Drive Like Lightning . . . Crash Like Thunder, part three
by B. Morris Allen
Humans used their only advantage—FTL drive—to hide from the aggressively violent Mechanics and their high-G-force ships. Perpiphery Scout Anjica Zelnov was mapping the edge of Mechanic space when she detected a human radio signal—from inside the aliens’ territory. The signal suggested the existence of a working Esmith drive—a drive that would allow humans to fight the Mechanics on fair terms. She followed the signal to investigate a dark asteroid deep in an enemy solar system.
On the asteroid, she found a centuries-old Esmith test ship, and learned that the automated ship had inadvertently starting the long war between Mechanics and humans. Deep in Mechanic space, she cannibalized her own ship to jury-rig an FTL drive for the Esmith ship, and escaped into hyperspace just as the Mechanics caught up with her.
She was sitting at the bar when the bombs began to fall. “I knew this would happen,” she said as terror broke out in the Seltzer nightclub and customers and performers alike rushed for the exits. Anjica shook her graying hair sadly and slid off her stool, plump belly jiggling slightly as her short legs bent with the landing. “So much for the Engsson barrier.”
The Mechanics had gotten better at war since methodically wiping out Frexi colony a century before. Humans, though, had stuck with hiding and hoping not to be found. A strategy, mused Anjica, that had always been certain to fail. She’d spent the last ten years telling Norbeq system and its Council why, to no effect. Arriving from Mechanic space in a jury-rigged faster-than-light ship had brought her credibility, but not urgency.
And now the Mechanics were here. While they traveled at slower than light, their artificial bodies afforded them immunity to acceleration. At close quarters, they could out-pace and out-maneuver human ships with ease. Norbeq had trusted to time and the Engsson barrier, a last ditch defense that disrupted electrical activity in ships entering the system. Ironically, the Council’s public relations campaign had been more effective than its defense strategy. The public thought they’d gotten good protection on the cheap. The devastation now showing on the vid gave the lie to both.
How to get to the port? she wondered. Room for maybe one. Whom to take? In the end, emotion won out over practicality, though not by much.
“Hey Tark!” she called out. “Where’d you go? Show yourself, man.”
Slowly, a man’s wan face appeared from behind the bar, dragging with it a handsome, smoothly muscled body. “That you, Anjica?”
“Of course it is,” she snorted derisively. “You were hiding behind the bar so the Mechs don’t get you? Time to go.”
“Go where?” he asked. “The Mechanics are here, Anji. They’ll do us like they did Frexi, in no time flat.”
“Not if I have my way. I’ve got a ship, remember?” The question was rhetorical. Anjica’s dramatic arrival in Norbeq system a generation before had made her a system-wide heroine and media sensation.
“A ship won’t help us,” Tark replied, dejected. “You know that. Whoever was out there with a charged up FTL drive escaped. Anyone else has already been hunted down. Mechanics are just too fast.” He shook his head. “Best to accept it. Now, if the Council had finished production on the Esmith ships, we’d have a chance. But they haven’t, and you know that too.” The status of new combat ships based on the ‘interialess’ Esmith drive Anjica had brought with her in her mad dash out of Mechanic space thirty years before was a regular staple of newscasts. The last reports had shown the ships still months from their first trials.
Anjica twisted her lips in disgust. “They would have been ready, if the Council hadn’t insisted on all-new ships. I told them that, when I arrived.” Her voice shook with anger. “Damn it, they knew the Mechanics were less than thirty light years away. I came from there. We could have had retrofitted cruisers ready three years ago.”
Tark grinned, suddenly. “Want to go say ‘I told you so’ before we all get slaughtered?”
She chuckled. “Not exactly. But I have a ship, Tark. An Esmith ship. We can get out of here alive.”
Comprehension dawned. “Let’s go.”
