FLIGHT OF THE NEAGO
I woke up feeling very hot and stuffy, so I blindly kicked away the blankets.
They burst into flame.
"Simon!" screeched Glory, scrambling backward across her bed and pressing herself into the bulkhead. Her wide eyes were fixed on the circle of bright white light crawling across the cabin, leaving everything in its wake a blackened ruin. As the air filled with smoke it illuminated the shaft of blazing light all the way to its origin at the view-port.
"The shade is fornicated!" Glory contributed astutely.
The door slid open and a medical robot rushed inside.
"I don't feel safe," I shouted to it. "Is this a good time to panic?"
The robot promptly melted, its torso bisected by the steadily moving beam. I slid off my bed and crawled across the floor, manoeuvreing around the robot's sizzling calves and pulling on Glory's ankle. She dropped down on the floor beside me, and we both wormed our way over the door.
We collapsed into a gasping pile in the corridor, smoke streaming out past us to gather like a fluffy river along the ceiling. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and patted out one of Glory's smoking braids, the beads around which had merged with one another into a lumpy multicoloured straw. "Is my head on fire?" she asked huskily.
"Not anymore," I hacked.
Seconds later an ear-splitting klaxon sounded and we were bathed in streams of fire retardant foam. It tasted a bit like corn.
The ship rumbled ominously and for a second we floated off the decking and bumped gently again the wall. And then down became down again with a sickening lurch. The lights failed, and then flickered back on. "Something's happening," I observed.
Glory rolled her eyes. "You're a coital genius, you are," she snorted.
We arrived on the bridge reeking of smoke and covered in bits of squishy foam, but we drew no attention as Captain Ting, Mr. Oliver and Jeremiah seemed to be immersed in manually forcing down a solid shield whose last inch was permitting a slanting ray of white-hot light to spill across the bulkhead, leaving a singing trail. The rest of the forward and aft windows were shielded. "What's going on?" I asked as Jeremiah pressed the rebellious shield into place.
"We're under etteck, Mr. Fell, sir," reported the captain, straightening up and saluting smartly. "They hit the micro-polerizers in the windas, sir -- lets the bloody sun inside to muck everything up."
"What about Dr. Pemma and Pi --"
"They're fine -- they've locked themselves down in the leb. Have you got those bloody micro-polerizers back online yet, Mr. Oliver?"
"Sir, yessir, they're nominal now, sir!" called Mr. Oliver, leaping over to another console. He hit a control and the shields retracted from the windows, admitting the dizzying spectacle of the Praxiteles System's hoops and banks of glowing gases.
"Need the windas to see whet we're up egainst," explained Ting. "They've jemmed every sensor, the besterds."
Mr. Oliver was at the helm again, and the view outside pitched around until we could see two very tiny golden glints against a green field of nebulous gas. "Um, two Allasu Sailcraft off the starboard-bow, Captain!" he reported, his voice quavering.
Suddenly the deck bucked and we floated off of it for a moment. The lights dimmed and then returned, and I fell sideways into a chair with a yelp. Glory landed in my lap and Captain Ting was caught by Jeremiah. "What happened?" I cried.
"Besterds heff got Tommy Beams," grunted Ting. "Kicking et our trejectory with false-spun charmers, the bloody cowerds."
"Ah," I said, trying to sound enlightened as I peered through the windows at the two distant ships. "I didn't see anything."
"Respectfully, you've never been in a spece bettle before, heff you sir?"
"Very few weapons fire enything with a visible frequency, sir. End good thing, where'd be the fun in thet, I esk you?"
I wiped my hand down my face and tried to get a grasp of the situation. "Well, what have we got? Can we shoot back at them?"
"Nah, sir," sighed Ting, though he smirked. "We don't have enything with thet kind of renge." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "We'll heff to get them in a hella lot closer."
"You have an idea?"
Captain Ting spread his arms widely and made an exaggerated pout. "You wound me, Mr. Fell, sir. I told you I was in the wer." He put his hands on his hips and nodded sharply. "Don't you werry: when it comes to bettle I always heff an idea."
