamute typed some keys. "Too big to be Venomian. My money’s on our bogey."

"A good bet. Helm, take us towards it until we have visual range and then full stop."

"Aye sir. It will be within range in thirty seconds."

That thirty seconds was an excruciatingly long time. "We have visual. Full stop." Said the helmsman. "Putting it on main viewer."

"Good god." Somebody breathed. It was huge, and exactly as command had shown. A huge pyramid with a flat top and some sort of beam antenna or pole hanging from below. There were also four bent spikes on the bottom, one on each corner. Those were the only differences on the dark gray hull.

"Sensors say each side is 43.5 miles long and it is 62 miles high. It’s mass is about one thousand times ours." Said the sensor officer.

"Can you get an interior scan, life signs, power sources?" Asked Pyron.

"Negative. The outer hull is made of some sort of metal we’ve never seen before and it’s blocking our scanners."

"Signal it. Let’s try talking to it."

"Ready." Said the Comm officer.

"Attention unknown vessel. This is the C.S.S. Andromeda of the Cornerian navy. We wish to make contact and ask about the destruction of one of our vessels on a peaceful mission. Please state your intentions."

There was no answer. "Talkative, aren’t they?" Said Halloway.

All of a sudden, a dull blue beam played over the ship.

"What was that?" Asked Pyron

"A scan of some kind. It just probed through our computer banks. Everything we know it knows now." Said the sensor officer.

"Sir, look!" Said the helmsman, pointing at the screen. The bent spike on the closest corner was glowing a light blue.

"What the heck is that?" Said Halloway.

"I don’t know. It could be a signal of some kind or-" Pyron stopped as a bright blue laser lanced out from the spike, striking the forward shield. The ship rocked slightly. "Sensors, analyze that beam." He ordered.

"Just as I thought. Gamma particles in a compressed beam, but the power was too low to do any damage." Said Trenton.

"No damage or injury reports coming in." Said the Comm operator.

"I think they just signaled their intentions with a warning shot. Forward heavy battery?" Said Pyron into the intercom.

"Yes sir?" Came the reply.

"They just fired a warning shot at us. Fire one burst but make it a clean miss. Show them that we don’t like to be pushed."

"Aye sir. One miss."

Ahead, the forward heavy gun turret rotated into position and fired. The green lasers sailed past the unknown ship cleanly.

"Excellent. Let’s see what they think of that."

The huge ship rotated on its axis slightly, turning so one of the spikes pointed directly at the Andromeda.

"Sir, it looks like they’re preparing to fire again." Said the helmsman.

"Hold steady. If they shoot, return fire immediately. Forward shields to full."

The spike turned blue and fired another beam. But this one didn’t just impact harmlessly on the shields. The laser struck heavily, causing the entire bridge to lurch sideways. Pyron was nearly thrown from his seat. "What was that?!" He yelled.

"Another particle beam, but much more power. Forward shields holding, but weakened. Minor damage on decks 12 and 13."

"Guns, return fire, evasive maneuvers." The Andromeda shot forward and began firing the laser blasts struck the unknown vessel several times but did no apparent damage. "What’s happening, are we hitting it?"

"Yes sir, but the hull is just absorbing the lasers. They just kind of dissipate when they hit." Said Trenton

"Try our warheads and nova bombs. Fire when ready."

"Firing warheads now."

Several missiles and nova bombs shot forward, exploding at various points on the ship.

"No damage. Whatever the hull is made of, it eats our weapons for breakfast."

"Blast! Helm, cut around below it and try firing there. Maybe it’s less armored at the bottom."

The Andromeda rocketed towards the base of the vessel, firing all the while, but doing no damage. "Move off." Said Pyron, seeing that the tactic wasn’t working. They came to a full stop at a large distance from the craft.

"It’s no use, whatever we fire, it doesn’t penetrate the hull. We can’t win this one, pull back and set course back to base." Said Pyron. "We’ll report this to high command."

"Captain, I’m detecting a rise in energy in that thing. It’s starting to concentrate." Said Trenton. "It’s increasing rapidly."

The huge apparatus at the bottom of the ship was now starting to glow. The vessel rotated so the rod was pointed directly at them. "Uh oh. Helm, move us away, maximum speed." Said Halloway.

Before they had a chance to move, the rod discharged a bright white laser. The beam struck the Andromeda on the rear shields. The impact knocked the ship away and sent it hurtling. The lights in the bridge went out, bathing the room in darkness. "Damage report!" Yelled Pyron over the alarms now going off.

"That beam went through the shields like they were tissue paper! Propulsion, dead, weapons dead, power grid is a mess, external communications, dead, internal and external sensors, dead, life support, still functioning on battery power, reactors are intact, but we’re dead in the water." Said the sensor officer.

"Dodge, can you get us power back?!" Said Pyron into the intercom.

"Are you nuts? Whatever you guys just did up there, it made a real mess down here. Most of the relays just blew up and I can’t even tell what to fix because most of the diagnostics panels just went out." The transmission was lined with static.

"Condition of the reactors?"

"They’re stable and functioning, but they’re probably the only things down here that are."

"Um, I’m sorry to interrupt sir, but look." Said the helmsman, motioning at the screen. The rod was now beginning to glow again.

"Dodge, we need propulsion now! It’s lining up to take another shot at us! One more hit and we’ll all be space dust!"

"Alright, alright, I’ll see what I can do. Give me a minute!"

"We don’t have a minute Dodge!"

"Okay, I’ve jury rigged the power line. As long as the drive system is still intact, it should give you a few second jump at max before it blows, but if the drive unit is dead, this’ll make a lot of noise and not take us anywhere."

"Understood. Helm, engage ion drive now! Any vector!"

"Aye sir."

"They’re firing!’ Yelled Trenton.

The Andromeda went to light speed; the beam missed the ship by a few meters as they escaped.

 

Chapter 4

The jump lasted 4.1 seconds. When it ended, most systems aboard the ship were dead or barely functioning.

Pyron stood in the observation lounge with his hands clasped behind his back, looking out at the unfamiliar stars. Commander Halloway came up to him. "You know," he said quietly. "I never thought on my first mission of a new command I’d almost total the entire ship. I can’t believe some of the commands I gave. We shouldn’t have even considered firing on that thing, given what it’s capable of. Something capable of destroying entire star systems and I thought we could take it on in a fight. God, I’m an idiot."

"It wasn’t all your fault, we had no way of knowing its capabilities when we met it, and it might have fired on us even if we didn’t return fire. You did what you could to protect the ship."

"I should’ve just taken a sensor image and a scan and reported back to command."

"And that would be fine for a coward. From what I’ve seen in the last few hours, most of the crew now has a higher respect for you for not running away from intimidation."

"I would’ve rather gotten that respect in some other way. Why did you come to see me?"

"I have the reports from the senior staff. If you would like to look over them…"

"No. Call a senior staff meeting, briefing room 1. I want to hear the reports in person."

The staff was in the briefing room in ten minutes. "Now," said Pyron. "In light of the recent, ah, situation, I am going to need all the information we can get on getting back to Corneria. To start with, sensor officer Kurek, have you been able to determine where we are?"

The malamute frowned at his datapad. "Not exactly. The computer was able to plot a circle of points where we could be, but until the nav system is back up, our exact location is unknown."

"That’ll have to be good enough for now. Comm officer Teris, any luck contacting fleet command?"

"I’m able to activate our distress beacon, but that is detectable on all frequencies, and could just lure our attacker back to us so I’ve left it off. Shall I activate it?" Asked the panther.

"No, leaving it off was a wise precaution. What about other communications?"

"For now, our communications are dead." She said sadly.

"Dr. Prestin, casualties."

The white fox dug a clipboard out of his lab coat. "Casualties read: thirty-six dead on attack, nineteen after, I have nine in critical condition, and seventeen recovering." He adjusted his glasses. "Of the first thirty-six, which were mainly in the propulsion section in the maintenance tunnels, twelve weren’t found. I believe they were either sucked out when parts of the ship were exposed to space or incinerated in the beam or explosions. If you want suggestions, I could use a little help down in sick bay, we’re a little swamped down there."

"Fifty-five dead. At least they died quickly. I don’t want to add to that number, I’ll see if I can get you some more assistance. Dodge, how are repairs coming?"

"Not too well. We do have the power grid reconnected to life support and primary power, but most of the systems are still down so we don’t know what has been damaged. The propulsion section was the heaviest hit, and all the hatches to it were sealed on impact. We can’t get back there to do the repairs unless we know which sections are safe to open." Said Dodge. "Propulsion is still down except for minimal emergency thrusters."

"Hmmm. Is there any way to ascertain the extent of the damage from here?"

"Not really, no. Internal sensors back there are still down."

"Keep trying. We’ll try to think of something. Mr. Trenton, what new data do you have on our attacker?"

"Well, with the computer systems still operable, I’ve been able to get a closer analysis of the hull and how it blocked our shots." He pressed a switch on the table. A hologram of three blue balls appeared in the center. The three balls touched at only three points, each marked with a dot. "This is the molecule the hull is composed of. Three atoms of some unknown metal connected to each other at three points. This in itself is not unusual. But, the atom’s are in such close proximity to each other, the minute amounts of gravity from the atoms conflicting with each other actually stop the electrons from orbiting and they are stuck in place." A cloud of blue specks appeared around the hologram. "The absence of movement from the electrons makes the metal extremely dense in itself, so our projectile weapons did no damage, and the coat of electrons absorbs energy like a sponge. An electron holds a charge for a split second before passing it to another electron and so on until the energy has been dispersed around the entire ship, where the dispersion is so great there is insufficient energy to penetrate the metal."

"Can it be destroyed?" Asked Halloway.

"In theory, yes. A huge amount of energy at a fast rate channeled into a single group of molecules would overload the electrons before they have a chance to disperse the energy, causing the molecular bonds to overload, and splitting the atoms. The resulting release of energy from one molecule would be equivalent to ten times the power output of this ship. This in turn would destroy the neighboring molecules in a chain reaction that could destroy the ship, but the resulting end explosion would be like a star burning brightly for a few seconds and then going out. The resulting explosion would obliterate anything within half a light year. The only problem is the energy would have to be focused on a single molecule and it would take more firepower than we have on board, even firing at maximum speed."

"How many ships would it take?" Asked Pyron.

"The firepower would be the same as about one hundred and twenty-five battleships, give or take. The problem is accuracy, getting all the shots in one place that fast."

"That, and getting one hundred and twenty-five battleships. Thank you Mr. Trenton. Have you been able to plot this thing’s course?" Said Pyron

"I was in the midst of doing that when my computer shorted out. I’ll need to recalculate the data to get the course."

"Do it as soon as possible. Inform me when you have it."

"Aye sir, I’ll get right to work on it."

"Good. Weapons officer Chisolm, do we have our weapons back?"

"Only a few laser turrets and a single missile tube are usable." Said the hamster. "Our repair crews are working as fast as possible, and we expect to be fully armed in a few days, save the weaponry that was on the propulsion section."

"Condition of shields?"

"The shield generators are intact, but the damage to the power grid has rendered them unusable until we can get power back to them. After that, they’ll still need to recharge to full power."

"Not the highest priority until we return to Lylat, since it is unlikely we will run into our friend again; he seems more interested in destroying star systems. What about the hangar bays?"

"Both are undamaged and we are capable of launching fighters, though some were damaged after being knocked of the storage racks in the blast. Repairs are almost complete now."

"Right. Now, that’s all for the reports, I am now being an open suggestion box; I want any ideas to solve any current problems we have, the most preferable being restarting the main drive. Any ideas?"

"We do have some spy probes on board, maybe we could remotely pilot one back to the damaged section and find out what’s broken. It would be easy to modify one to be piloted remotely."

"Dodge, will that work?"

"Probably. Are the probes small enough to fit into tight crevices, holes, hatches, because I’ll probably need a close look at some parts."

"The probes are cylindrical, about the same size as the log pod we brought on board." Said Halloway.

"They’ll work. I want to be on the bridge when you do the exploring."

"Fine. Teris, do what you can to regain communications, and Trenton, get that course plotted. Halloway, let’s go rebuild a probe. This meeting is adjourned."

"Probe is ready for launch." Said Dodge.

"Launch probe. Visual feed on main screen." Said Pyron. "Let’s get a damage assessment."

On the main screen the view of the launch tunnel appeared as the cylinder slid out into space and maneuvered it’s way around the front of the ship.

"Scanners on and functioning. It will arrive at the damaged section in about one minute." Said Dodge. The probe was now skimming low over the hull; the modules and conning tower scattered around it, looking like some bizarre alien landscape. "Coming up on damaged section, scanning for intact sections."

The probe lifted over a boxy extrusion and the landscape changed from silver metal to blackened wreckage. The remains of one of the sublight drive engines loomed ahead, now only a blackened pylon with a few girders connected to it.

"Nacelle 3 is a total loss, number 4 heavily damaged but possibly repairable once we reach port." Said Dodge. Engine 4 was blackened in most parts, with wrecked superstructure showing through in several places. A thick green smog was leaking from one.

"What’s that? Something to worry about?" Asked Pyron.

"No, only a little engine coolant from a ruptured line. I’m going to send some repair teams out onto the hull to do some repairs anyway, and I’ll have them go up and cap the leak. We could probably just leave it but there’s no sense in wasting coolant."

The probe entered the huge crater between the two engines, a blackened hole left from the core of the blast. Coolants and other chemicals were leaking in several places here too.