Half an hour later, they arrived at the spaceport in Tark’s air-car. While Tark had piloted them nervously through the chaotic traffic above the city, Anjica had flipped from station to station, gathering what news was to be had. The attack consisted of three Mechanic ships. After passing through the Engsson barrier at high speed, each had taken a different course. One had sailed right through the system without stopping, its systems apparently disrupted by the barrier and unable to reboot in time to decelerate. A second had recovered more quickly, but had suffered a damaging collision during entry, partially disabling the ship, and allowing slow but well-armed human cruisers to destroy it. So far, admitted Anjica grudgingly, a resounding success for the Engsson barrier. The third ship, however, had begun evasive action immediately on entry. It had had made quick work of destroying the human ships, and then started a rapid but methodical attack on the system’s only habitable planet. Already it had hit most of the major population centers. A mid-sized town like Brianston wouldn’t be far behind, and the chaos in the streets showed that the population knew it.
Abandoning Tark’s aircar at the edge of the landing field, the mismatched pair ran now towards Anjica’s ship, a smooth teardrop of metal dwarfed by the huge trio of engines that buttressed its sides.
“I got the ship back from the Council once they’d analyzed the drives,” puffed Anjica, dropping into a jog. “I named it, too.”
“Good,” replied younger, fitter Tark more smoothly. “Every ship should have a name. What did you. . .” his voice trailed off as they passed the ship’s rearmost engine and curved in towards the airlock.
“You didn’t.” His voice expressed disbelief.
“What?” she asked, still panting. “Every ship should have a name, someone once said.”
“Yes, but. . .” he gestured vaguely upwards, towards the hull above, where, in vivid, iridescent letters, someone had painted Vavoom!
“What can I say? It looks like a child’s idea of a spaceship, so it got a childish name. Besides,” she smiled. “I like it.”
“You and your midlife crisis, maybe. Why not paint it red as well?”
“Couldn’t afford it.” They both laughed. Anjica might be many things, but after her media exposure years ago, poor was not one of them.
“Now, get up there. One Mechanic is more than enough. He’s focusing on population centers now, but who knows when he’ll wise up and hit the ports as well. Just as well your club is in a rundown part of town.”
“Hey! Discreet and selective, we like to call it.” He followed her rapidly up the access ladder nonetheless.
“Wait here,” she said, climbing through the lock. “Follow me in when the light here shows green.” She tapped an indicator before closing the lock behind her.
Inside, the ship was cramped, with barely space for the command couch directly before her. Behind and to both sides of the couch were closed panels, while above it the ceiling of the small compartment was lined entirely with viewscreens. Anjica crawled onto the couch, lay on her back and started flipping switches.
“Holy hell,” came Tark’s voice as the airlock cycled open again. “You told me the ship was small, but this is ridiculous. How the hell are we both going to fit?”
“You should have seen the ship when I first brought it in. There was even less space in here then. This thing was an automated trial ship, you know, never intended for human occupancy. All I had was a minimal control set and what I could jury rig from my scoutship’s supplies.” Part of Anjica’s legend was the ingenious way that she had installed a jury-rigged FTL drive cannibalized from her scout ship, and brought the (then nameless) Esmith ship back to human space.
“When I got rich, I ripped out a lot of the old telemetry equipment, installed a full autopilot, life support, and a top quality miniaturized autodoc.” She smiled as she continued an abbreviated takeoff checklist. “And a commode. Another thing this ship didn’t have. Funny how the media never mention just how awful the ship and I smelled and looked when we got here. Talk about being in deep shit.”
Tark smiled. “But seriously, Anji. How am I going to fit?”
She sobered and stopped her checklist momentarily. “Seriously? You have two choices. You can sit in the airlock with both doors closed. Or you can sit in the toilet.” She gestured to a large panel on her right. “Later, after we get out of the system, you can lie under me on the couch. Or on top of me.” She winked.
She shrugged and went back to her list. “I’m not, Tark. It’s that or die. It’s that simple.” She looked down at him. “I brought you because I think there’s room, and because we have a little history.” She sighed. “And because you had an aircar handy. That’s the ugly truth of it.”
