Part 2, as promised!
Lachlan Marnoch, 2016
Elya continued to fly the Supernought as they fled back to the bridge, which was not an easy journey given that his suit's jets, and several of Delton's bones, were broken. The ship was accelerating at full power now, away from the nucleus-forsaken rock behind them. Without the ship's inertial muffling, they would have been no more than red stains on the rear walls; even with it they were struggling to move against the acceleration.
Inertial muffling uses a reactive antigravity field, relying on negative false mass, which acts on every atom within a ship at once to repel it in the necessary direction and negate the inertial ‘forces’ of acceleration. In extreme circumstances, to conserve energy it only generates enough force to prevent serious injury to the crew; hence the struggle.
"Exodus is gaining on us! I don't have any power to weapons, I can't fight back!"
"Just keep moving away. We can fix the weapons situation when we get there, right, Delton?"
"Yes, most certainly, ma'am."
"What about coms? Is it safe to keep talking like this?"
"Should be, unless they get really close! I've got destructive interference fields running around the ship."
They arrived in the bridge once again as the initial fuzziness of the painkillers wore off. Delton guided herself gingerly to the Core inducer, ignoring the shocked looks from the rest of the crew. "Well? Do you wanna get out of here alive or not?"
They continued to stare.
She sighed. "Elya, tell these knobheads to turn their coms back on,"
Holographic words appeared around the room:Turn your coms on, you knobheads.
Norlyss was quickest to respond. "Elya, I need to see what's going on outside."
The pilot nodded, and projected an unnerving spherical view onto the walls, floor and ceiling, as though the whole ship was transparent. "Uh... Ok, that'll work. Delton, can you get power to weapons?"
"Yesirree," she said, still a touch lightheaded, and tapped some instructions to the inducer. She transferred ten percent, half of what was available, to the ship's automated turrets. It lost thrust as a result, but they were already moving at a belting pace. The guns emerged from their alcoves and selected their targets, firing precise pulses at the pursuing hostiles.
"Any sign of Dubious Honour?"
"No, lieutenant. No readings. Either it's in the shadow of the asteroid, or it ditched."
"Stars blast those damn stealth engines. If we just knew where it was..."
"Omega will send backup, won't it?" Delton piped in. "It won't take an Exodus swarm crawling over an FN ship lying down."
"Well... No, not exactly. Omega won't have received any information from those Defenders."
Delton grunted at this confirmation of her own theory, but Neidia was stunned. "What!? How? They have their own communication wormholes built in! The only way to jam them would be some kind of hyperspatial interference..."
He arrived at the conclusion that Delton had settled into some time ago. "It's the Coordinator, isn't it? It has to be! But then it'll send reinforcements."
Norlyss had her helmeted head in her hands. "No, it doesn't want Omega to know that it was involved..." she went silent as she realised what she had just admitted. "Damn it. Exodus wasn't supposed to come back!" she burst.
"What do you mean, supposed?" Neidia squawked as a blast shook the ship. He seemed to have forgotten his earlier resolution concerning questions.
"We calculated it perfectly. Exodus thought that this was a light patrol craft, not a fully-armed Supernought. The force they sent should only have been enough to damage it. There should not have been any surviving Exodus."
"I'm sure it's sorry to disappoint you," Delton responded. "but an interstellar artificial intelligence ain't that easy to fool. It must've worked out your seedy little plan."
Neidia, still a couple of steps behind, caught up. “What you’re saying... we leaked the patrol to Exodus. It’s our fault that they’re dead!”
Delton shook her head. “It’s worse than that. The Core was blown up. The Coordinator did that. It must have been a hyperspatial energy pulse, overloaded it.”
Neidia’s eyes bulged. “So this mystery Coordinator is our personal assassin now? So why bother with Exodus at all? Why not just wipe out the Core and take what you needed?”
“Because,” Delton responded, “They needed it to at least look like an Exodus attack.”
Neidia’s eyes looked in danger of mutinying against his skull. “This is messed up.”
"Alright, alright!” Neidia interrupted the escalating judgements being heaped upon her. “We can discuss the finer points of wartime ethics when we're out of here!"
She pondered, mind back to the situation. Neidia seemed to want to say a whole lot more, but he restrained himself.