"Yes! The main ion drive line is still intact! We should be able to use the drive if the nozzle is still intact." Dodge motioned at a thick pipe at the bottom of the crater. "It looks like the hull took most of the blast but that heavy armor plating on the line protected it. They built that to channel the force of an engine overload out the back and not towards the reactors; I bet the designers never dreamed it would be used to protect from outside elements." The stubs of two smaller pipes jutted out just below the outer hull, the other ends at the far side of the crater.

"What are, or were those?"

"Sublight engine drive conduits, what made those two nacelles work. I figured they wouldn’t have survived, even if those two engines were usable, they couldn’t be turned on." The probe moved down the crater, readings occasionally flashing across the screen. It moved towards a small opening just below the ion drive line, too artificial looking to be a blast hole. "Maintenance tunnel 139B. I was just down there two days ago to service the backup power batteries. Those must’ve been completely destroyed, but that tunnel could serve as an entry point to the interior grid for the repair crews. From what I’ve seen, most of the other tunnel entrances have been collapsed or destroyed, so finding one opening intact is a bonus. Now, if we can find one at the rear of the crater, it will be possible to reconnect the number 2 oxygen recycling system."

"Dodge, what exactly was in the section we lost? I know it was mainly propulsion systems and maintenance tunnels, but there must’ve been more."

"Well, those backup batteries were back there, a few small cargo bays, the emergency computer core, a couple of wastewater recycling facilities, and the connection lines to the oxygen recycling system in back, luckily from what we can tell it was out of the blast radius and still usable."

"Ah." The probe made a U-turn and now was heading for the rear of the blast crater. "Look, I see another tunnel entrance, just below the upper sublight drive conduit. Part of it is collapsed, but it still looks open."

"I see it, but it looks like something’s in the entrance, but I can’t tell what. Let’s move the probe in closer." The probe jetted over towards the wrecked tunnel. "Whatever it is, it’s connected to one of the pipes that was under the floor, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to remove."

"But what is it?"

"I don’t know, it could be a piece of debris from farther down the tunnel that was sucked out during the decompression, a relay from under the floor, or…" Dodge stopped as he saw what the object was.

It was a body.

A young raccoon, gripping onto a pipe under the floor, a look of sheer terror frozen onto his face. A light coat of frost dusted him, a result of his body moisture being exposed to extreme cold.

"Lieutenant Liggens, he was on his daily inspection of the oxygen recycling plant, when the tunnel was exposed to space, he was beyond the blast radius but still got sucked down the corridor. Tried to hang on but was too late. God, he always did have to look over the plant twice, why couldn’t he have skipped the second check for once and come back before the blast?" Said Dodge quietly.

"You knew him?"

"Only because I worked with him in engineering, but he was always the extra thorough type so he stood out."

"Dr. Prestin, was one of those missing twelve a lieutenant Liggens?" Said Pyron into the comm.

"Um, hang on a second, yes, we were unable to find his body."

"We found it. I’ll have a team go out and retrieve him and bring him to sick bay."

"Understood. I’ll be ready."

The bridge was silent as Dodge piloted the probe back to one of the hangar bays.

"Captain, I think you should see this." Said Trenton from his console. "I’ve been able to start replotting this thing’s course. From what I can see, it’s not from this galaxy."

"What do you mean?"

The bridge screen displayed a map of the spiral arm containing Lylat. A red curved line arced through the arm, continuing off into space at the edge. "If it’s been following the same course, it’s from galaxy M18. At it’s rate of speed, it would’ve taken it about seven million years to cross the open space between the galaxies." He paused. "It’s ancient. Whoever created it is probably long extinct, if there were any on board; they must be dead from old age. I’m guessing it was originally a supertransport or city ship and now that its crew is gone, it’s running on automation."

"I hate to say it, but we have to destroy or at least disable it, even if it is a huge scientific find. What if it comes to another inhabited system?" Said Pyron.

"I’m not debating that with you, I’m just saying it’s a marvel for surviving for so long. And that "if" you mentioned, I’ve confirmed."

Pyron was silent. "What are you saying?" He said coldly.

"It will reach mining station Epsilon in two hours on current course. But that isn’t the worst thing."

"What is?"

Trenton was silent a minute. "At present speed and the time it takes to use up a system, it will arrive at Lylat in about a month."

"It’s coming?"

"Yes."

"God we need to hurry. There isn’t much time. Dodge, we need those engines back online."

"I’m way ahead of you. Repair teams are en route to repair the ion drive as we speak." Said Dodge, inputting commands on his console. "We’ll probably have sublight in an hour, and ion drive in two."

"Good, speed is imperative. Halloway, are any ships stationed at Epsilon?"

He entered a few commands. "Yes. The light cruiser Diamond Dragon is stationed there to escort a cargo convoy back to Corneria tomorrow evening. The cargo ships are minimally armed, but the Dragon is a capable battleship with a few fighters."

"I don’t think it would matter if Epsilon had a fully capable armada stationed there with a full wing of jets. Teris, do we have communications back? We have to warn them."

"No, Comm is still down. Estimate is three hours."

"Too late. Helm, set course for mining station Epsilon, as much speed as we can get with the thrusters. Once we get ion drive and sublight back, full speed ahead."

"Even if we get everything operational in the estimated time, we’ll still arrive 18 hours too late."

"Then we’ll hope we find survivors. Trenton, you’re sure the course is correct?"

"Positive."

"Then may God be with them."

 

Alarms went off throughout the Diamond Dragon as Kiri Velez raced for the hangar. This was supposed to be a standard cargo escort mission; no one would ever attack mining station Epsilon for several reasons. It was far from Lylat, a tiny asteroid with a few structures on the surface, it wasn’t a significant target, only the boredest commander would go after an unarmed outpost in the middle of nowhere, and only a few people even knew it was there. So why was the battle alarm going off? The wolf reached the tiny hangar a few minutes later where the Dragon’s five Arwings were stored. "Any idea what this is about?" She asked the flight leader; a hotshot buck named Quint Sedger.

"Not a clue. All I heard was to scramble and investigate some weird reading they were getting. My bet is it’s a sensor glitch."

"Oh well. It’s better than sitting around all day waiting for action."

"True."

Quint and Kiri were the first out of the hangar, followed by Lannie and Vince. Last, as usual, was Rex. The five jets of the Broadsword squadron formed up into a loose triangle and headed for the coordinates

"Late again, eh Rex?" Said Quint.

"It’s not my fault! The lift was busy! I had to wait."

"Yeah, just like that time they said your brother was run over by a truck and you were so overcome with grief you didn’t hear the call, only to find out it was all a hoax? Or that time the reactor was about to explode and you were the only one on board that could fix it? Or maybe…" razzed Vince.

"Shut up." The frog grumbled.

"I don’t know, his best one is when he said he was temporarily beamed up by aliens so he could show them how to program a VCR." Said Kiri.

"Or when he rescued the captain from being locked in the restroom?" Said Quint, snickering.

"I said shut up. And the alien one was true."

"Right, right. Anyone see what we’re supposed to be looking for?" Said Quint.

"I’ve got a contact, about sixty degrees to port, but it has to be an error. Sensors say its forty-five miles wide." Said Kiri.

"That’s got to be an error. Venom doesn’t have anything that big. Nobody has…" Lannie cut off midway through. "Holy God, I see it. Sixty degrees to port, a little above us. Looks like a big pyramid."

"What the? Is that an asteroid of something?" Said Rex.

"Only if there’s someone hanging around out there cutting fifty mile asteroids into geometric shapes for the fun of it."

"I’ll try hailing it." Said Quint. "Unidentified ship, unidentified ship, please respond. This is Quint Sedger of the Cornerian military. Please respond and state your intent."

The huge object remained silent and continued on its way.

"I don’t think you got to him." Said Vince.

"New contact! Three of em coming out from under that thing. About the size of a standard jet." Said Lannie.

"What’s this, a welcoming committee?" Said Quint. "Move to intercept, but don’t look like you’re moving to intercept."

"How the heck do we do that?"

"I don’t know, figure it out. Think of something."

The craft were now coming into view. They were black, three sided pyramids, very pointed. A spike extended forward from each corner of the base with a glowing blue line running around the middle of the fuselage.

"I really don’t like the looks of those." Said Kiri carefully.

"Neither do I. Shields on full, lasers ready everyone." Said Quint.

At the top of each of the spikes a blue light appeared. "What do you think that is?" Asked Lannie, eyeing the lights.

"I don’t know, and I don’t like the way they look." Said Vince.

As if on cue, the lead ship fired, blue lasers emitting from the spikes. The beams blew into Lannie’s Arwing, blowing it apart.

"Evasive action! Intruder is hostile! Fire at will!" Yelled Quint, swerving to avoid the debris from Lannie’s jet. The three unidentified fighters remained in perfect formation, firing fast. Rex disappeared into a hail of fire, spraying debris in all directions.

"Vince, Kiri, take flank. It’s our turn for the offensive." The three Arwings pulled a lateral U-turn, coming up behind the unknown fighters. "Locking on now." Said Quint. He fired a stream of fire at the center jet. He held the fire for a full twenty seconds before it imploded. "Gees, these things must have ten feet of armor on them! Vince, try a bomb."

"Roger. I have a lock." A single nova bomb spewed from his jet, heading for one of the surviving ships. It exploded, destroying the jet and damaging the other. "Yes! That was for Rex and Lannie, you stupid son of a-" The remaining fighter pulled an extremely tight turn, ramming through Vince’s canopy. Both ships exploded on impact, causing a huge fireball.

"Holy hell! Those guys are suicidal!" Said Quint.

"At least they’re all gone." Said Kiri.

A beeping on the status board drew her attention. "Uh oh, I read six more, coming in fast. I think we just made them mad."

"Crud! Floor it and head back to the base! We’ll see if the anti-aircraft batteries can track them."

The anti-aircraft batteries could not track them. The six ships in pursuit of Quint and Kiri flitted right through the fire from the Diamond Dragon, never taking a hit. The Dragon took several hits though; the jets pelted the cruiser with laser fire, causing minor explosions here and there. A larger blast ripped one of the drive engines from the hull, scattering parts of ship all over. But the invaders only did this in one pass, never deviating from their primary mission to eliminate Quint and Kiri.

"Kiri, you have any suggestions?" Said Quint hurriedly.

"No, you?"

"One, but the odds are only slightly better than staying out here. I was going to say return to the ship, but they seen to have their hands full if we come near."

"Small odds are better than no odds. What’s the plan?"

"They seem set on taking us out, so we get them to follow us through the mining tunnels into the processing plant."

"Are you nuts? The plant is in full operation now, it’ll be impossible to get through!"

"You got any better ideas?"

The sad thing was, Kiri didn’t have any better ideas. Staying outside, they might take out a few more of the fighters, but they’d either be eventually shot down or the mother ship would just send more. ‘They’re closing in on us, let’s go." She said.

The two Arwings screamed for the cave opening ringed by lights and danger signs. No time to obey those signs now. They entered the cave, followed closely by five of the craft. Where the sixth had gone, Kiri didn’t know or care right now.

The cavern was wide for right now, but that wouldn’t last. It narrowed into a thin drilled shaft, metal walls occasionally set into the rock for support. The shaft was so narrow in fact, that two of the ships tried to squeeze through together, ramming into each other, causing a minor cave-in. The other three ships nimbly hopped over the wreckage, intent on eliminating their targets.

"Alright Kiri, there’s still three left. From what I can remember, this shaft makes a tight turn just ahead and then we open into another chamber. I know how me might be able to ditch the rest there. Just stay with me."

"How do you know so much about these tunnels?"

"When we first arrived, I had some free time, so I went with the inspection chief in his overseer’s vehicle for a mine tour. We didn’t go all the way to the plant, but we went far enough."

"Ah."

There was a tight ninety-degree turn a little further, which then opened into another cavern. A couple of vehicles were at work, treaded bodies with a set of poles on top resembling field goal posts. A grid of lasers was spread between them.

"What the devil are those?" Asked Kiri.

"Gridminers. They shove that grid onto a rock outcropping and shear it off into pieces where it can be collected. Now, if I can just find one in the right position… ah, there we are. See that one pulling away from the wall next to that support column?"

"Yes…"

"Boost between that column and the wall before it backs all the way out. They turn the grid around after each time so they don’t wear one side down. Hurry and you’ll see what I have in mind."

Kiri made it through just as the mining machine backed all the way out and began swiveling it’s mount around 180 degrees. One of the pursuers rammed into the heavy laser grid as it was turned sideways, splitting apart from the heavy beams.

"Quint, did I ever tell you that you’re brilliant?"

"No, but everyone seems to think so. Too bad that trick’ll only work once."

Behind them, the remaining two fired on the gridminer, blowing it up and collapsing the laser field.

Quint and Kiri crossed a narrow opening into a wide cavern, which was seemingly empty. All of a sudden, a huge crane swung out, its broad cross bar capped with a rock-cutting buzz saw. The saw ripped into a rock column, scattering chunks and collapsing part of the roof.

Quint was able to avoid the avalanche by swinging around it, but Kiri was forced to fly straight through the cascade of falling rocks. She nimbly dodged them, taking a few hits from smaller chunks but flew out the other side with only a few dents and a fine coating of dust on the ship.

"Quint? Have you seen my wits? I know I had them a few moments ago, but they seem to have escaped." She said.

"Sorry, I forgot about the shearing crane. Must’ve been offline when I came through."