Mr. Oliver looked at him expectantly. "Um, Plan Six?"
Ting beamed widely, his white teeth shining in his dark face. "Exectly," he pronounced crisply. "Good led."
Mr. Oliver looked like he would pass out from the praise. He turned around in is chair and his pale hands flew over the controls. A moment later the normal lights went dark, and the bridge was illuminated only by the ruddy glow of a few strategically placed emergency lamps. The hum of the ship's engines wound down to silence, and then the pseudo-gravity released its grip as we drifted off the decking, canting sideways in recoil.
"We're going to play dead?"
The captain nodded to me. "Yeh."
"And they'll come in closer to investigate?"
"And then what happens?"
He licked his lips quickly, like a lizard. "We give them a blest of our c'nnons, Mr. Fell, sir."
"Cannons on a medical ship?"
"It's the lest thing they'll expect."
"I should say so. You've installed them yourself, I imagine."
"Yessir. I've hed the beta on it for months. They're just bebbies, mind you."
"Little bebby c'nnons, Mr. Fell, sir. Nothing like I used to heff. Still, it'll teck everything Neago's got to fire them just once."
"To fire them once?" I exclaimed. "But Captain -- there are two ships!"
Captain Ting took off his golden-piped hat and scratched his tightly curled black hair thoughtfully. "I reckon it hed best be a well aimed shot then, sir."
"Um, here they come now, sirs," reported Mr. Oliver. I looked anxiously out the windows; the golden glints were growing. "Five kilometres and closing."
Dr. Pemma arrived on the bridge, looking concerned. Pish came in her wake. When he saw me he smiled, his freckled cheeks dimpling, then deftly kicked off the stairway's ceiling rungs and caught me in a hug midair. "Simon! I was so worried about you!" he mumbled into my scorched pajamas. "You smell terrible," he added.
Captain Ting coughed. "I wesn't geng to sey anything, sir."
Dr. Pemma pulled herself into one of the console chairs and strapped herself in, muttering about "damned freefall." She saw the ships and frowned. "So I take it we are wounded and helpless in space, about to be descended upon by police?"
"Thet's the view we're promoting, yes," said Ting.
"Good," replied Pemma darkly. "At least this madness will soon be over, then. And we can hand the investigation of this sick conspiracy over to the real authorities." She looked at me significantly.
I ignored her, gaze fixed on the ships outside as they drew steadily nearer. "How are you feeling, Pish?" I whispered.
"Fine," he said carelessly. "Are we in a space battle?"
"Yup," I nodded.
"Let us yew into a broad profile," Captain Ting muttered quietly, leaning in beside Mr. Oliver. "Let them heff a good look et us now. Gentle on the thrust, led. Let it look netural."
Mr. Oliver nodded and touched his controls. With an almost imperceptible jerk the ship began to ponderously shift, presenting its wide belly and broadest radius of the habitation hub to the approaching ships.
We turned around to watch out the aft windows. More detail could be discerned: long, shiny-surfaced craft pinioned at the centre of giant, diaphanous golden sails. A pattern of red and blue lights flashed and pulsed on their bows. Less than five hundred metres apart, it looked as if they meant to come around on either side of us.
Moments passed. Captain Ting stared silently at his opponents, eyes narrow.
I jumped as a speaker at my elbow squelched and declared, "Halt! In the name of the Praxiteles Criminal Control we order the commander of this spaceship Neago to establish communications without delay!"
Mr. Oliver looked over his shoulder at the Captain, eyes questioning. Captain Ting leaned gently to and fro against his harnesses, saying nothing. When the message started to repeat he asked, "Turn thet noise off, will you?"
Mr. Oliver did so. Captain Ting nodded. "Good led," he said slowly, then added with a new edge in his voice, "Now...let's heff some music."
"Sir, yes, sir!" barked Mr. Oliver, tapping at his console. The bridge filled with a tooth-rattling explosion of thumping percussion amid a keening anthem of overlapping instruments. Dr. Pemma clapped her hands over her ears and looked as if she were going to be ill. Glory just looked startled.