He nodded slowly, then smiled slightly. “You’ve always been brutally honest. Why stop now?” He chuckled. “Well, should I stay here, or. . .?”
“I think you’re best off in the john, actually. This is a test vehicle, and that airlock wasn’t really designed for use. To be honest, I’m not sure why the ship even has one. But I can’t take off with either door open, so it might be a little claustrophobic. I think you’ll be safest and most comfortable in the toilet.” She gestured again to the panel. “Or we can call it the shower, if you want. It serves both purposes.”
“Oh, by all means, then, let’s call it the shower. Though if I get scared enough, it may serve both purposes. I’m not a hero like you.” He grinned. Despite her celebrated exploits, Anjica had never presented herself as a hero.
“Okay. Slide in across me, then, and get comfortable.” She slid aside the access panel, disclosing a bright, smoothly lined space with chromed outlets in the flat ceiling and drains in the floor below.
As the man jackknifed awkwardly into the small space feet first, she added with concern, “The Esmith drive is effective, Tark, but it’s not perfect, and that’s no command couch. We may experience up to four gravities, so expect to be pretty uncomfortable.”
His head passed her midriff and he began trying to push himself upright in the shower space. “Well gosh, Anji, that’s downright nice to hear.”
“We need time for the FTL drive to charge, so we’ll probably have some tricky maneuvering for a few minutes. I think you’ll be lucky to get out of this with a few broken bones.” Her voice was grim. “But you’ll be alive, and the autodoc can fix you up. I’m more concerned about life support. I installed the best of the best, but the ship is designed for one. Still,” she continued in a determinedly optimistic voice, “I think we’ll make it. Now get settled. I’m taking off. Centauri, here we come.”
As she spoke, a loud rumble sounded in the near distance.
“Uh oh,” she said softly.
“That was Brianston, wasn’t it?” Tark grimaced.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Bad for us, too, since it means the Mech is watching the area. And because the blast will hit us any minute. Now hold on.” With a roar that drowned out even the bombs outside, the Vavoom! took off.
“So far, so good,” Anjica said, as the ship, already at an appreciable percentage of light speed, accelerated toward ecliptic north. “Now if we can just hold on for evasive maneuvers.” She reached for a control key.
Before she touched it, the ship was skewed harshly to one side, metal screeching bitterly as support struts tore somewhere below them. Red lights flickered on the control board as she finally punched the key and the ship slewed sideways into a roll. An anguished cry came from the shower.
“No!” She paled. “No, no, no.”
A trembling voice came from the shower. “Didn’t they teach you any curse words back in Centauri?” Tark’s pale face poked out of the cubby. “I’ve got a broken leg, by the way. Very painful, and I think I’m highly likely to go into shock.” He smiled wanly. “How are things with you?”
Anjica ignored him, hands racing over the controls,
“Anji, did you hear me? I have a broken leg.” Tark’s voice edged toward a whine.
“I heard you. Shut up.” Her voice was harsh as she continued to run status checks.
“What?” Tark’s cry of surprise subsided as he took in the flashing lights and Anjica’s determined mien. “Right. I’ll just wait here and suffer quietly.” He grabbed the edge of the shower compartment as the ship changed direction yet again.
At last, Anjica’s motion slowed, and she looked down. Her expression was empty.
“What’s wrong?” asked Tark after several minutes had passed in silence. His head bounced against the shower wall as the ship turned again. There was no answer, and he asked again, more insistently.
She looked over at him with dead eyes. “We’re screwed, Tark, that’s what.” She laughed harshly. “And not in a good way, either.”
“Well, now that’s too bad,” replied Tark. “I was kind of looking forward to some of that good stuff when I join you on the couch later. Of course, if you’re saying the autodoc is broken, I’m not sure this leg is going to be able to take it. Could be a long, painful trip out-system, though. Maybe I’ll pass out,” he added hopefully.
Her lips twisted. “The autodoc is fine, Tark.”
“No problem, then.”
“But it’s still going to be a painful trip.” She swallowed. “The FTL drive is toast. We’re not going outsystem.”