"Forget about what I said about being brilliant. What’s next?"

"Next is the entrance to the processing plant. This is as far as I’ve gone. From here on out, your guess is as good as mine."

The cavern ended at a huge metal portal, where several of the robotic tram lines carrying ore converged going into the plant. One was passing through now, a snub nosed engine followed by three cars filled with rock. But at the end…

"Quint, at the end of that tram, the cylindrical car, what’s that?"

"I don’t know, probably fuel."

"Perfect. Head in, I’ve got an idea."

Quint blew past the tram, but Kiri pulled a fast loop, firing on the fuel car as she was upside down.

The fuel ignited and exploded, taking the rest of the tram with it, along with one of the remaining fighters.

"Nice shot Kiri. Hey back there, just send us the bill for that tram!"

The portal split into several metal tunnels, the only one big enough for an Arwing was the central one. The temperatures on Kiri’s board were beginning to rise. A tram passed below, towing three cars filled with molten rock. "Any idea where this is going Quint?" She said quietly.

"No, but I have a pretty good idea. How’s a nice trip through the smelter sound?"

"Better than our alternative."

The tunnel opened into a huge room filled with molten metal; a line of huge buckets ran along the ceiling, all of them filled with lava.

"Kiri, any more of those bright ideas?"

"Not really… but I might have something."

She pulled upwards, pointing the Arwing at one of the huge cauldrons. The unknown jet followed, still firing. Kiri carefully lined up the sights on one of the connectors holding the bucket on the line. If she misfired, this would be a quick end. A single blast found its mark, wrecking the connector and causing the bucket to sway sideways. She boosted away from the off-kilter pail as the other latch came loose. The bucket of magma plummeted sideways, dumping its load onto the pursuer. It appeared to withstand the lava, but the force of the bucket falling on it rammed it back into the lava pool.

"Yes! Kiri, did I ever tell you that you’re-"

"Brilliant?" She finished. "You can thank me later. Let’s burn." The two ships raced out one of the exhaust vents for the smelter and out over the surface of the asteroid.

"Look, up ahead, there’s the mining base." Said Quint, steering for the cluster of buildings up ahead. "We’ll try to put down there and-"

A bright blue beam from god knows where speared into the base, blowing it into a hail of debris. The last thing Kiri saw before the ensuing firestorm reached her was a piece of metal wall being thrown at the canopy. Her head was violently slammed against one side of the cockpit. The Arwing was tossed and flipped through the storm, alarms constantly going off on the control panel. A few seconds later, when things cleared, the base was a smoldering crater and Quint was gone. She saw his Arwing a minute later, bent around a rock spire, blackened and battered. The sensors read no life signs. "Oh, Quint…" she mouthed, a single tear dropping from her eye. A trickle of blood ran down her left temple, staining the shoulder of her uniform.

Then she saw it. The one fighter that hadn’t followed them, it’s lasers armed. She tried to fire, but everything was fused or severely overheated. The ship fired a single salvo, impacting on the rear of the ship and knocking it spaceward and slamming Kiri hard into the seat. There were several snaps and a sharp pain emitted from her right arm. She winced, from the pain and waiting for the craft to come and finish her off. It didn’t give chase. Now, every light on the status board was red. Including life support. The air in the cockpit was rapidly becoming thin, and Kiri grabbed the emergency air canister from the side compartment and fitted the breathing mask. The canister could last twelve hours, fourteen at the most, and then all that was left was what was in the cockpit. Since the air in the canister was more compressed, it brought around a deep sleep. Kiri tried to stay conscious, but lapsed into darkness.

 

Chapter 5

The damaged Andromeda limped into the system containing mining station Epsilon. It was dead. They’d managed to get propulsion and ion drive back, along with most other systems, but the huge crater on the hull was still there.

"We’re too late." Said Halloway, examining the wreckage floating around.

Partway from the base, the wreck of the Diamond Dragon hung in space, the hull pitted with black craters and blast marks. From the looks of it, the ship had tried to fight and then escape from a swarm of bees armed with lasers. The engineering section was torn open and the occasional bolt of static electricity lanced from one side of the gouge to the other.

"Kurek, any life signs?" Said Pyron, already knowing the answer.

"None sir. The entire ship is depressurized, and I’m detecting several radiation leaks, mainly in engineering. No one could be alive in there." He said sadly. "She looks salvageable though, we could take her in tow-"

"No. We need to get back as soon as possible. The fate of Lylat depends on it. Take us by the base. I doubt there’ll be any survivors, but we have to check."

The damaged battleship left the Diamond Dragon behind, moving towards the battered asteroid. The huge rock was blasted with scorch marks, and where the surface portion of the base had been was only a huge blast hole. Space was littered with smaller chunks of rock and debris that had been blasted.

"No life signs." Said Kurek. "Also all power is dead, and it looks like the interior portions of the mines have been attacked. No equipment is functioning."

"No communications emanating." Said Teris. "All channels are dead."

"Then there’s nothing left for us here. Maximum speed back to Corneria as soon as were clear of the debris. We’ll make sure they didn’t die in vain." The Andromeda began a slow turn away from the wrecked rock.

A beeping from the panel awakened Kiri. Her oxygen had long since depleted and all that was left was the faint traces in the cockpit. The auto-repair system had rebuilt the sensors to at least minimal power, and they were indicating a ship in the area. Immediately she saw it. A silvery hull reflected the light of the stars and tiny lights from it’s interior littered the hull. What was most impressive was its size, nearly a mile long. Whether it was Venomian, Cornerian, alien, she didn’t care. It was rescue and that was all that mattered. She hit the switch for the emergency beacon. Nothing happened. The ship was now turning away, leaving. Kiri realized the power from her ship was too minimal to be detected, and they were leaving her here to die of lack of air. She quickly tried to see if the emergency batteries had survived and were still intact. They were. She connected them to the Comm line. All they were able to do was generate a weak pulse, one tone every five seconds. They’d have to be listening very carefully to detect it. She was now getting lightheaded; the oxygen in the cockpit was down to critical levels. The ship wasn’t slowing down, they didn’t hear her. "No, don’t leave me here!" she coughed weakly just before blacking out.

"Sir, I’ve got something." Said Teris. "A very faint signal, one tone every five seconds. I think it’s a random number generation from a computer transmitter, and those are only used when power is at extreme lows."

"From the asteroid?" Said Pyron. "Someone could’ve crashed on the surface and is on backup power."

"No, from space. I can’t get an exact source location, but it’s somewhere around grid coordinates 547.9 by 919.3."

"Kurek, anything there?" Asked Halloway.

"I can’t find… wait, I’ve got something. A jet, Arwing class. It looks like it’s adrift, and power levels are extremely low. If it wasn’t sending that signal, the computer would’ve taken it as wreckage."

"Any life signs?" Asked Pyron.

"I can’t tell. The sensor lock is too weak. I recommend we bring it aboard."

"Good idea, Dr. Prestin, go to hangar 1, we may have an emergency situation." He said into the comm.

"Got it. I’m on my way. Sick bay out."

"Halloway, once it’s aboard, get us back as fast as possible. I’m going down to see what we’ve got."

"Aye sir. Tractor beams have it in tow now."

The tractor beam hauled the battered ship into the hangar bay, gently setting it down in the middle of the floor. Both wings were gone and the entire fuselage was blackened as if someone had left it on the grill too long. It reminded Pyron of the message pod they’d picked up at G21, only this one might still contain life.

Two technicians crawled onto the ship and tried to pry the cockpit open. "It’s fused, get me a laser cutter, fast!" Said one after failing.

"Can you see anyone inside?" Asked Pyron.

"No, the canopy’s singed so we can’t see in." Another worker handed him a laser cutter, which he frantically began using to cut the canopy off. A minute later the glass was pulled aside and there was a hiss of air as the cockpit was exposed. "Oh man, get the doc over here! There was almost no air in there and she’s in bad shape."

Dr. Prestin climbed the wrecked ship and peered in. "I need a stretcher and an artificial breathing apparatus stat!" Two medics rushed forward, and assisted Dr. Prestin in lifting whoever was inside out. Pyron saw it was a young female wolf, her dark hair stained with blood.

"Doctor, her arm appears to be broken, or at least fractured." Said one of the medics.

"Can’t worry about that now, we’ll fix it later." Dr. Prestin slid a clear breathing tube down her throat. He turned to Pyron. "She has massive asphyxiation from minimal air. I don’t know if I can save her."

"You have to try. She’s the only one who knows exactly what happened."

"I’ll do my best, but I’m not making any guarantees." He rushed along with the medics towards the lift.

Pyron prepared to follow when the comm buzzed. "Captain? This is Dodge. I’ve got the ion drive hooked up but I wouldn’t recommend running it at full speed until we get fully repaired. I don’t know how well it will hold up to the stress."

"Dodge, what’ll happen if it can’t handle the stress?"

"It’ll blow out and I’ll have to fix it again, burning another two hours."

"And what’ll happen if that thing gets to Lylat before we do?"

Dodge was quiet. "I see your point. I’ll see what I can do so it holds out."

"Good. Pyron out." He slowly walked over to the wrecked Arwing. Both wings had been sheered off, the cables hanging limply out the holes. The engine was just a hole in the rear now, blackened and charred. But most peculiar was the line of black scorches along the hull just behind the cockpit. They almost looked like the marks left by standard fighter-class lasers. "Trenton, can you come down here? I need you to run an analysis on something down here." He said into the comm.

"Got it. I’ll get a scanner and be right down."

Trenton was at the hangar a few minutes later. "Good God, what hit that thing?" He said.

"I have no idea, but look at these." He motioned at the scorch marks. "If our friend was armed with any anti-aircraft lasers, it didn’t use them on us."

Trenton scanned them. "About the same as our own lasers, but it looks like they’ve been enhanced using gamma particles, though the concentration of them must’ve been pretty low or this ship wouldn’t be here."

"Is there anything else we could learn from this craft?"

"Probably not, but I’ll do a check. Any word on the pilot?"

"Massive asphyxiation and a few bruises, but that’s all. I was just on my way up to sick bay to have a look for myself."

"I’ll do the scan and then give you any new data as it turns up."

Sickbay was silent when Pyron arrived with only a few nurses and medics patrolling the rows of injured. Dr. Prestin was at his desk when Pyron entered the office. "How’s our patient?" He asked.

"Sleeping, for now. We were able to restart her breathing and bandage her arm. She’ll recover, if that’s what you want to know." He answered. "I put her in recovery room 2, since 1 is full and 3 is being used as a temporary surgery. This way." He moved out the door and down a hall. The first window showed a gruesome scene, bloody patients covered in bandages and burned bodies. At the far end, two nurses were wheeling out one of the beds. "Ensign Kyle, he passed away only a few hours ago, one of the ones in critical condition. His chest was crushed from a fallen girder; it’s amazing he lived this long. Poor kid was only nineteen."

"What about the others? Anyone else on the edge?" Asked Pyron solemnly.

"No, not for the moment. He’s the second one I’ve lost since the report I gave you."

"The other?"

"Commander Terrel, ten hours ago. Went into shock from his burns and didn’t come out of it."

"God, please don’t let there be any more." He whispered.

"I doubt there will be. Most of the injuries look more serious than they are; a majority of them will be fully recovered in a few days. Down here."

They moved to the next window. It looked in on a significantly smaller room, where only one bed was occupied. She was asleep, a bandage on her head and arm, though they didn’t make her look any less at peace.

"Can you wake her?"

"Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It would probably be best to let her awaken on her own."

"Yes, you’re right. Any luck on determining who she is?"

"The records on her are light. Her name is Kiri Velez, service number 6339845. Rank of lieutenant, she’s been in service for about two years now, part of the Diamond Dragon’s five ship squad, under commander Quint Sedger, now obviously deceased." He paused. "And now she’s the only survivor of a massacre on a helpless outpost."

"I wonder what kind of horrors she witnessed." Said Pyron.

"When she wakes up, I’ll let you know. For now, let her rest. I think the last two days will take awhile to get over."

 

Kiri opened her eyes slowly. She was under a set of dim lights in a small, white room.

"Oh god, am I dead? Is this heaven?" She thought. A stinging pain in her temple gave her the realization that this wasn’t heaven.

"Ow. If I’m not dead, then where am I?" She whispered.

The room got clearer. There was a biomonitor above her bed and several computer consoles in the room. She realized that she was in a hospital of some sort. Probably the onboard sick bay on a starship.

"But that ship I saw… it left. Was it part of a convoy? Were there more of them?" She thought.

"Ah, I see you’ve finally joined us again." Said a voice.

Kiri swiveled her head towards the new sound. A white fox in a labcoat walked up beside her, examining the biomonitor. "Hmm, vital signs stabilizing, no brain damage, and injuries are healing. You’re the first patient that’s recovered this fast I’ve had since this trip started."

"Um, would you mind telling me where I am?" She asked quietly, sitting up.

"You’re in sickbay, aboard the starship Andromeda. We’re en route back to Corneria right now. My name is Dr. Prestin."

Kiri racked her brain for a starship named Andromeda. It didn’t register. "That’s impossible, I’ve never heard of a ship with that name on either side of the war."

The fox looked up from his clipboard. "You think this is a Venomian cruiser?"

"The thought had crossed my mind."

"Well, I’m sorry to say that you’re wrong. I forgot to say the C.S.S. Andromeda."

"There’s still no ship by that name in the fleet."