"Thet's proper," said the captain, chin bobbing slightly in time to the roaring music. "Now, the emergency retion c'nisters -- on my merk..."
We all watched the first golden sailship coast gracefully into view through the forward windows. A line of sweat broke out across my brow as the music hammered into my skull -- ominous and forboding, powerful and relentlessly angry.
"...Steedy now, led..." hummed Ting. "Fire!"
A flotilla of tiny white canisters with red palms painted on them burst into view from the Neago and sailed out across space, bearing down quickly on the first golden sailship as it pulled alongside. "Hey!" yelled Dr. Pemma; "those are the emergency rations!"
"Yes Decta, and this is an emergency," Ting pointed out, wagging his finger in rhythm to the pounding drums.
"You're going to coitally feed them to death?" cried Glory.
Captain Ting chuckled. "You jest wetch, missy."
Indeed, the fleet of flying canisters had not been aimed for the long pod suspended at the heart of the ship, but rather for her sails. The white cans seemed to wink away behind one corner of the scintillating sheet just as an armature was engaging to change its angle. Where the cans had vanished a speckling of holes opened in the sail, accelerating as they yawned wider and met, tearing the fabric into tendrils that flashed and then burned.
"Oops," laughed Ting. "I guess they hed their nevigetional deflecta pointed in the wrong direction." He sighed theatrically and cracked his knuckles. "Thet's whet you get when you try to encercle an enemy shep from windward, bloody stupid besterds."
The wounded sailship pulled alongside the Neago and then just kept going, coasting out into space behind us. "Oops," laughed Ting again. "I guess you'll have a hella time decelerating now, eh? Heppy treils!" He shook his fist at the aft windows and cackled. "First bettle for ya, is it? Bloody kids. Mr. Oliver, turn up the music!"
The air throbbed with a renewed bombastic assault of drums. "Slim profile!" bellowed Ting. The engines resumed humming starting with a low moan and a moment later Mr. Oliver jetted the thrusters and we began to turn.
The second sailship swiveled into view before us. Captain Ting shouted, "Full speed ahead!"
We were all cast back in our harnesses as the ship kicked forward, rumbling loudly. The anti-inertia armatures fighting to re-orient our seats whined in protest. The second sailship was eclipsed by our bow then, for the habitat ring was embedded within the Neago's outer hull. "Wheel up!" commanded Ting, and that changed: the ring rotated a quarter turn so that the forward windows were aligned our new forward trajectory, a view dominated by the golden ship as we bore down upon it.
"Are we going to ram them?" screamed Dr. Pemma, clutching at the edges of her seat.
"Hope not," Ting shouted back over the music. "My c'nnons should blest them out of the wey first."
"What cannons?" Dr. Pemma wanted to know. "What have you done to my ship?"
"I've replaced the port and starboard Trangeley assemblies with two Type-Five Bottom-Spin Push-Cannons. They'll move sixty yotta-Newtons es soon es sneeze."
"Replaced them?" cried the doctor. "But we need the Trangelies -- those are our escape pods!"
"Nah," scoffed Captain Ting. "Escepe pods are for losers."
"But why are we flying straight at it?" I yelled over the din.
"Because, Mr. Fell, sir," explained Ting patiently, seemingly oblivious to the giant spacecraft filling the view behind his head, "thet's where the hyperspetiel errey is. They're blocking our trejectory, but not for long. Don't you werry, sir."
"But couldn't we shoot first and steer later?"
Ting shook his head. "I told you sir -- firing once is going to take everything my ship has got."
"My ship!" cried Dr. Pemma from the other side of the bridge.
"Shut up, Decta," called Ting. Then to Mr. Oliver he barked, "Mr. Oliver, stendby erms!"
On the top of the Neago's wedge-shaped outer hull two symmetrical pockets opened, and two identical rods covered in a mish-mash of gadgetry rose up from within the ship and locked into place, pointed forward.
"Arms ready, sir!" replied Mr. Oliver.