“What do you mean, toast? As in nicely warmed up and ready to go?”
“As in dead. You probably know . . . Well, anyway, FTL ships have a web of conductors built into the hull. They set up a field and that’s how the whole ship comes with the engines when they jump.” She leaned forward to check that he was following. He seemed to be, eyes wide, arms braced hard against the sides of the shower as the ship continued to gyrate unpredictably. “When I took this ship from the Mechanics, you know I had to jury rig the FTL drive. That included the conduction web. I did it with cable and conductive paint.” She paused, remembering. “I really didn’t expect it to work, and I made the shortest jump I could.” She shook her head, bringing herself back to the present.
“Anyway, when I got the ship back from the Council, I replaced the web with something more durable. But it wasn’t practical to rebuild the hull, so the new web is still on the outside. Whatever that bastard just hit us with damaged the web. We can’t jump.”
Tark frowned. “Well, it can’t all be gone, right? The ship is still in one piece. Let’s just make a short jump.”
She sighed. “It doesn’t work that way. The web can sustain some damage and still function, but there has to be a certain minimum of coverage. We’ve lost connections all down the port side. If we jump now, part the ship won’t come with us.” Her lips quirked. “And that includes the part with the shower. But I guarantee you, neither of us would survive.” Actually, she mused it was conceivable, if unlikely, that, with a suit on, she could survive the jump after all. No need to tell Tark about that, though. And she would still very probably run out of air before reaching civilization.
“Well, let’s fix it then. Use wires and paint like you did last time.” His voice was hopeful.
“You think I didn’t think of that?” Frustration burst out of her. “For one thing, we don’t have wires or paint. For another, you may have noticed that we’re darting around the system at half the speed of light and at incredible acceleration.” Her eyes flashed. “Even if we could get out side, the Esmith field extends only barely past the hull in places. Outside that, regular physics applies. You want to be squashed like a grape, you go right ahead.”
There was silence from the shower, followed by a dull thud as the ship shifted direction again.
“Actually,” came Tark’s quiet voice, “I’m getting pretty grape-like in here. At least, I think that’s what the purple color means. Could just be bruises, though.”
Anjica smiled despite herself. Tark was, after all, a nightclub owner, not a pilot. Perhaps some of these things were less obvious to him.
“So,” he asked at last, “what are our options?”
Anjica focused again. “Not many, to be honest. And you know me,” she smiled. “Brutally honest.”
“Sitting here in your torture device, I vouch for the brutality.” The attempt at humor was weakly delivered, as movements of the ship banged him roughly against the walls.
“We can keep dancing around the system, hoping he’ll get tired of chasing us. Worked for me for about an hour when I stole the ship, once they realized I had it. And maybe once this guy gives up, we can hide out somewhere. An asteroid, maybe. Worked last time, and these guys are slow learners.”
“Okay. Let’s do that.” Tark’s voice was tired.
Anjica sighed. She hadn’t mentioned that last time she had come very close to being caught. Had in fact been struck several times by energy weapons. Too bad, she thought, this Mechanic came loaded with bombs. The ship was unlikely to survive another hit.
“Plus,” added Tark. “While he’s chasing us, maybe other people are getting away.”
The thought hadn’t occurred to her. She was harder-hearted than Tark, she realized again. He might even be a better person than her. Probably one of the things she found attractive.
“Okay,” she agreed. “But remember, you are going to get really banged up in there. I didn’t expect you to be in there for more than an hour.”
“Funny,” he replied sadly. “I recall you talking minutes.”
“What can I say? I had to sell you on it somehow.”
“It’s no use,” said Anjica several hours later through gritted teeth. “I’ve got the ship programmed for evasive maneuvers, and it reacts faster than I do. But the fact is that even with the Esmith drive, he’s more maneuverable than we are. If only I had started maneuvers sooner. We were so close!”