"I’ll let the captain explain when he comes down. Breathe." He pressed his stethoscope onto her back.

She complied. "Excellent. Heartbeat normal. I daresay I had my doubts you were going to pull through when we first found you."

"Your ship picked me up?"

"Yes, about eight hours ago. Your jet is still in the hangar, but I think it won’t be doing any more flying anytime soon." He pressed the Comm on the wall. "Captain, she’s awake. If you’d like to talk to her, now would be a good time."

"Thank you doctor. I’m on my way down. Pyron out."

Pyron. Now that was a name she’d heard. "The captain’s name is Pyron? I’ve heard that name a few times." She said.

"Yes, he was recently transferred from the Valiant here so he could command the first mission. Would you like something to eat?"

Kiri realized she was famished. She hadn’t eaten since several hours before the mission had started. "Yes, please."

"I’ll have one of the nurses bring something to you. Please excuse me, but I have to make my rounds."

"You have other patients?"

"Yes, sixteen of them."

"Gees, what happened?"

He was silent a moment. "I’ll also leave that to the captain to explain."

A nurse entered the room a few minutes later, bearing a tray. Kiri ate her meal in silence, still not completely convinced that this was a Cornerian vessel. The food she was given was well prepared and felt good in her stomach. If these people were Venomian, they certainly could’ve killed her already and wouldn’t poison her.

She finished the food and set the tray aside just in time to see Dr. Prestin reenter the room, but this time a tall collie was with him. He was wearing a standard Cornerian uniform, so if this was a charade, it was a well thought out one.

"Ms. Velez." He said. "I’m captain Jack Pyron. I just need to ask you a few questions about what happened at Epsilon. Are you up to answering?"

"Call me Kiri. And first, you tell me why I haven’t heard of this ship before. I saw it back at the station for a few seconds just before I blacked out, and I’ve never seen it before."

"You haven’t seen or heard of the Andromeda we were just launched a few days ago and this ship is so high-tech it was constructed under complete secrecy. Now that I’ve answered your question, how about telling me what happened at Epsilon."

She sighed. "My squadron was sent out to investigate a sensor reading that turned out to be some sort of supership. It launched three fighters at us, little pointed Pyramids with three lasers on them, I don’t know where from; I couldn’t see a launch bay. They were hostile and attacked us. They got two of us right off the bat, and one more soon after. My leader and I were able to eliminate those three, but they absorbed a lot of laser fire before dying. One nova bomb did have some effect though. It launched six more in response, and Quint-, my flight commander and I managed to get them by taking them through the mines. We were heading back to the mining base on the surface when some bright beam hit it and blew it up. The explosion killed Quint and damaged me. One of the six fighters hadn’t followed us; it got the drop on me and killed whatever systems I had left. I was left adrift, with only the emergency air canister left. The next thing I knew, I’d awoken to seeing this ship leaving and managed to activate the communications system, on minimal power. Then I blacked out."

Pyron was silent a minute. "What about the mother ship?"

"It didn’t really do anything except launch the fighters at us. I guess that it probably caused the base to blow sky high."

"Hmm. It seems that it is capable of defending against starfighter attacks with it’s own. Did it fire at you?"

"No."

"What about the Diamond Dragon? Did it attack that?"

"No, but the fighters shot at it a bit while chasing me. They passed right through the anti-air batteries with no hits. I’ll say one thing, whoever flies those are pros."

"Did they do any damage?"

"I saw one of the main engines go up and a few minor explosions, so probably."

"But you were able to destroy them with standard weapons?"

"Yes, but they can take a lot of punishment. The armor on them must be pretty thick."

"Well, at least their fighters aren’t indestructible. That’s a good thing to know."

"What do you mean?"

Pyron sighed. "We encountered that ship about a day before you did, at star system Q38. It is armed with beams composed of pure gamma particles. They fired a warning shot at us, so we responded with one of our own. They fired a more powerful blast that did some damage so we fired full force. The hull on that thing is some metal that absorbs energy. We backed off to regroup and it fired a beam from that thing on the bottom. It took out most of our systems and blew the engines out. It was preparing to fire again when we made an emergency jump. I’ve lost twenty three men total."

"But the ship wasn’t destroyed?"

"No, thanks to the improved shields and strong hull. Without those, the ship would’ve been blown in half."

She took note of his tone. "There’s something else, isn’t there?"

He was quiet, and then looked her in the eye. "It will reach Lylat in about a month. I also neglected to mention that it seems to remove every usable resource from a system when it arrives. Minerals, atmospheres, all life, even the energy from the star. Once it is finished, Lylat will be a dead system centered around a cold star. And there’s little we can do to stop it."

"But there is something?"

"My science officer says it might be possible to feed so much energy into a single molecule that it would split, releasing enough energy to destroy the ship. But the laser fire would have to be rapid and focused, all while being blasted by its weapons and, now your fighters."

"You’re right, that would be tricky."

The Comm buzzed. "Captain?" It was Trenton. "Is the patient up?"

"Yes Mr. Trenton. Why?"

"Well, I wanted to tell her why her communications weren’t working. It wasn’t the hit or lack of power, it was something else."

"What was it?" Asked Kiri, getting up.

"The computer was incapable of sending a message because it would require a memory space. All the computer space was filled."

"With what? It had space when I took off."

"Then you’d better come see for yourself. Neither of you will believe this." It shut off.

"Well, we better see what it is. I’ll see if I can get the doc to release you. How are you feeling?"

She lifted her arm, moving it around in the sling. "My head still hurts, but whatever painkiller you’re using on my arm works well. I can’t feel any pain."

"Yes, well bone regenerators work very well." Said Dr. Prestin. "I’ll let her out, but I want a medic within two minutes of her at all times, just in case she goes into relapse. I also want her to take it easy for awhile."

"No problem. I’ll just lay low for a bit."

"Then, shall I escort you to the hangar? That is, as soon as your medic is ready doc." Said Pyron.

Dr. Prestin smiled. "I’m glad to see her already recovering. I’ll have Mr. Elkins shadowing you the whole time. Do you mind one thing, Ms. Velez?"

"What?"

He placed a small metal object on her shoulder. As soon as he did, several lights began blinking. "It’s an LS transmitter. It will relay your vital statistics to Mr. Elkins, so he’ll know if anything happens."

"I don’t even notice it. Lead the way captain."

They walked out into the hall, moving towards the lift. "You still are wearing your pilot’s garb. I’ll see to it that we get you a standard uniform after we arrange some quarters for you." He said.

"Thanks. It’s nice to move around after being stuck in a cockpit for such a long time." They reached the lift and the doors opened. Pyron pressed the button for the hangar level. "This really is an impressive ship. It must’ve been difficult to keep it under wraps."

"I know, but they did it. I hadn’t even heard of it before I actually laid eyes on it, but if we beat this thing, Andross is going to be paid a little visit."

"And I’m sure you’ll bring flowers. I’d like to see the face of the first enemy commander to run across this thing in combat. How heavily armed is it?"

"Eighty heavy laser batteries, ninety medium ones, more anti-air defenses and warhead counter-defenses then I can count and four energy wave projectors."

"I’ve never heard of those."

"Because this is the first ship to be equipped with them. They are fired from a rectangular emitter, pretty much a sheet of energy and magnetized particles. They scramble sensors horribly, blinding the enemy, and then impact, blowing out any power relay they hit on hull. They even drain shields more than standard weapons."

"A perfect disabling weapon. Blow out the power systems and leave the ship dead in space, just waiting to be destroyed."

"I think capture was more what they had in mind, but that’s the general idea." The doors opened and he led Kiri to a door across the hall. It opened onto a hangar where Trenton was fiddling with the Arwing. "Well, what was so unusual that it couldn’t wait?"

"This." Said Trenton, turning on a computer jacked into the Arwing’s computer. The screen flashed a minute, and then displayed an ever-changing array of alien symbols.

"What the heck is that?" Said Kiri, astonished. "I’ve never seen anything like it."

"According to the logs, these were transmitted a few minutes after you hooked up to emergency air, while you were unconscious."

"Can the computer decipher it?" Asked Pyron.

"The onboard computer on the Arwing wasn’t advanced enough to handle it, but our ship’s computer was able to decode it easily."

"What is it then?"

"Best I can figure, it’s a program of some sort. I can run the program, but was waiting for permission."

Pyron thought for a moment. "How do we know it isn’t a program that’ll blow up the ship or atomize us or something? I don’t want it getting out of control."

"For one thing, all it has to work with is what’s onboard the Arwing and this computer monitor, and I’ve already removed the nova bombs and disarmed the lasers. I doubt it can do much with just those."

Pyron slowly nodded. "Run the program, but clear everyone out of here and keep a scan on it the whole time. If anything unusual starts, shut it down."

"Aye sir. I already herded everyone out and emergency shutdown is armed. Activating program."

The computer screen began to flash and there was a humming from the Arwing. "Odd," said Trenton. "It’s reconfiguring the communications system to emit something. A data pulse of some kind."

The humming got louder. "Whatever it’s emitting, it’s routing it through the forward Comm beacon. I can’t tell-" he was stopped as an almost transparent beam emitted from the communications grid at the nose of the wrecked aircraft, impacting his skull. Trenton stood stock still, his eyes dilating. The weasel slowly collapsed to the floor, the beam staying focused on him the whole time.

"Medical emergency, hangar 1! It is urgent!" Yelled Pyron into his comm. He knelt next to the fallen science officer. His eyes had now rolled back into his head and he was motionless. The beam continued.

Dr. Prestin and several medics burst in. "What happened? How is she? Did she go into relapse?" He panted, out of breath.

"I’m fine. It’s your science officer you should be worried about." Said Kiri.

"A beam from a program he ran from some alien symbols hit him. It’s still on him!" Said Pyron.

Prestin ran his med. scanner over Trenton. "He’s alive, but in some sort of an induced coma. Vital signs are stable for now, but I can’t bring him out of it."

"I’m turning off the program. Maybe that’ll bring him back." Pyron moved to the computer controls, pressing the panel for emergency shutdown. It hummed for a few seconds and then the words "System override in effect. Shutdown denied" appeared.

"Computer, override command, Pyron Gamma Bravo 1. Enable."

The computer hummed. "Codeword correct." Appeared. Followed by a louder humming, then a thud. "Command override not possible system error." Was displayed.

"What! Computer, emergency shutdown, command authorization Omega 1!"

"Override not possible. Unable to comply."

"Blast! Doc, try moving him away from the beam."

Dr. Prestin slid Trenton across the hangar floor away from the emitter, but the data stream remained constant. "I don’t think this’ll do any good. It’s focused on him pretty good." He said.

Pyron slid his paw into the beam, trying to block it manually. It only bent around and continued.

"Dang! This is one determined program! Doctor, how are his vital signs?"

"Still stable. It’s not hurting him, just keeping him out. I say we see what happens if we let the program run to completion."

"Alright, but tell me if the vital signs start to fail."

The beam remained focused for a few more minutes and then slowly died out.

"Look." Said Kiri, pointing at the computer. The alien symbols were no longer there. "It looks like they were all transmitted. It must be a one time use program."

"He’s coming around." Said Dr. Prestin.

Trenton slowly sat up, rubbing his head. "What happened?!" said Pyron urgently.

"I think…" said Trenton, wiping his eyes. "You’d better call a staff meeting. I have some new data that might be useful."

"Doc, how is he?" asked Pyron.

"All vital functions are normal. He’s fine."

"What exactly did the beam do?" asked Pyron.

"Let’s just say, it told me we have an ally on our side in this."

 

Chapter 6

Lieutenant commander Trenton slowly paced to the front of the briefing room. "You all no doubt know of what happened to me in the hangar bay." He began. "And I will tell you all exactly what it meant." He turned to the senior staff. "The program in Ms. Velez’s jet did in fact come from the mother ship, but not directly. The beam was a transmission put directly into my brain so I would be directly told what had to be told."

"But that’s not possible." Said Dr. Prestin. "There’ve been experiments with bio-transmitting, and it failed every time."

"But, we are dealing with an extremely advanced civilization here. Their technology is considerably higher than ours is. They are, or were, capable of using this for learning and sharing information, even though the process is one time only."

"You said ‘were’. Are you implying this thing is automated and its crew is dead?" Asked Halloway.

"Not precisely, but along those lines. That ship was built by a race of Titans, not from galaxy M18, but from one beyond that."

"But according to the route, there were no known galaxies beyond M18." Pointed out Kurek.

"No any more, no. But allow me to continue. A huge cluster of stars at the core of their galaxy simultaneously went supernova, creating a vast black hole. That black hole was gradually pulling in the entire galaxy. They knew their world was eventually doomed and built a huge ship capable of transporting their entire civilization in suspended animation for the trip to M18, which was to be their final destination."

He paused. "The ship was fitted with a huge device to be used for taking on fuel from uninhabited stars. They maintained that it would never be used on inhabited star systems. Also, and more importantly, the ship was given a main computer that was almost a life form to control operations while the people were in suspended animation."

"What do you mean by ‘almost’ alive." asked Halloway.