The golden sailship filled the windows, its glowing ports growing larger. My eyes widened and I pushed back into my seat. I licked my lips. "So..."
The lights went out and the music stopped. One side of the golden sailship folded into itself silently as its sail collapsed with a series of static flashes. The bludgeoned ship veered sharply aside, spouting a trail of wreckage. The Neago coasted through the cloud of spinning debris, pieces of which resounded off the hull with a series of dull clunks. A rotating piece of metal struck the front windows with a loud crack that made Pish and I jump, but the impact left no mark. "Navigational deflector nominal," reported Mr. Oliver. "No damage, Cap'm."
Glory snorted. "Captain Ting, you're one dangerous motherfornicator."
"Yes, I em, miss," the captain smiled as he took off his hat and scratched his head. "If the Executives are involved, I know it's ell for a good cause...isn't it?"
"Oh, yes," I said.
"Good then," declared Ting, putting his hat back on and straightening his turtleneck. "Ell the better. Mr. Oliver, report!"
"Um, we'll need another twelve minutes before we can re-ignite, sir. Our course remains true."
"Steedy es she goes then, led," replied Ting. "Good work."
Thirteen minutes later the lights came back up and the air ceased to taste stale. The habitat hub began to rotate again and pseudo-gravity was restored, the deck vibrating faintly as the engines thrummed up to speed. Mr. Oliver's consoles illuminated with data. He reported, "Four more enemy craft are closing from astern, sir. Um, at current speed they will not reach us before we arrive at the array. Estimated time to mark: nineteen minutes. All systems are nominal. Cannons are recharging. Praxiteles Traffic Control is requesting communications, triangle coded."
"Give me Praxiteles Control," said Jeremiah, turning to face his console. Mr. Oliver punched it up, and an orange-skinned fellow in a crisp crimson uniform saluted.
"You're a Five!" the man exclaimed.
"I am Jeremiah of the Fifth Strain, and in the name of the Queen of Space I order this array opened to us. My clearance is being transmitted...now."
The man seemed speechless. He glanced at his own consoles offscreen. "Sir, I'm seeing a lot of requests to detain your ship and arrest its passengers and crew here."
"The protocols are clear. This royal mission supercedes all other directives. You have seen my clearance. Let the array be open or stand accused of high treason."
"Yessir. You're cleared for number two, sir. Where are you transmitting?"
He gulped. "I'm sorry. Say again, sir?"
"You heard me. I know the alignment is good. Open the bead. Prepare the gate."
When the Neago was hanging inside the great reflective sphere I watched the gas of Praxiteles' glowing gossamer ejecta vanish as the ship-sized hatchway irised shut. Mr. Oliver turned the ship around without haste, and we emerged into what seemed in comparison to be a very blank starfield, mere speckles on velvet. Kamari Star was a hard burnished disc behind the polarized glass, its bright orange light casting the shaken bridge into a strangely merry air.
"It's pretty," admitted Glory. "So orange."
"Kemeri is a K5 sta," said Ting. "Very cool."
Pish furrowed his brow. "It feels hot."
He was right. It was quickly becoming stuffy in the bridge. The air cyclers whined as they kicked into a higher speed. Mr. Oliver frowned over his controls. "Um, the micro-polarizers are intact. I don't know what's happening. The whole ship is heating up, Cap'm."
Jeremiah stood up and peered through the glass, his eyes narrowed purposefully. "We are being targeted by a heat ray."
"Mr. Oliver..." started Ting.
"I'm on it, sir," replied Mr. Oliver quickly. "I see it now. I'm steering us clear." He tapped his controls and the Neago veered ponderously to one side, our chairs creaking against the inertia as the engines fired.
Captain Ting stood over his shoulder and scanned the dataplates. "Looks lick somebody set us up a booby trep -- move out of the geet and get cooked. Traces a field clear downwell to Metra."
"Metra is the Kamari world?" I asked. Ting nodded. "But we're clear of the heat ray now?"