"We need a wormhole to get away from this place. Can we open one with the Supernought?"
Delton snorted. "At 20%? Maybe if we turn off every other system. But it will lead to a Nullartus gate, and I'm guessing that's the last place we want to be at the moment. Aside from right here."
Norlyss nodded, frowning. "We need the Honour."
“But there’s another problem, ain’t there? How can we open a wormhole with the Coordinator jammin’ up hyperspace?”
Norlyss hesitated, as though not sure how much to reveal; apparently she decided that too much had been said already, so she might as well spill the beans.
“The Coordinator’s agent is listening on a secret lightspeed frequency for my signal, a light-minute or so away. It will drop the interference when we need it.”
Norlyss turned around to look at the battle, magnified automatically by the ship’s computer. The pursuing swarm had thinned out, but they were still too close for comfort. The Avatars were hanging back, firing warheads at the ship while they waited for reinforcements. The Defenders, way in the distance, were gasping their last, crumbling under Exodus onslaught.
"We have to go back to the asteroid."
"You mean Planet of the Exodus back there? Great plan!"
"Do you have any better?" Norlyss shot back. "Ok. Ok. We can do this. Elya, shut every single bulkhead on this thing. The more they have to chew through the longer we'll have. Delton, on my mark return all power to thrust. We have to out-fly these fuckers."
"You said it," she replied, readying a command for the inducer, along with a mock salute.
"Elya, you're going to fly a big circle back around the asteroid and come at it from the other side. Exodus will work out what we're doing pretty quickly, but hopefully we can spread it a bit thinner that way. Keep the breach pointed away from them as much as you can."
"None of this was in the briefing," grumbled the pilot.
"I'm sorry. We weren't prepared for any of this. But you're all we have."
"Good to know." He turned forward.
"Everyone else, brace. This isn't going to be a smooth ride."
There was a series of clunks through the coms as the rest of the crew magnetised themselves to the deck and took position in acceleration alcoves.
Norlyss steeled herself. Elya and Delton did likewise.
Everyone was blasted backwards as the Supernought shot away with considerably less grace than it was designed for. Delton could feel her broken bones grinding, painlessly but far from comfortably. She growled wordlessly as Elya brought the ship into a juddering, sweeping curve.
Exodus did anticipate their movements, but it also anticipated a number of different possibilities, dispatching Avatars to an assortment of trajectories. As the ship swooped around and the possibility space collapsed, more and more of the crablike drones moved to intercept. Fortunately, thanks to the hyperspatial disruption, they were facing only a tiny portion of Exodus’ incalculable intellect. But even this mean fraction was formidable enough.
Detonations rocked the ship as nanobot warheads broke against their hull and began to chew through, and one or two of the Avatars themselves latched on. Elya span the great ship in a terrifying barrel roll to dissuade such presumptive behaviour, but some of the robots found their way in through the hole.
"Give the corridor guns a little juice!"
Delton, her many fingers working frantically at the inducer's holographic display, allowed a trickle of energy to reach the internal turrets, which swivelled to blow chunks out of the Avatars on their path down the ship's halls. The doors were slowing them, but not by much. They weren’t nearly so fragile in the face of the weaker weapons. Most of them fell, blown apart; but one survived.
"No good! Weapons free."
Norlyss drew her sidearm. The lone Avatar slammed the bridge's bulkhead. The doors buckled inward, bit by bit, and a hole appeared in the centre, chewed out by the drone's nanobots. A spray of the microscopic automata found its way inside, spreading across the room and embedding itself in the systems. The Supernought jerked as Exodus started to assume control, and Delton watched in horror as etching lines, like methodical scratches, started to spread across her faceplate. Charen stared at his arms in horror as his suit started to dissolve, eaten away.
"Delton! We need a purge!"
"It's gonna take 6%!"
The craft's thrust dipped by a third as its anti-nanobot systems invisibly expunged the tiny attackers, and Elya resumed his full grip on the systems.