"It was a computer and a life form, both and neither. It calls itself 1. It is sentient, and aware of its surroundings, but it is a computer. It has a personality and a conscience, along with other attributes. Anyway, the people were preparing to load their ship when it was taken over by a group of the aliens who were destined to be left behind, and with good reason. They were, in fact, terrorists, relying more on subterfuge than bombs and brutality. Their only goal was to create pain, suffering, and destruction wherever they went. They took the ship and lifted off, leaving their people to die and claim the worlds of M18 for themselves. Only they didn’t count on 1’s intervention. 1 denied them entry to the suspension chambers so they would eventually die of old age on the journey as punishment for their crime. Eventually, they all perished, save one, who being a computer expert, created a virus to be planted in the ship’s control systems, not the main computer. The virus caused the ship to obliterate anything in its path, lock 1 out of main control, and use it’s extractor on every system it came to. He wanted to make sure that there was constantly pain from a device intended for peace. He also wanted a little private revenge on 1 for dooming them so 1 would be forced to watch civilization after civilization be destroyed. The ship tore a strip through M18 and continued on to our galaxy, where it is now. During those trips, 1 has been able to regain control of some minor systems, but weapons and propulsion are well out of his reach. He made a proposal to me through the communication. 1 knows a way on board through one of the fighter launch tubes large enough for a standard transport to enter, and where it can dock and get to the control nexus. 1 says that if we can remove the virus, he will destroy the ship. The virus itself isn’t that sophisticated, but just out of 1’s capabilities to remove. A good hacker could eliminate it easily."

Pyron thought for a minute. "Why is 1 willing to sacrifice himself?" He asked.

"1 has seen terrible things done by his ship and is pleading to us to remove the virus and allow him to end his life and prevent it from causing any more harm. He has existed for a few billion years, you know."

"Once we’re inside, how far is it to the nexus?"

"Not far, but 1 said the main worry was the few remaining anti-intruder defenses still in operation, but he said he would try to warn us in advance where they were."

"How was he able to get this into the Arwing’s computer?"

"Minimal communications is one of the systems he’s been able to regain control of. He snuck the message out from under the control system’s nose."

"And how do we get on board without being detected and blown out of the sky?" Asked Chisolm.

"1 said when the control system was dealing with a threat, it was blind to most else. He can get the fighter launch tube shut down if we can create a diversion by committing a decoy attack. 1 would be able to guide us to the launch tube and give us entry. From there, it wouldn’t be too difficult."

Pyron was silent. "This plea for help sounds genuine. I’ll run it by command when we return and I’m sure they’ll go with it. We may have found our answer. This meeting is adjourned. Everyone be ready, we’ll be arriving back at Lylat in a few hours and then we'll plan our strategy."

Everyone began to file out. "Trenton, a word?" Asked Pyron.

He stopped. "It seems our mission has gone from a mission of defense to one of mercy. I am counting on the assumption that this wasn’t a trap sent by that ship."

"I can assure you, it isn’t. Unless forced to, computers cannot lie, and 1 hasn’t been touched by the virus, just his control link."

"I see what you mean. Let’s hope we can end one beings era of suffering. That is all."

Trenton stepped out and began to return to his post. As word from the meeting began to spread, a mood of hope slowly began to erase the mood of despair that had blanketed the ship earlier. There was now hope.

 

"Now entering Lylat system. Disengaging ion drive." Said the helmsman. The starstreaks died out as they slowed. "Setting direct course for Corneria, maximum speed."

"Good. We’ll have a lot to report in a few hours." Said Pyron from the command chair.

"Sir." Said Kurek. "I have two ships in our route’s path, bearing 231.98 by 674.2."

"Some of ours?" Asked Halloway.

"No sir, they register as two Venomian heavy cruisers, directly in our path."

"Great, just what we need. Chisolm, status of shields."

"Forward shields are at eighty percent power, but the rear projector was damaged and we only have minimal protection back there." He said, a little concerned.

"Status of weapons?"

"Most of the forward batteries and warhead launchers have been repaired, but we’re still working on the rear guns. Only a few are operational. In short we outgun them by only a small margin. I suggest we find a way around them."

"That’ll take time, and that’s something we don’t have much of. Dodge, status of main engines and maneuvering thrusters?"

"I’ve got our two working engines back to full capacity and most of the thrusters are operable, but our maneuverability is only 75% of normal."

"Good enough. Helmsman, I’m relieving you."

"Sir?" He asked, in shock.

"Take a break. I’ve got an idea on how to get through this. Chisolm, status of energy wave projectors?" He asked, taking the helm seat.

"All four are powered, but we’ll only have enough power for one shot from each before they need to be recharged."

"I’ll only need one shot. When both cruisers are in range, fire all four projectors at once."

"But the only way both cruisers would be in range at the same time would mean us going straight between them."

"That’s exactly what I plan to do."

"But sir, we’d have to go in straight on, and with all their guns, the shields wouldn’t hold up that long."

"Who said anything about going in from the front?"

"The only other way is… ah… I get it."

"They built this ship to be maneuverable, and that’s exactly how I intend to use it." Pyron clicked on the intercom. "Attention all hands! We are going into combat, though it will be a hit and run attack! Everyone grab onto something, I don’t know if the internal gravity will be able to adjust immediately to some of the maneuvers I have in mind! That is all." He turned to the computer. "Computer, switch helm control to configuration beta. Enable."

It hummed for a second. "Control configuration adjusting. Stand by." Was displayed. The triangular helm control board lifted up and rotated around, replacing the sleek keypads with the more traditional layout of a jet. Ahead, the two cruisers had spotted them and were turning to intercept.

"Here we go. Chisolm, fire the wave as soon as we’re in range."

"Aye sir. You know, this will be their first field test."

"Then let’s make sure it’s a success. Hello, what have we here?" The Comm beeped.

"Attention, unidentified Cornerian vessel! This is the Venomian cruiser Glory. You are hereby ordered to surrender your ship and prepare to be boarded and submitted to the full extent of Venomian law as traitors to his lordship Andross. You have two minutes to comply."

"I don’t need two seconds you overblown dirtbag. And your lordship Andross can go to hell." Everyone one the bridge smiled at Pyron’s response. "Let’s roll." He rammed the throttles wide open and the Andromeda rocketed forward. The two cruisers opened up with their weapons; all the shots were out of range and only meant for intimidation.

"Entering their gunnery range!" Yelled Chisolm. "Forward shields are fully powered.

"Got it! Put all reserve power into engines. Activating microthrust maneuvering system!" Said Pyron.

A stream of laser fire lanced at them, but Pyron skillfully rolled the ship to the left and the shots went wide. He continued to handle the battleship like the jets he’d piloted back at the academy, continually avoiding laser fire.

When they came closer to the frustrated cruisers, he pulled the stick back and pulled the ship into a steep climb, looping the ship upside down back over it’s old path before moving into a fast dive. The dive took them underneath the cruisers, where Pyron pulled a forward loop and went under the previous flight path. The fire from the enemy ships slowed; obviously they were in shock on seeing a full-blown battleship accomplish these maneuvers. Pyron pulled back on the stick, moving into another vertical climb that took him up between the two ships. He nodded to Chisolm, who fired the energy waves. The first set emitted as the nose passed between, the blue ribbons of energy distorting the shields. The rear set fired as the rear set of emitters passed, and this time the two waves of energy struck bare hull. Blue lightning played over the two ships before subsiding as the power systems died. Pyron leveled off the Andromeda and switched control back to normal. "Status of targets?" He breathed.

"Both targets are powerless and adrift. My best guess is they’ll be repaired in a few hours." He smiled. "That was some fancy flying. Very few hits reported, no damage or injuries coming in, though you did make a few down in the mess hall airsick."

"Clever. A Krothen pull. I believe we are the first non-fighter vessel ever to accomplish that maneuver." Said Halloway, smirking. "I wonder if they’ll put us in the history books."

"Maybe, but I hope later on, this ship’ll be put in for something more than a stunt trick."

"I’d bet on it."

"Helmsman, you may resume. Well that was good; now I know the old flight muscles still work." Pyron flexed his arms. "I’ll have to do that again some time."

"And you’ll have to show me too, sir. I knew this ship was capable of complex flying, but nothing like that." Said the helmsman in awe.

"Once this is all over, I’ll give you a full course, but for now, we have a mission to complete. Maximum speed to Corneria, and once we’re in range, hail fleet command. I think we have some important information for them."

 

"… and so I believe our only hope is to take 1 up on his offer and stage a false attack, while taking a hacker and a strike team on board to disable and destroy this thing." Pyron finished. From the beginning, this had been a one sided argument. Pyron could see Avos didn’t like his plan and since Drevin was out on a combat campaign and McTreden was at a conference on Katina, the hare was the strong point on the council. Harris didn’t have enough influence to stand up to Avos and Kirkheim preferred to remain neutral in most arguments, so whatever the hare said would probably go forward.

Fleet Marshall Warren was quiet a moment. "You realize the seriousness of what you have just told us." He said.

"Yes sir, and I believe time is of the essence, so if you’ll allow me to begin putting together a team, we’ll be ready within a few hours."

"No, I don’t believe that will be necessary, captain." Said Admiral Avos calmly. "Marshall Warren, if you’ll permit me, I’ll begin forming an armada to intercept the invader. I think around ten ships will be sufficient."

"Admiral, with all due respect, this thing is completely impervious to weapons fire. An attack armada would only cost lives. The armor on this ship is coated with a layer of-"

"Spare me the science lecture, Pyron. Besides, were your shots precisely aimed? Were they at full power? Did you really prove to this thing we mean business and will defend our star system?" Interrupted Avos.

"Yes, to the first two questions, and as to the third, this thing doesn’t really care what we say. We could call it an idiot and it wouldn’t change anything."

"And, did you ever consider the possibility that this "mind message" may have been bait for a trap? Or even more so, did you ever think what your science officer saw might just have been a dream? That this 1 might not even be real?"

Pyron was silently fuming. "Sir, I don’t believe this is a trap, and to prove my opinion, I’ll volunteer to lead the strike team myself."

"There will be no strike team. I believe a full armada of ships will show this vessel that we will not be pushed. One ship by itself, even if it is the most advanced ship in the fleet, is not as impressive or intimidating as ten battlecruisers with all guns pointing down your throat." Admiral Avos smirked to himself, knowing he had just won the argument.

"Permission granted Admiral. Begin pulling together your force and prep the crews for what lies ahead. Captain Pyron, you and your ship will report to repair dock 11 for reconstruction of the damaged portion of your craft. Shore leave is granted for all off duty-personnel. Notice to all on patrol ships, go to yellow alert and report any unusual disturbances at once. Are there any other outposts in this things way?" Said Warren.

"Not according to our plotted course. There are two observation stations fairly close to its path, though they should be out of its range." Said Pyron sadly, admitting defeat.

"I want them both evacuated, now. Transmit these orders immediately and return to duty. I hereby close this discussion."

"Sir, I highly suggest you rethink your decision-"

"The matter is closed, captain. That will be all." Said Avos with a hint of triumph in his voice. "Don’t worry, you’ll soon be hearing the word of our victory."

"I doubt that." Muttered Pyron under his breath as he walked out. He was halfway to the shuttle-loading bay when Admiral Harris caught up with him.

"Jack, I’d like to ask you a few questions about the ship. Do you have a few minutes?"

"Talk to me in the shuttle, I need to get back to the ship."

"Fine. First, how did the ship handle in combat?"

"The ship handled fine against a target that eats laser fire for lunch and then comes back for seconds. The microthrust system works fine, I was able to test it when we came up against two patrol cruisers when we got back to Lylat."

"Good, good. What about the ion drive?"

"It worked exactly how it was supposed to."

"Jack, you’re giving me answers like I’m dating your sister."

"Well, I’m sorry, but I just happened to come out of a meeting where everything I reported was dismissed as fantasy, I looked like the idiot of the century, and to top it all off, ten ships worth of crewmen are about to meet their fate against an enemy they won’t be able to put a dent in commanded by Admiral Won’t-listen-to-anyone-but-himself, so I’m sorry if I’m not mister merry sunshine!"

"I’ll admit, I disagree with Warren’s decision. We don’t know enough about our opponent to attack it, but Admiral Avos has a lot of support in politics, even if most of the fleet hates him."

Pyron entered the shuttle back to the Andromeda. "But he’s going to cost lives. I’ll be amazed if that armada lasts ten minutes about that thing."

"You don’t know that they’ll fail."

Pyron shot him a sour look. "Yes. I do know they will fail. We’ve analyzed that ship ten times for a weakness and none has come up, and it keeps popping up new weapons. Now we know it carries fighters, what next? We have a solution right in front of us and they’re ignoring it."

"We also don’t know enough about this 1 to attempt to board the ship. What if that solution also costs lives?"

Pyron was quiet, considering the Admiral’s words. "Maybe you’re right. Maybe it isn’t as hopeless as I think. Maybe we’ve missed a weakness that Avos will hit."

"There you go. I know you’re still upset about the deaths in your crew, so I’ll let you alone and hold my inquiry off until later."

Pyron saluted and took a seat in the shuttle; watching as the hatch closed and Harris walked away. "That’s still a lot of maybes." He said under his breath.

Pyron threw back the shot glass, tilting the whiskey into his mouth. The hard alcohol burned a few seconds in his throat before subsiding. Outside the forward crew lounge the repair station spanned the sky, a huge mass of girders and cranes.

Kiri came over and sat at his table. "I figured I’d find you down here." She said.

He poured himself another shot. "Here’s to the crews of the ships Avos selects. May God have mercy on their souls." He drank down the shot.

"Sure, sure. After being made to look like an idiot in front of high command, your only objective is to drink yourself stupid."