“We can’t go on like this,” groaned Tark as another sharp turn slammed him hard against a wall. “At least, I can’t. I’ve added a broken collarbone to my collection. And my nose.” His voice quavered as blood continued to stream from his nose, painting his face red, and soaking into his shirt. “I can’t take much more.” His voice broke at last, and tears spilled from his eyes, leaving faint trails on his cheeks. “I’m sorry, Anji. I told you I’m not cut out for this.” He began to sob.
Her tense, angry face softened, and she reached out to touch his shoulder. He winced and pulled away as she touched one of many bruises. Minutes went by, and he gradually quieted, only moaning softly as hard turns came with greater regularity.
“I’m sorry, Tark. I really thought we could make it. I wanted you with me.” A corner of her mouth twisted up. “It wasn’t just because of your aircar. Really.”
His chuckle was cut short by the pain of broken ribs. “I know, Anji. I love you, you know. Have for years.” He gingerly poked his head out to look into her eyes. “But I can’t do this. I wish. . .” he faltered. “I wish you’d left me.” Tears welled up in his eyes again. “I’m sorry you had to see me like this. Next time,” he attempted a smile, “pick up a hero on your way out the door.”
“Well, you know, Tark.” She looked back at the controls. “Space is limited. A standard-issue hero wouldn’t have fit.”
The ship jolted sharply and suddenly sideways with a scream of metal. There was a matching, human, scream from the shower.
Another jolt threw Anjica’s body up hard against the retaining straps, aggravating flesh already heavily bruised. With no such protection, she heard Tark slammed against the ceiling, and flinched in sympathy. He was already so badly hurt. . . Jaw clenched, she pressed a control key, and the ship immediately launched into a new and wrenching pattern of evasive gyrations. Anjica winced at the sounds of Tark banging around in the shower compartment.
“Nearly got us that time, buddy.” She tried to make her voice bright. “We may want to move to a nicer neighbourhood. Looks like we lost an engine.”
There was no response.
“Tark?” she called out. “Don’t do this to me, man. I brought you along for company, you know. You think I want to be all alone here with a Mechanic? Been there, done that.” There was no sound but the dull thud of a body hitting the walls with each surge of acceleration.
At last, in a brief lull between turns, she raised her head and torso to look into the shower compartment. Blood was everywhere, streaked down the smooth walls, and pooling on the floor. Tark sat sprawled in one corner, head tilted back. His jaw was shattered and hung loosely down, teeth poking jaggedly into emptiness. The flesh above them had been torn to shreds. She closed her eyes briefly. Best to know, though, she thought. Best to know. She looked back again. What remained of Tark’s nose was now flattened into his face, septum forced back hard into the soft tissue beyond. Only his eyes, open and dull, were largely clear of blood.
She lay back, shaking. Tears threatened again, and she forced them back, jaw clenching with the effort. Focus on anger, she thought, use that. Gradually her body calmed. Finally, as a chill swept through her, her thoughts, always precise, become preternaturally clear.
So, she considered, the FTL drive was broken and irreparable. The Esmith drive was functional, but not a match for the Mechanic chasing her. Tark was. . . Brutally honest, she reminded herself. Tark was dead. She herself could last for only perhaps a quarter hour more before the Mechanic finally caught her. The bastards weren’t good at war, but they were thorough. She had no weapons.
Or did she? She thought back. Mechanics were incompetent fighters, new at the game, despite their apparently implacable hatred for humans. They were slow learners, as well, picking up human tricks only slowly.
“Well here’s one you may not have seen before, then.” She smiled bitterly as she reprogrammed the autopilot. When she pressed down the final command key, the ship threw itself into a long and chaotic series of twists and turns, before finally accelerating at full power down a straight line.
“Vavoom, you bastard,” she muttered grimly. “Va—fucking—voom.”
She had a drive like lightning when she arrived in Norbeq system with a ship stolen from the Mechanics. She was a crash like thunder across the galaxy when she gave it back.
B. Morris Allen grew up in a house full of books that moved around the world. He’s still moving, and the books are multiplying like mad.