Then the Avatar burst through, smashing the doors aside. Those with weapons opened fire. Its body was a mass of antennae, apparatus and appendages, composed of an alien material; certainly no effort in the machine's design had been spared for aesthetics. It sprang across the bridge, impaling the first Darax it met, then leapt towards Elya, blades extended. Nedia launched himself at it from the side, kicking it just off course. He and Norlyss pinned it to the deck and unloaded into its weakened, thrashing body. It fired a burst of laserfire, sweeping across Elya's arm. Elya screamed in pain as his arm floated away, and the ship stopped accelerating with a jerking halt. The drone collapsed and went limp. Elya's suit swiftly sealed the breach and the wound with an automatic adhesive, and released some compressed air to compensate for pressure loss. Neidia jumped to him. Norlyss seemed determined to pound the Avatar into dust.
"It's going to be OK, Elya."
"My arm just came off!"
"We'll reattach it! Or get you a shiny new cyborg arm! Or you can have one of Delton's, she doesnt need them all. But you have to concentrate. We have to get out of here or it won't matter if you sprout nine arms and become a Darax!"
Three arms, technically, thought Delton, three sub-arms each.
Elya was on the verge of a panic attack, but then his suit's painkillers set in. He took a deep, intoxicated breath.
"Yeah, man. Right on."
He turned to the front of the bridge, closed his eyes, and flew the damn ship. The ride was, strangely, much smoother than it had been prior.
Norlyss had recovered from her attack of thoroughness.
"Delton, Exodus is all over us. Give weapons half for a few seconds."
"You're the boss!"
Gravitational cannonfire lanced from turrets internal and external, and a searing wave washed over the hull, peeling the Avatars away.
"Ok, we're approaching the asteroid. Elya, when we see the far side, brake as hard as you can without killing us,"
His only response was a grit-toothed nod.
"When he does that, Delton, transfer every last scrap of power to weapons."
"Let's just hope the Honour is still there."
The asteroid approached larger and larger, its cratered bulk careless of the drama playing out in its neighbourhood.
It must have been ejected from a star system, a great long time ago.
Then they were upon it. Elya brought the ship within a dozen metres of the planetoid's uneven surface, dark holes and mountains shooting by in a blur.
Then they passed, swinging around to the far side. "Brake!"
Elya obliged, spinning the Supernought 180 degrees around the vertical axis and bringing it to a halt, thoroughly bruising everyone aboard. The main cannons swung to bear. The chasing swarms closed in. Delton launched her command, and the ship's full complement of weaponry blazed to life. Like air rising from a hot pavement, the space around the Supernought shimmered delicately, and a hundred Avatars shattered.
It was a respite, but a temporary one; a thousand times that were still coming from the other side.
"Where's the Honour?"
The SDU Dubious Honour, redolent of a many-legged wasp with its various salvage appendages, was drifting near the asteroid's shelter, apparently unguided.
"There's no hail!"
"Her coms must still be off."
"No, something isn't right. They should have seen us."
"Bring us in closer."
"The cockpit's empty, I... Oh, lords. The airlock's open. The atmosphere is gone. I'm not getting any life readings."
As if to punctuate his words, the captain's frozen corpse, quite suitless, drifted past the viewport of the Honour's cockpit.
"What happened?" Norlyss demanded.
"I... I don't know!"
"Those Exodus signals we got before the Defenders showed up," said Neidia thoughtfully, his voice distant. "It must have taken over the ship and killed them, then moved the ship out here to hide it."
Delton's earlier condemnation of the captain now seemed quite uncharitable.
Norlyss was silent for a moment, her face lightening to grey.
Like a horrifying sunrise, the Exodus swarms were creeping over the asteroid's horizons, from all directions.
Norlyss snapped out of her fugue. "Are there any Avatars aboard?"
"None on scans."
"Can Exodus still control it?"
"It probably left a residual program, but it can't take direct control while I'm jamming it."
Norlyss turned to Ollin, one of the Darax technicians.
"Can we remote-pilot the Honour?"
"Not after whatever Exodus has done to it. I can't get any contact. We need to purge the systems manually."
Norlyss narrowed her eyes. "Someone needs to go over there."
There was a pregnant pause, interrupted by Delton's sigh.
"Don't everyone volunteer at once," she said, kicking herself toward the exit.
"Where are you going?" Neidia responded with incredulity.
"To get our ship back, I guess."
"Who's going to operate the inducer?" Norlyss protested.
"I set it to give half to weapons and half to thrust. If you need anythin' different, Ollin can make adjustments."