He glared at her. "I’m on shore leave for the next few hours. I’ve earned a few drinks. Not to mention I’m trying to forget what happened at command and how that stupid windbag made me look like a freaking moron and the worst captain in the fleet."

"Look Pyron, you are probably one of the best commanders in this fleet but if you spend all your time getting drunk, you aren’t even pond scum."

"I’ll have you know, this is the first time I’ve touched hard liquor in my life."

"You don’t have to do this. There are other ways of venting your stress."

He started to lift a third shot and then put it down. "You know, you’re right." He picked up the whiskey bottle, glanced at the label, and tossed it in a nearby garbage bin. "I’m going down and forming my boarding team, whether I was ordered to or not. If, God-Preventing, Avos fails, I’m going to be ready. While everyone else is grieving or asking for answers, I’m going to be ready and am going to save this system." His tone was a little lighter now. "Kiri, thanks. I needed someone to give me a good slap in the face."

"Don’t mention it, pond scum." She smiled. "You looked like you needed it."

Without knowing why he did it, Pyron leaned forward and kissed her. A split second after he started, he stopped and pulled back, slapping a hand over his face. "I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened. I’ve only had four shots and I already can’t control myself. I really can’t handle alcohol."

Kiri smiled at him. "It’s alright. It wasn’t too bad actually. Here’s something to help sober you up." She grabbed his shirt collar and pulled his face to hers, passionately kissing him for a few moments. "Feel better?"

Pyron was dazed for a moment, but then recovered. "Much. But there is something I need to tell you." He said.

"What?"

"If Avos’s attack fails, and my plan falls through, tell Halloway he’s in command and to leave Lylat. I remember a star system known as Pi Omega not far from here, and it’s not in this craft’s path. There are three habitable planets there, so tell Halloway to take the Andromeda there if the enemy arrives, and restart our civilization. Don’t make any plans to return, for there’ll be nothing to come back to."

"Don’t talk like that. We’ll survive."

"Even so, it never hurts to have a contingency plan. And one more thing, I want you to be on board should Halloway leave."

"Why don’t you tell him all this yourself?"

"Because." He breathed. "I plan to lead the boarding party myself."

The ships under Admiral Avos’s command arrayed themselves in a large V, all eleven warships constantly on yellow alert. Admiral Avos rested in his command chair aboard the flagship of the armada, the Avenger. The hare drummed his fingers on the armrest with anticipation, watching and waiting. The small task force had positioned themselves directly in the path of the invader, about fifteen days from Lylat, and had been waiting for three days now, with not even a peep from the sensors. "Have the sentry ships reported back yet?" He asked, for the tenth time.

"Yes Admiral. They returned to the FreeBird an hour ago, and have delivered their reports. No unusual readings or encounters." Said the captain, a mouse who was rapidly becoming tired of Admiral Avos’s continuous questions. How that pompous bag had become an Admiral he didn’t know.

"Oh. Well then, file their logs and cross reference them."

"That has already been done. It was done as soon as the ships returned."

Avos went back to drumming his fingers, which was also getting on the captain’s nerves. "This better not be a glitch on Pyron’s scanners or an asteroid or something, or I’ll have that collie’s hide on my wall." Said Avos.

"I saw the damage to the Andromeda. It was from an energy weapon and not a collision sir."

"Then an internal explosion, a design flaw."

"From what I’ve seen, the Andromeda has no design flaws. That is our most advanced starship and it is virtually indestructible."

"Humph. No ship is indestructible. I was wholly opposed to the Andromeda project in the first place, a waste of money, but Warren liked the idea so I was ignored."

The mouse said nothing, but he knew what had really happened. Harris, Drevin and McTreden had come up with the Andromeda proposal in the first place and when they’d refused Avos’s request to have a hand in the creation, the hare went ballistic and decided to try to have the project cancelled. Warren overruled him.

"Sir, I have a reading, bearing 125.7 by 546.1 on the very edge of our sensor radius. Whatever it is, it’s huge." Said one of the bridge officers.

"A meteor?" Asked Avos.

"No sir, its rate of speed and composition are not constant to that of a meteor." A tone sounded. "And it’s slowing down."

"Lieutenant inform-" the captain started

"Ahem, captain, but I am in command of this mission. All orders must come from me." Avos interrupted.

"As you wish, Admiral." The captain growled under his breath

"Now then, communications officer, inform the armada to go to red alert, inform both carriers to launch a flight each, and raise shields."

"Aye Admiral." Said the Comm officer, a hint of distaste in his voice.

"We have visual range, shall I put it onscreen?" Asked another crewman.

"Yes, and give me communications with it as soon as possible."

The screen changed, showing a huge, dark metal object moving forward slowly. It looked like a pyramid with the top sawed off. There was a pole hanging down from the underside and a bent spike on each of the four corners.

"It’s mass is approximately one hundred thousand cubic miles, and we can get no scans of the interior."

Someone on the bridge cursed quietly. "And why can we get no interior readings?" Asked Avos.

"The hull is made out of some sort of metal that is absorbing the energy from the scans."

"Ah, well then it appears Pyron was correct about some things. Do I have communications yet?"

"Whenever you’re ready Admiral."

"Put me on." There was a click as the Comm officer switched on. "Attention unidentified starship, you are intruding on Lylatian space. We have good reason to believe that you are conducting hostile actions against our ships. If you prove your intentions are peaceful, you may pass through our space with no opposition, but if you intend to bring harm and destruction to our system, we will protect our planet by whatever means necessary. Transmit your response as soon as possible." He signaled to the officer to cut the transmission. "There, that should stop them. Any responses, say a surrender perhaps?"

"No sir, readings have not changed."

"Admiral, I have a fix on something. That ship just launched some smaller craft. Twelve of them. Six are identical to the ones that were reported at Epsilon. The other six, are, well, unknown." Said the sensor officer.

"Have all jets go to red alert. Can you give me magnification so they may be viewed?"

The officer pressed a few keys, and the screen changed. The twelve ships were flying in a wide V, three of the known fighters on each end and the others making up the point of the formation. The newcomers were almost completely round and saucer shaped, with what looked like a tail going out the rear. There was a glowing red triangle on the prow of each. They had the general appearance of manta rays, but had a much more sinister look to them.

"Admiral, I have confirmed they’re bound for the cruiser Archon II. They will be entering its gunnery range shortly."

"Have the Archon II hold their fire. We don’t know if they’re hostile yet." The lead three of the "rays" increased speed and pulled ahead of their wingmen. They were much closer to the Archon II now, but still did nothing. They were at about three thousand klicks when all that changed. The three ships slowed for a second and then each released a small glowing sphere from their underside.

"Sensors, analyze those orbs." Said Avos.

"Data coming through, they appear to be a small matter anti-matter packet, I would recommend having the Archon II engage countermeasures."

"Bombs?"

"It would appear so."

"Good God. Archon II, engage warhead countermeasures now! You are in grave danger! That is a direct order!" The cruiser began to fire its small anti-warhead cannons, but the laser shots passed right through the spheres.

"Countermeasures having no effect sir!"

Avos watched helplessly as the three explosives slammed into the cruiser’s forward shield. Huge explosions blossomed up and the Archon II was thrown sideways.

"Damage report!" Said the captain anxiously.

"Sir, the Archon II’s forward and portside shields have been collapsed, heavy structural damage to the main ridgeline, and they have major rips in their power grid."

"Blast! All ships, open fire! All fighter squadrons, engage at will!" Yelled the captain.

"I didn’t give those orders!" Said Avos.

"I don’t give a damn whether or not you did! I don’t want to just sit here and be blown to pieces, so if you want to give commands, give them fast."

Avos shut up.

The forward wing of Arwings met the remaining fighters head on. The three bombers that had fired on the Archon II, having dropped their payloads, were on their way back to the mother ship. The front wing found them easy targets and the three flat ships were instantly destroyed. The six fighters however, closely guarded the remaining bombers. Every time an Arwing would try to target one of them, one of the tiny pyramids would blow him out of the sky. The front wing managed to destroy the twelve ships, but only four out of the original twenty Arwings survived.

"There, we showed them." Said Avos, smiling.

"Don’t be too sure, Admiral. That was too easy."

"Sir! New sensor contacts! I count thirty more bombers launched and…" his mouth fell open. "Approximately two hundred fighters."

"Two HUNDRED!?"

"Yes sir!"

The advancing wave of fighters sped closer, a sign of doom for the eleven warships.

"Launch all fighters, activate all anti-aircraft batteries, shields to maximum! Red Alert!" Yelled the captain, a tinge of panic in his voice.

The huge line’s first action was to send about five more anti-matter bombs at the Archon II, completely obliterating the cruiser. The doomed ship blew in half; a few anti-aircraft batteries still firing managed to destroy three of the bombers before the final reactor breach destroyed the ship, resulting in a huge blast.

Most Arwings, Bulldogs, and Greenies were reduced to debris as they tried to fight the line, causing insignificant losses on the invading side. The sheer number of fighters was overwhelming, and they blew past the wrecked front line, setting their sights on the warships. The spheres rained on the huge V, and it was like being in the middle of a fire works show. A carrier and a battleship were destroyed in the first salvo, followed by two cruisers in the second. The fighters whipped around the frantic anti-aircraft fire as if the guns were firing in slow motion, almost casually blasting gun batteries, thrusters, shield generators, and most everything that they encountered.

Admiral Avos was thrown from his command chair as one of the spheres struck the Avenger. "Damage report!" He yelled.

"Shields are buckling, main power is going critical, and hull strength is deteriorating! We aren’t going to last much longer!" Said the panicked officer.

"All ships, full retreat!" Yelled the captain, who was bleeding heavily on one side of his face. Outside, another warship exploded in an eclipsing flash.

"No! We have to stay! Lylat is doomed if we leave!" Yelled Avos.

"And if we stay we’re doomed! We must leave now!" Another blast rocked the ship.

"Captain, you will follow my orders or I will have you removed from command! Do I make myself clear?"

The mouse folded his arms in defiant protest. Avos never got the chance to remove him from command. One of the anti-matter payloads slammed through the bridge, detonating only a few feet from where the captain had been standing. The bridge was turned to flying shrapnel and the Avenger split in half lengthwise before detonating into a fireball. There were no survivors.

With the command ship gone and following the captain’s last orders, three of the four remaining starships made a run for it, two managing to get to light speed safely, the third exploding from a hail of laser fire. The last had lost its main engines and was adrift, but it fought bravely for a few more minutes before finally succumbing and detonating in a blinding flare.

 

Chapter 7

Pyron was called into the Fleet Marshall’s office early the next morning. The aging bear had a grim look on his face when he entered. "Captain." He said seriously. "I have received word from Avos’s armada."

"You have sir?" Pyron answered carefully.

"Yes. Two ships, a carrier and a light cruiser arrived back early this morning. Both were critically damaged."

Pyron shut his eyes, knowing what was coming.

"They report they engaged the invader near system Delta Zeta. The hostile launched two hundred fighters and forty larger, disc-like ships, probably their equivalent to a bomber due to the fact that each carried one anti-matter payload of devastating magnitude. All jets were lost in a matter of minutes and most of the warships soon after. Admiral Avos’s flagship was among them."

Pyron expected to be overjoyed when he heard the old fool was gone, but he oddly didn’t. Maybe it was due to the fact that the Cornerian navy needed all the help it could get even from a conceded hare like Avos. Losing any of the other Admirals would be tragic, and it even felt that way for Avos.

"I see no other alternatives. Your plan to board and make contact with this, um, 1, will commence immediately. All necessary resources, troops, ships, or equipment will be made available to you. You have three hours to plan your strategy."

"Actually, sir, I already put together a list of what I’ll need and my strategy a few hours after Avos departed."

"Those weren’t my orders."

"Do we really have a choice?"

Warren sighed. "You’re right. What do you plan to do?"

"First, are the other two Andromedas ready?"

"The Orion and the Pulsar both have been launched, but are awaiting their trials."

"Good. I need them both moved to star system Tau sigma, along with my ship as soon as preliminary repairs are completed."

"But the crews are new and inexperienced and haven’t had time to learn the basics yet. They aren’t combat ready."

"They don’t need to be. The three ships will make a short jump from Tau Sigma to system F2 and come out of light speed at point blank range and fire just long enough to allow a transport to get on board the invader, and then they will leave. I’ve calculated it and the entire attack will last no longer than four minutes. The transport will be hiding behind the second planet of F2. It will enter one of the launch tubes once it is distracted and then signal."

"Risky but we don’t have many options. What else?"

"I’ll need the transport to be sensor stealthed and heavily armored. Armament doesn’t matter."

"Acceptable. What about troops?"

"One squad of special forces Marines, two of your best computer programmers, hackers, specialists, whatever you call them, preferably with combat training, and whatever equipment they require, and three expert explosive specialists and their gear."

"Why the Marines? I thought the ship was empty."

"It is, but 1 mentioned some anti-intruder systems. Most of them will have stopped working after a few billion years but it doesn’t hurt to be cautious."

"Agreed. But why the explosives?"

"I assume we’ll be able to get the virus out and have 1 initiate self-destruct, but in the possibility he fails, we’ll bomb rig the main computer and blow it up ourselves."

"Anything else?"

"Myself and my science officer, the one who was in contact with 1."

"You?"

"I said I’d lead this myself, and I’m going to stand by it."

"Alright. I’ll hurry repairs on your ship and get you what you need. Good luck Pyron, and I hope you know the fate of Lylat is resting on you."

"I know that sir. All too well." He turned to leave.

"One more thing. What should we do with Ms. Velez? Her base ship is destroyed, so officially she has no assignment."

"We are in need of a few pilots on the Andromeda, we could probably transfer her aboard."

Warren raised an eyebrow. "Is that the only reason?"

"Officially, yes. Unofficially, well, we’ll just leave that alone."

"I’ll see about that transfer. Again, good luck."

The transport waited silently in orbit around the second planet of system F2, a barren world with minimal atmosphere, no life, no vegetation, nothing. Pretty much a dead world covered in dust and rocks.

But its purpose wasn’t to be a paradise, only to be a hiding place.

F2-B, as it was known on the charts, had a very unusual magnetic field, stronger than normal, to the point where it fouled up most sensors to the point of uselessness. A perfect duck blind.

Pyron sat on one of the benches at the rear, watching the dull brown world circle below. The Marine captain, across the aisle, glanced at his watch. "I thought you said you had this all calculated, but we’ve been waiting an hour. When’s our pal supposed to arrive?" He said.

"I did have it all calculated. Don’t worry, only about another fifteen minutes before the action starts. I have our orbit set so we'll be on the far side of the planet when it arrives. Stealth is vital to this mission, you know."

The otter looked at his watch again. "Fifteen minutes huh? I can wait that long, better go get the troops ready. You need a sidearm?"

Pyron picked up the rather bulky looking pistol from the seat beside him. "Already got one, top of the line."

The captain eyed it. "That’s not fleet standard issue."

"Correct. It’s a LR-55 special edition. From the way the guy I bought it from told me, the company made the best handguns on Corneria before they went bankrupt. It cost me an arm and a leg, but it has a few special tricks that set it apart."

"I haven’t heard of any LR-55 series, so you must be right."

Pyron slid a fresh power clip into the rear and snapped it into place. "Loaded and locked." He quipped, standing up and moving towards the cockpit. The pilot and copilot were making final adjustments to the flight plan. "Captain, Pyron, sir." One of them saluted. "We have nearly completed the flight plan. We move out low over the pole, where the magnetic field is most concentrated and then into open space. After that, we enter the space around the ship where the sheer size would cause a significant blind spot where we would be undetectable."

"To our own sensors. They may have something more advanced to cover the blind spot." Said Pyron.

"Possibly, but even laws of physics say no."

"How long will we be detectable in normal space?"

"About two minutes, but hopefully the sensor stealth system will keep us invisible.’

"Good. Be ready to move in a few minutes."

"Aye sir."

Pyron moved back to the crew compartment, where the Marine captain was speaking to a soldier. "Captain Pyron," he said. "All troops report ready, all weapons are loaded, all equipment has been double checked, and all personnel have been briefed. If something should happen to me, this is my second in command, Lieutenant April North. She knows exactly what to do."

The young mongoose looked at him. "I report we are 100 percent ready. Do you know how much longer it will be before the entertainment gets here?" She asked.

There was an alarm from the cockpit. "I’d say we better bake the cake, because the birthday boy just got here." Said Pyron, moving back towards the cockpit.

"Sir, one unidentified hostile just entered system, it is bound for the sun." Said the copilot.

"Any word from our boys?" Asked Pyron.

"Not yet but we should… I read three contacts, coming in fast, inbound for hostile, Andromeda class." The three warships blazed past F2-B, opening up with their heavy lasers. The drone ship was slowing to counter the new threat. The lasers did no damage, but they didn’t need to.

"I think our distraction is in place, activate engines and move out. We’ve got a job to do." Said Pyron.

"Aye sir, activating stealth system, engaging engines." The dark hulled transport shot away from the planet towards the invader.

"Sensors, any sign of an opening on the underside?" Asked Pyron.

"Still checking, um, yes, one opening in the hull detected, directly behind that spike closest to us. Shall I set course?" Said the copilot.

"Yes. I think 1 just opened the door for us, so we won’t be rude guests. Maximum speed."

The huge craft was now partially eclipsing the sun, and the huge size was awe-inspiring. The weapons spike began to fill the entire cockpit canopy, a huge extension nearly fifteen miles long.

"There." Said Pyron, pointing at a dim rectangle of lights behind the weapon. "Take us in there."

"Aye sir." Said the pilot, a tiny drop of sweat trickling down his temple. The opening was only about 150 feet wide, a tiny abrasion on the endless Grey that colored the hull.

The transport lined up with the opening and began the ascent. Off to one side, the Andromedas were still pounding at the hull, doing nothing more than being a nuisance. The huge drone ship still had yet to fire on them, probably because it considered them insignificant ants.

"Deliver the signal that we’re clear, we don’t want them to be fired on." Said Pyron.

"Got it. Activating signal beacon." A single tone sounded, directly on the Andromeda’s frequency. At once, they stopped firing and backed off, making wide turns away before firing their ion engines and vanishing into the depths of space.

"We’re alone now." Said Trenton, appearing in the cockpit door.

The transport entered the shaft, a long, dim tube that seemed to stretch forever. The shaft was square, and on every side in a grid pattern was a berth, all housing one of the unmanned fighters. There were several gasps from the troop compartment, but when the fighters didn’t react to their presence and remained silent, most of the soldiers calmed down.

"They must be remote activated." Murmured Trenton. "They don’t even acknowledge our presence."

"Sir, I’ve got something, a difference in the hull up ahead. It looks like a boarding hatch of some kind. Shall we dock at it?"

"No." Cut in Trenton. "1 specifically said he’d know we were on board and would signal us the way to go. Keep going."

Pyron nodded and the pilot continued on. They passed an uncountable number of fighter berths and two more hatches. Each time, Trenton said to keep going.

"There must be millions of them on board." Pyron said quietly. "The two hundred they hit the armada with must’ve been a small percentage of their total."

"Yes. A truly advanced civilization. A loss the ship must be destroyed."

"Sir, picking up another hatch, up ahead off to the right." Said the copilot.

Pyron glanced up at it. It looked exactly like all the others, but red lighting strips above and below it flashed intermittently.

"There! That’s where 1 wants us to dock. He’s signaling us with the lights."

"Dock here. I’ll tell the troops to move out as soon as we’re through connecting."

The pilot backed the transport up against the hatch and activated the magnetic docking clamps. "Air seal is holding, it’s safe to open the door, but we’ll have to cut through the hatch." Said the pilot.

"Let me take a look at it." Said Trenton moving back through the compartment. The rear loading door opened, revealing a dull Grey metal wall. The Marine captain looked it over. "Looks like we’ll need to cut through. Sergeant, get that laser cutter over here."

"No. Let me try something." Said Trenton. He extended his paw and placed it against the cold metal. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, there was a humming, and the door glowed a lighter Grey before sliding aside with a load groan, showing the dark corridor ahead.

"Gentlemen." Trenton breathed. "Our way in."

The captain glanced down the passageway. It was pitch black. "Okay men, infrared goggles, double time. I don’t want something getting the drop on us in the dark."

Pyron grabbed a spare pair of goggles and called up to the cockpit. "Alright, you wait here. If we’re not back or haven’t communicated in one hour, take off and get back to Lylat. Don’t worry about us."

The two pilots exchanged looks before nodding. Pyron turned and followed the troops into the darkness. He could see the outline of Trenton reading his scanner. "Atmosphere in here is mainly an oxygen nitrogen mix with traces of helium, argon, and chlorine. We’re safe." He moved the scanner to the wall. "Amazing. The walls are coated with the same material as the hull, but this is a layer only a few molecules thick."

"Can you get readings through it?" Asked the captain.

"Only faint echoes, not enough to be useful. I am however getting a focused power source reading up ahead. I think 1 is guiding us in."

They moved down the corridor, an octagonal tube with thick girders spanning the ceiling at regular intervals. They’d moved about thirty meters when the lead trooper held his arm up to stop. "I’m getting something on the infrared, very faint. Hang on." He reached up and adjusted his goggles. "Ah, there we are. Set your sightline rating at 2410.3 and you’ll see what I picked up."

Pyron adjusted his goggles. At this frequency, a grid of lasers covered the corridor.

"Interesting." Said Trenton. "They hide their laser grids at a higher frequency so we can’t see them.’ He fished a coin out of his pocket and flipped it at the grid. There was a flash and the coin fell to the floor, now a molten ball of metal.

"Sweet Jesus." Somebody muttered. "Even a heavy-duty force field can’t do that."

"Can it be switched off or do we find a way around?" Asked the captain.

"Just a moment." Trenton fiddled with his scanner. The grid flickered and then died. "There. I activated a jamming pulse that’ll keep it inoperative." They stepped through. Once everyone was past, Trenton switched off the pulse and the grid reappeared.

They continued down the passage, homing in on the energy signal. At last, after deactivating three more laser fields, they came to a large metal door that didn’t respond to Trenton’s touch. One of the hackers pried open a metal panel on the door and hooked his computer into it. After a moment he said. "It can decode the computer, barely, and open the door, but it’ll take a few minutes.

"Fine, but hurry."

One of the soldiers looked up. "Did you hear that?" He asked, a little shaken.

"I didn’t hear anything." Said Pyron.

"I guess I’m hearing things. The darkness must be getting to me." The tiger patted his rifle; just to be sure it was still there.

The hacker’s computer hummed a few more seconds. Trenton readjusted his scanner and his eyes went wide. "Um, you’d better step on it in opening that door." He said. "These floorplates are powered. My guess is, um, an alarm system."

Someone cursed. Then there was a distinctly mechanical sound. "Okay, I know I heard something that time." Said the soldier.

"So did I." Said Pyron, checking his pistol.

"Look! Back there!’ Someone said. In his goggles, Pyron could see two jellyfish shaped objects gliding down the corridor. They hovered a few feet off the ground, mechanical tentacles waving softly as they moved. The lead one stopped a few meters away and raised a tentacle, firing a bright blue burst that briefly illuminated the passage before burning into one soldier’s chest. The goat screamed an unholy scram as he collapsed and his flesh burned away. The others didn’t waste time; they raised their guns and fired. One jellyfish went down instantly in a small explosion but the other fired a few more blasts, killing another soldier before Pyron hit it with his pistol.

The troops were visibly shaken, and no one wasted time moving through the door when it opened a few moments later. Trenton was now keeping his scanner tuned for the alarm plates, occasionally pointing one out and stepping carefully around it. They came to a nexus of three doors. Trenton indicated the one on the left, but one soldier peeked through the center. "Um, sir, you’d better take a look at this." He said. The door opened onto a small balcony in an immense shaft that stretched for miles in both directions. The walls were covered with a grid of glass cylinders arranged neatly in rows.

"Good God." Said Pyron.

"These must be what they intended to remain in suspended animation in." Said Trenton. "There must be room for billions in here."

"More than that. There must be hundreds more of these chambers on board." Said Pyron.

Trenton was silent. "Amazing to construct all this. Their knowledge must’ve been endless."

"But it must be destroyed. Come on, that power source is just ahead." They moved back through the door and across the hall. The larger portal responded to Trenton’s touch and slid aside. Through it there was a narrow catwalk leading across another vast chamber. They continued across the tiny bridge over the expanse, the seemingly bottomless abyss lurking below. Pyron tried not to look down as they walked. The bridge ended at another door, which again responded to Trenton’s touch. It opened onto a medium sized balcony and stopped there.

"A dead end?" Said the captain, a little concerned.

"I don’t believe so." Said Trenton, examining what appeared to be a console at the head of the platform. It had but one glowing red panel on it, which he pressed. At once, the balcony disconnected from the wall and began moving forward, towards a huge platform at the center of the chamber. It was magnificent. It was only about sixty feet from where the balcony had been to the central platform, but the balcony moved so slowly it took a few minutes to arrive. On the central platform was the power source. A huge, glowing green core. Lights shone around it, allowing the troops to remove their infrared goggles and look in awe. The core was laced with silvery tendrils of metal, making it look like a huge spider web had been wrapped around it. The balcony slid into a specially designed slip and the Cornerians stepped off, still gazing at it.

"What is it?" Said someone quietly.

"I…I think it’s, um, 1" said Trenton. There was a console at the base of it, miniscule in size compared to what it was linked to. One of the hackers inspected it.

"It’s no good, there’s no input or link ports." He said.

"Let me try something." Said Pyron. He placed his paw on the small screen on the console, lifting it after a minute. The console hummed and them the screen began to flash letters and numbers blinking on the screen at an incredible speed, before finally sopping and displaying. <Who are you? >

"I am captain Pyron, the commander of the starship you attacked and the commanding officer to the one who received your transmission."

<Then you know who I am? >

"You are 1." Said Trenton.

<Yes. I see that my attempt to contact you succeeded. You have ones with you who can terminate the virus? >

"We do, but this console has no place for them to connect."

<That is not a problem. On each side of the core from where you are is another console. Either will have input units compatible to your machines>

Pyron nodded at the two hackers who began walking one way around the core.

<I will be glad when it is gone. It is like a disease that I am constantly fighting and cannot defeat. Once you have removed it, I will start the auto-destruct>

"You don’t need to destroy yourself. Once it is gone, you will have control again and can come with us, there is much we can learn from you."

The screen was blank a moment. <No. You are not ready for me. You are an advanced civilization, one of honor and knowledge, but you still are not ready for my level. I hope I have not offended you>

"No offense taken." Said Pyron.