Before anyone could raise any further objections, she was flying out of the bridge at full speed.
Norlyss shook herself, then turned to Elya. "Get the opening as close to the Honour's airlock as you can."
"We're gonna be vulnerable!"
Neidia, who had remained in stunned silence for several moments, emitted a groan, then took off in pursuit of Delton. Elya obliged the new captain and carefully aligned the two openings. He vectored the Supernought, itself rotating like a tidally locked moon, to move around the SDU ship at the same rate it was spinning, so that the same sides continued to face each other as the two ships revolved. A red giant orbiting a disproportionately heavy neutron star.
"I think I'm finally getting the hang of this thing," he muttered.
Then Exodus was upon them, driving at the Supernought en masse from every direction. Since it couldn't fire through the Dubious Honour, the Avatars were focusing their attention on that avenue, hoping to get into the safety of the craft's shadow. As the Honour was pointing to the asteroid, they had to cross the Supernought's line of sight to get there, and were as yet unsuccessful. But once the Honour span so that it was between the Supernought and the horizon, an Avatar would easily slip into its cover.
"Delton and Neidia, let us know when you're aboard." said Norlyss with more than a hint of anxiety.
“Neidia? What do...”
Neidia tapped Delton on her shoulder as he sailed past. “Didn’t think you were going to violate the sanctity of the buddy system that easily, did you?”
“Neidia,” she said seriously. “This ain’t gonna be safe.”
“I know. Almost to the openings, lieutenant!”
"There will be nanites on the Dubious. Please take care of them before they eat us," said Delton.
"Oh, stars, yes. Elya, can you purge her from here?"
"No problem," said the one-armed pilot. A wave of energy passed over the disabled salvage craft, knocking a fine dust of broken machines from the air. The Avatars took quick advantage of the gap in weaponsfire to close in.
"I'm aboard!" came Delton's voice.
"About time!" Elya didn't need to wait for an order. He sped up the Supernought and dove around Honour to open fire on the Avatars that were sheltering behind it. He then took up a faster holding pattern around the vulnerable ship. Although smashing to pieces against the waves of gravity from the Supernought, honed into laser-like beams, the front lines of the Avatars were creeping steadily closer. Exodus must have done the math, calculating that it could take the Supernought before it exhausted its numbers. Casualties were of little matter to the superior intelligence.
"Home, sweet home," muttered Delton as they flew toward the cockpit. Although perhaps not the most intelligent design choice, SDU bridges tended to be at the fore, unlike Nullartus craft, where the control centre was couched within the layers of the rest of the ship. Her painkillers were just starting to wear off, so she manoeuvred her leg carefully.
"Entering bridge. Someone is going to have to tell us what to do here."
Neidia flew immediately to the controls and began browsing them for some clue as to how to operate them. Ollin, a computer technician and one of the Darax who had gotten the Supernought to respond to Elya's mental touch, spoke to Delton through her suit.
"You have to disconnect the main computer from the controls and communications. You can't trust it now that Exodus has been in."
"What!? And fly it manually!?" Neidia protested.
"I don't think there's much other choice, lieutenant!"
"Fine. Nucleus damn it, I hope enough of that pilot training rubbed off on me."
Delton moved to disconnect the computer from the salvage ship's systems - a polite way of saying that she was slashing its cords with her multitool. The whole while avoiding the drifting body of the Dubious' captain, whose eyes were wide in surprise. She didn't bother cutting the computer's power supply; although it would have been quicker than cutting its other connections, even on its emergency internal supply the Exodus-infected computer would have posed a threat. But without its tendrils embedded in the ship's systems, it hopefully wouldn't, and time was too short to saw through the thick cable through which its lifeblood flowed.
"My folks were on Trailmix when it was liberated. You should hear the tales they tell, about the shining Supernoughts soaring in from the black sky and smashing Exodus aside. And about the hell they were in before that.”
The Darax brain, having, for millions of years, provided fine motor control over no less than twenty-seven agile fingers along with their arms and sub-arms, was adept at multitasking. This left Delton quite free to soliloquise as she sawed through the information cables, even as the battle raged around them. She made ample use of the soapbox provided.
“Is this strictly relevant?” said Norlyss, unease bleeding through her transmission.
“You can decide what's relevant when you volunteer for a suicide mission. Now, the Liberation was before my time, but I've got reason to be damn grateful to the Nullartus. I doubt I'd be here without'm. And you're tellin' me that we killed a whole bunch of 'm to get our hands on some shiny new parts?"
"Now isn't the damn time, Delton!"
“This might be the only time for us, lieutenant,” retorted Neidia.
“Okay, Delton, you asked for it. The First Nullartus will win us this war. They get closer every day. The galaxy will be rid of Exodus; but then what? It will have been replaced by a greater threat. Now that Seedworld Omega has been rediscovered, FN forces will swell exponentially. They will soon have a billion Defenders to do whatever they want with. We won’t be able to stand against that. We need to be prepared for victory, as well as defeat.”
“That don’t justify murderin’ a whole shipload of them. Now, we’ll save your damn shiny ship, because otherwise what was the point. But I want it written down that I was less than happy about how we came across it!”
“Your objections are noted.”
“And mine,” said Neidia. Delton flashed him the Darax equivalent of a warm smile.
The ship rocked as the Supernought picked off an Avatar dangerously close to the Honour. Delton grunted as she slashed the last cable, then pushed over to the panels.
Although rarely touched, the wasplike spacecraft was equipped with emergency manual controls, gathered on a neglected control panel to the bridge's starboard. Neidia had found them, actual physical switches and buttons. He pulled experimentally on one of the levers, and was rewarded by a touch of thrust from the main motor. "Rightio. I guess that's it."
"Delton, we need you to open a wormhole gate."
"It's the display on the port of the main dash."
Delton kicked across to the bridge's dash, arresting her momentum with the pilot's chair. The wormhole systems were operated by a computer separate to the ship's central, with no networking at all between the two. Decades of fighting Exodus had taught the SDU a little about compartmentalisation. The incredibly complex topological calculations required were impractical by hand, so the computer was essential, but in cases where a ship was Exodus-infected it was handy to keep them separate. However, the nanobots would have infected all computer systems with Exodus, so in this case compartmentalisation had proven somewhat futile.
"You’ll have to use your suit’s computer,"
"Sounds like you should be the one over here," Delton grumbled. She opened the dash and disconnected the FTL computer, which discharged a petulant electric shock across her suit. She replaced it in the appropriate terminal with a cord extended from her own suit. Their vacuum suits were designed with all sorts of redundancy in mind, so luckily she had the right software for solving the wormhole equations; but she lacked the particular solution that would open to the correct region. Only Norlyss and the captain had access to that, to reduce the chance of Exodus, which could read almost any digital, analogue or biological system as though it were paper, capturing the route to an SDU system.
“Norlyss? I need the key to the home gate.”
“I’m sending it to you now.”
Delton’s suit received the appropriate coordinates and plugged them into the equations, and spent a couple of seconds calculating. “Ready to go! But the interference is still around,”
“I sent the signal when you got to the bridge, give it a couple of seconds.”
As predicted, the hyperspatial disruption faded. The wormhole cage emerged from the Honour's undercarriage, unfolding itself. It moved to the fore of the ship, and Delton powered it up. The wormhole swelled into being at its centre, warping the space around it. Delton punched the air in triumph. “Yahoo!”
The wormhole stalled, at a fraction of its proper size, oscillating about a stunted radius.
“Delton, it isn’t big enough. The Supernought won’t fit.”
"That's damned odd," she said. "Exodus must have done something to the reactor. I'm not gettin' enough power to the wormhole!
Back on the Supernought, Norlyss addressed Elya. "Can you lend any of our power to the Honour?"
"You're asking an Attractor-damned lot," said Elya through gritted teeth.
As soon as the disruption field dropped, several Avatars had peeled from the assault and sheltered in the asteroid’s craters, assembling themselves into cage-like formations. They were opening wormholes of their own, beyond which were things he didn’t care to think about. Larger robotic shapes were emerging, like eldritch horrors from an elder universe, turning their attention to the mismatched pair of ships.
"Yes, maybe. But I need some power moved around.”
“Lower the gain on adapters three, seven and twenty-five and transfer the remainder to adapter five!”
“Got it. Like this?”