<Your race is remarkable and eager to learn, and had my creators survived, your people would be a worthy candidate for observation, and maybe in a few millennia when you are further advanced and had put aside your differences, possibly contact>

"How about transmitting some of your data, the data we are ready for." Suggested Trenton.

Again a pause. <I have such data, but my memory systems are so advanced, every computer you possess would only be sufficient to hold .000015% of the data I have that you would be ready for>

"That’s a bit of a problem." Said Pyron.

The lights dimmed for a second and then returned to normal. "What was that?" Said the captain.

<The extractor has begun removing energy from the star. Please tell me this system is uninhabited, for I am only able to tell once the damage is done>

"It is uninhabited, no one lives here." Said Trenton.

<Good. I always am in grief when a living star system is obliterated, especially when the species resists as you do>

The core glowed a little brighter. <Aaah, the virus is being removed, I can feel it, and it is a wonderful sensation. Soon I will be back in control and will initiate self-destruct>

"About that…" said the Marine captain. "How long do we have to get out before the big goodbye?"

<Default setting is 20.0 minutes before primary detonations, but I am able to set it differently if you require. It is the least I can do for freeing me>

Pyron looked at the captain, who nodded slowly. "Twenty minutes will be fine, but won’t the impending explosion obliterate everything in about a light year?"

<No. The self-destruct is internal only. The outer hull will remain intact and be pulled into this systems sun in, calculating, 42.9 hours>

The two hackers returned. "It’s done, the virus is gone. Well designed and programmed, but not very resistant to extraction."

<The terrorist did not have a need for it, he didn’t think there would ever be anyone here to remove it. So much for him>

"I have a schematic of the virus here," said the other hacker, holding up a disk. "Is there anything special we should do with it?"

<Please place it on the floor next to the console>

Pyron nodded and the hacker set it down.

<Please back away, I do not wish to injure you>

The hacker took several steps back. A door on the core above the disk opened and a needle-like object extended, pointing itself at the disk. A sizzling bolt of energy fired, destroying the disk. <There, the last remnant of my torturer is gone forever. I owe you all a great debt of gratitude, which I fear I will not be able to repay. Wait, you may have this>

A rectangular disk was ejected from a slot on the console; it landed at Pyron’s feet. He picked it up and examined it. "What is it?" He asked, turning it over.

<One piece of data I have that I believe you are ready for and will aid you greatly. It is plans for a virtually unlimited power source that is completely self supportive. You do not have the technology yet to construct it, but maybe in a few decades when you have evolved further, your people will find it a great asset>

"We thank you." Said Trenton.

<No, I must thank you for saving me. Goodbye Lylatians. I will try to aid you in your exit. Look for my guidance>

"We will."

The glow from the core was fading and the words "Auto-Destruct initiated" appeared, followed by a timer reading 20:00.

"Well, we’ve done our job, and 1 has kept up his end of the bargain. I’d say it’s time for our exit." Said Pyron, moving towards the platform transport.

Just as they all boarded it, the screen they had been reading displayed a final message

<Thank You>

 

Chapter 8

The lift trip back to the other side took an excruciatingly long time, but the worst was yet to come. Pyron opened the door back to the room with the catwalk over the abyss and almost walked onto open space.

The bridge was gone, retracted to the far side.

"Uh oh. Anybody have any ideas?" He said, stepping back.

In response to his question, a red arrow began to blink on one wall behind him, pointing at another door.

"1 is signaling us! This way!" Said Trenton, opening the door. Through it was another corridor. The alarm plates in the floor no longer registered, so it was a safe bet 1 had shut them down. At the next intersection, another red arrow pointed at a door to the left.

"This way." Said the Marine captain.

This door opened only into a small room with no doors.

"Huh?" Said Pyron.

"It’s a dead end!" Said one of the soldiers, panic rising in his voice.

‘No, look." Said Trenton, pointing at the far wall. It shimmered a dull blue. Trenton touched it, but instead of hitting the cold metal, his paw went through the wall. It twisted like liquid mercury around his wrist.

"What the?" Said someone.

"It’s a teleporter of some kind, probably to another part of the ship." Said Trenton, examining his scanner. "We have to go through it, there’s only eleven minutes left." He walked through the wall. Pyron shrugged and continued after. It was a cold sensation and the wall felt like water around him, but he emerged on the other side safely. The rest of the troops followed a moment later and they exited the tiny room. It opened on a T-junction, complete with arrow pointing to the left. They followed the passage to another door, which opened on another huge chamber, bridge retracted. But there was a bright side this time. There was a set of controls on the wall inside the door and one switch was blinking red. Trenton pressed it, and with a heavy groan, the bridge slowly began to extend across the chamber. They moved along it as it extended closer and closer to the opening on the far wall. But with a stressed screech, the bridge halted about thirty feet short of the opening, much too far to jump.

"It’s jammed." Said Trenton after returning from reexamining the control panel. "It’s just so old something stuck. Anyone got some rope?"

A lot of heads shook and no rope was produced.

"Wait! This could work." Said Pyron drawing his laser pistol.

"How?" Asked the Marine captain.

"I said this baby has an ace up her sleeve and she sure does." He pulled a cap off a canister looking section slung onto the bottom of the pistol and drew a small rod connected to the interior. When he twisted it, four hooks extended from the sides.

"A grappling hook. I’ve got to give you credit Pyron, I’ve never seen a grappling gun and laser pistol all in one."

"Well, you’re about to." He took careful aim at a pipe over the entrance frame, knowing that a miss would cost precious minutes as the cord rewound. Pyron pressed the trigger and the hook shot forward with a hiss of compressed air. The cord shot out behind it, the two reels turning at an incredible speed. The hook arced over the pipe and whipped around it, catching onto the cord and holding tight.

Pyron tested the strength and wrapped the pistol around one of the handrails. "Who’s first?" He asked

One marine cautiously stepped forward and put his gun over the cord and grabbed the barrel before making a running start and sliding down the cord into the opening. Others followed his example, and one by one, the band made it across, until only Pyron was left.

"Come on! We’ve only got five minutes!" Yelled Trenton anxiously.

"We can’t leave the gun here, we’ll need it if we come to another hole! Hang on a second!" He removed the gun from the railing and gripped it tightly in both paws before running and jumping from the catwalk. He arced downward, boots in front, heading for the wall of empty animation tubes. He impacted on a heavy glass tube that surprisingly didn’t shatter, with bone jarring force and nearly lost his grip on the handle but managed to keep hold. Swiftly, Pyron hit the cord retract switch and began to rise up the wall towards the opening and salvation. Finally, with a breath of relief, he stepped over the lip of the tunnel and sat in the passage panting for a second.

"That," he breathed. "Was something I don’t ever want to do again."

"Amen to that." Said Trenton. "Come on, according to the orientation of my scanner, the transport can't’ be far. Let’s move."

After a few more minutes of anxious running, they came to a familiar corridor, the one they had entered when they first docked and the light from the docking collar shone ahead. The counter Trenton had displayed on his scanner read 2:04.

The transport hatch grew closer, beckoning with a warm light. They sprinted the last hundred feet down the corridor and Pyron ran through the docking collar and immediately told the two pilots to de-dock and take off as soon as everyone was on board.

The last of the marines raced through and the copilot closed the hatch and there were several clanks as the maglocks disengaged.

Trenton’s timer read 0:48.

Pyron sat hard in his seat and watched as the transport swiveled around and raced for the far off opening. The docked fighters were a blur now and their storage bays were whizzing by at an incredible rate.

0:27

The opening to the shaft was just ahead, a tiny square of space beckoning the speeding transport. The engines were screaming as they were pushed harder than the design specifications had even considered.

0:15

Pyron watched out his viewport as they passed through the entrance opening and off into space away from the huge monolith that was a ship. They headed for F2-B, hoping to obtain cover behind the planet from whatever the self-destruct put out.

0:04

Pyron turned back just in time to see it happen.

0:00

At first, there was nothing, as if maybe 1 had glitched and not set it off. But that didn’t last long. From infinite points on the ship, rays of light emanated, making it look like a pincushion of light beams. Then, the dark hull began to swell. It ballooned up, still emitting light until finally it was a perfect sphere, stretched to the maximum. The extractor on the underside blew loose and hurtled away, battered and blackened, as did the four weapons spikes. Where each had been, a thicker ray of light shot out and then subsided after a few seconds.

For a moment, nothing happened.

And then, without warning, the hull split in several places and released a blinding blue shockwave. The transport was hit dead on and knocked for a loop. Pyron managed to keep hold of his seat but several marines were tossed about the cabin. The shockwave passed and the transport righted itself. The torn orb that had been the megaship was now crumpling together into a tiny ball, the invincible metal shriveling up into what looked like a ball of tin foil. It was now not even a tenth of the original size and all energy from within stopped registering.

It was dead.

Pyron was silent a moment before moving to the cockpit, where the copilot was nursing a bruise on his forehead from the shockwave and the pilot was pressing a piece of cloth to a gash on his arm. "Radio the admiralty." He said quietly. "Tell them it is done."

Commander Halloway nervously paced the bridge. Since the evacuation signal, there had been no word from the boarding transport or it’s complement. The Pulsar and the Orion hung silently on both sides above the second planet of the Tau Sigma system.

Lieutenant Kurek checked something on his control board. "Commander, I’ve got something, a massive power surge in system F2, it’s practically off the scale, could be some sort of explosion."

"Hmmm. They must’ve managed to destroy it, but did they lose their own lives in the process? Scan for any transmissions or vessels." Said Halloway.

"Sir, I’m picking up a transmission." Said Teris. "Three words: it is done."

"They did it and got out." Said Halloway breathing a sigh of relief. "That’s it then. Signal the other ships, tell them to set course back to Corneria. For once, we have some good news to report."

"But what about picking up the transport?" Asked Teris.

"I’ve only known Pyron a few weeks, but I know that if he wanted to be picked up, he’d tell us."

"Aye sir."

Halloway settled into the command chair as the huge warship turned on its axis and went to light speed. And for the first time since they encountered the drone ship, he smiled.

Back at Fleet Command, there was great rejoicing, for the Lylat system was now again safe from outside threats. Fleet Marshall Warren called a special ceremony to commemorate those who had helped in the incident, and to mourn those who had lost their lives to the automated giant.

Pyron sat in one of the front rows, a medal of commemoration now adorning his uniform. He fidgeted uncomfortably in the dress uniform; he’d never been very big on formal occasions, and being put in the center of one wasn’t exactly appealing to Pyron. In his mind, he’d done what any good captain in his place would’ve done, and everyone else was making a bigger deal out of him than was needed.

Kiri came and sat down next to him. "Hey, hero." She said, winking at him.

"God, please don’t call me that." He said. "I was just doing my duty."

"I’m sorry, but get used to it, everyone is going to be complimenting you for a while. Oh by the way, I heard about my transfer, and I bet you had a hand in it."

"Maybe. Or maybe someone high up in the ranks thinks you’re a skilled pilot." He winked at her.

"Har har. So what’s our next mission?"

"I have no clue. Repairs aren’t complete yet, but I’ve heard a few rumors saying we’re shipping out in two days."

"Hmmm, I think I can stand being around you for two days."

Warren approached the podium and began his final speech. "People of Lylat, we are here tonight to recognize the heroic efforts of those who serve Corneria with the utmost diligence. I would like to commend and honor the crews of the C.S.S. Andromeda, the C.S.S. Pulsar, the C.S.S. Orion, the crew and troops of boarding transport PB-109, and everyone who lent a hand in this incident. But we are also here to honor those whom were lost, the crew of Mapping Vessel 18," pictures of three crewmen appeared on the screen behind him. "…The crew of the cruiser Diamond Dragon, including four of the members of the Broadsword squadron," Kiri winced a bit as she recognized Quint’s picture in with the several hundred others from her old ship. "…The operators of Mining station Epsilon," a smaller batch of photos appeared. "… And finally, those of Admiral Avos’s Defense Armada." The screen was covered in a thick grid of photos, with a slightly larger one of Admiral Avos in the center. "We greatly mourn the loss of these donors to the Cornerian cause, and it will be assured they will not be forgotten. I have already ordered the construction of a monument to honor those who fell, along with the entity known as 1, who sacrificed himself so that others may live. If he still existed, we would be forever in his debt."

Silence filled the room.

"I thank you for your time. There are plans and sketches of the monument in the outer lobby if anyone wishes to view them, I hereby close this ceremony." He finished, stepping away from the podium.

The audience slowly filed out, but Pyron and Kiri remained sitting in the front row.

"Wow." Said Kiri. "That got to me."

"Me too, but he is right, they didn’t die in vain."

"What? But you said the armada…"

"If they believed in what they were doing, and fought for what they loved and supported, they didn’t die in vain."

"You’re right. Come on, the shuttle back to our ship will be leaving soon."

The two shipmates stood and began to walk back down the mezzanine to the doors, each feeling a little closer to the other.

The End.

Characters created by me are not to be used without my permission. E-mail me if you wish to use them and I’ll more than likely say yes. Specific characters are: The crew of the C.S.S. Andromeda, including Captain Jack Pyron, Redding Halloway, Dodge, Lieutenants Teris and Kurek, Dr. Prestin, Kiri Velez, Members of the Admiralty council, Drevin, Harris, Kirkheim, McTreden, Avos (Even though he’s dead), Fleet Marshall Warren, the crew of MV-18 (Even though they're dead too), and Quint and the other members of the Broadsword squadron (also dead).

The C.S.S. Andromeda and its crew will return in ‘Price of Loyalty’