“Perfect.” Elya broadcast the power over to the Honour.
“Received! It’s just gonna be enough!”
The wormhole bulged to full size, engulfing its cage. For a moment it looked like a planet covered in ocean, reflecting the night sky. But the points of light within weren’t reflections, but entirely different stars; and beyond the wormhole were the space stations of Conquest Port.
The Supernought dove towards the wormhole. It would have to go through first, as the Honour had to stay behind to keep the wormhole open long enough. This presented something of a tactical difficulty, as it would leave the lightly armed salvage ship almost defenceless for an uncomfortable length of time.
The Supernought disappeared through the gate, now visible only as an inverted, distorted image.
“Okay, let’s get out of here.” Neidia pushed forward on the thrust. The ship started forwards at a rate that perhaps a snail could admire.
“Somethin’s draining the reactor!” exclaimed Delton. “We’re not gettin’ enough juice!”
Exodus was swarming towards them. Neidia jammed the control forward, putting it in danger of bending. The ship increased to a pace that might outstrip a bumblebee.
"I'm getting even less power than before! I doesn't make a centimetre of sense... The computer is gettin' nine hundred per cent power!" Delton said, consulting the computer's ammeter. With an icy prickle, realisation flooded through her. "Oh. Oh, shit."
The computer, guided by its new Exodus programming, was leaching from the reactor, taking most of the available power. Why didn't I just cut its damn power cord?
Delton leaped to do just that, but it was too late. The computer, which had of course been conspiring against its former masters, realised that the jig was up. It launched all of the energy it had gathered in its internal batteries back into the reactor, overloading every one of the power supply's circuits with an enduring fizzle. The Dubious Honour was left lifeless again. The wormhole remained open, powered partially from the other side and partially by the cage’s own batteries. But they wouldn’t last long. Already the wormhole started to shrink.
“Dubious Honour? What’s going on?” The Supernought’s transmission came back through the gate.
“We’re dead in the water, lieutenant.”
“Hang on. We’re coming back.”
The Supernought’s distant image began to turn. Exodus was shooting for the wormhole now.
“We have to close the gate.”
Exodus had almost reached the wormhole. If more than two or three Avatars made it through, they would summon their own gates and bring in backup. Conquest wasn’t ready for that kind of surprise attack, not without First Nullartus help. And that would be far from forthcoming on this mission. Delton gazed through the wormhole at the planet Conquest; she realised with a hollow feeling that this reversed, deformed image would be the last she ever saw of it.
“Attractor blast it!” swore Delton. “Norlyss, if you don’t name something after us, I’m gonna come back and haunt every single coitus you ever have. And it better not be that ratluck Supernought, I don’t want nothin’ more to do with that hunk o’ rabbit-shit.”
Delton slammed down on the cutoff button, and the wormhole collapsed, winking out of existence and cutting one of the intruding Avatars in half.
Instantly, with the Supernought’s interference gone, Exodus static filled their communicators. They cut them off straight away, and watched silently as the disappointed Avatars and Icons turned towards them. They would not get out of this painlessly. Once Exodus had them, it would use its nanobots to tear them apart cell by cell, taking their molecules for its own use, and record everything in their brains.
Neidia started flicking switches, disabling safety barriers, enabling the ship’s meagre stockpile of warheads. He rested his hand on the button that would detonate them in their tubes, then turned to Delton. She nodded, placing one of her arm-hubs over his hand. An Avatar was gnawing at the viewport with what looked like a many-pronged beak. Delton scratched her pollinated sub-arm absentmindedly against the inside of her suit.
They pressed the button, and the world shattered.
The Exodus War continued for several years, and when it finally came to a close the Semartus-Darax Union, along with other malcontent allies of the First Nullartus, had reached technological parity with the Limbless; or, at least, near enough to leverage some power in resistance of renewed Nullartus imperialism. Uneasy truces were arranged, and, eventually, a peaceful (if not entirely content) balance was achieved. At the forefront of this balance were the twin warships, the first made entirely from recovered Nullartus technology. Both contained parts recycled from a First Nullartus Supernought, the origin of which was never admitted to. They were named SDU Neidia and SDU Delton.
The author would like to thank the Alpha Coordinator for its help recording and translating the events of this narrative.