Ting frowned. "We'll heff to cross the esteroid belt." He put his hands on his hips and sighed grimly. "It's not a bed plot: tecking thet peth all the wey through the field will put a hella strein on the nevigetional deflectas -- we're geng to generete a hella lot of heat kicking aside ell thet rebble."
"Cooked if we do, cooked if we don't?"
"It's a matter of releasing heat, Mr. Fell, sir. We can only teck so much, so either by fighting the heat rey or pounding through the rocks we're forced to go slow enough that our engines don't cook us to death." He smiled ruefully. "It's meant to serve es a deley."
"But time is of the essence!" I said. "The Citadel's expedition may have already landed."
"Um, we could arc high over the ecliptic," suggested Mr. Oliver.
Ting shook his head. "Teck too long, thet. But there's more than one wey to cross an esteroid field."
"What do you mean, Captain?" asked Jeremiah, head cocked in puzzlement.
"We do it without the deflecta," said Ting.
Dr. Pemma tried to rocket out of her seat, but fell back into it as she had not undone her harnesses. "Are you mad?" she cried.
"Nah," scoffed Ting.
"You'll kill us all!"
"Nah," he said again, taking Mr. Oliver's place at the helm. "Jest heff to steer really fest, is ell." Ting cracked his knuckles and placed his hands at the controls. He turned back and smiled at me over his shoulder. "Don't you werry, Mr. Fell, sir. I'm a hella good pilot."
I tightened my harnesses and swallowed. "Okay," I said.
An hour passed, and then another. Occasional shadows loomed ahead, blocking the stars. The ship shook periodically. "Jest little rocks," shrugged Ting. "Nothing to werry about."
Mr. Oliver tightened his harnesses quietly.
The ship groaned at one point as Ting wrenched it first one way, and then another. After that tiny flashes of light began to erupt against the glass, leaving little white marks and black scorches in their wake. "Pebbles," grunted Ting. "Must've been a recent impact around here."
The rain of little rocks increased, flashing into vapour as they struck us, heat pouring into the hull. The air conditioners worked at a frantic page, whirring loudly but ineffectually. I loosened my robe and wiped the sweat from my brow as the temperature inside the bridge climbed. When the windows began to fog up Pish was assigned the task of wiping them whenever Ting nodded at him.
"He should have his harness on," commented Dr. Pemma weakly.
The flashes outside became a nearly constant flicking bath of sparks. Glory moaned and wiped the sweat out of her eyes, then said, "Fornicate this!" and unhitched her harnesses. She peeled her red dress off over her head, and then wriggled expertly out of her underwear.
Mr. Oliver turned pink and looked away. "I can see your boobies!" jeered Pish.
"Have you no shame, girl?" spat Dr. Pemma.
Glory rolled her eyes and reattached her harnesses. Within another hour we had all imitated her, and were nestled naked in our chairs with perspiration running off our bodies. Pish got up and wiped the windows clear again, but at this point Ting was working almost entirely off the sensors. His brown back shone with sweat as he hunched over the controls, nudging our course around the biggest shadows as they loomed across the starfield.
Suddenly the ship bucked violently. Pish fell again the windows with a grunt. A rough rumbling died away, but the view out the windows was canting sideways. "Explosive decompression in the main operating theatre!" reported Mr. Oliver. "Emergency locks are in place."
"What happened?" I gasped.
"We've jest been pierced by a little rock," said Ting, moping his brow. "Sorry about thet."
"A little rock went right through the ship?" asked Pish, eyes wide.
"We're geng hella fast, kid," the captain reminded him. "Even a little rock is bed news et this speed."
The tension broke an hour later when Ting sat back from the controls and grinned. There had been no flashes outside for a while. He pointed to the blue-white crescent hanging against the stars before us. "Um, we're free to navigate," noted Mr. Oliver. He stole a shy glance at Glory and then turned pink again. "Estimated time to planetfall: four hours, ten minutes."
Everyone undid their harnesses and stood up to stretch out their cramped limbs. I watched Captain Ting watching Dr. Pemma, a smirk creeping over his lips. "Thet's bloody edorable, Decta."
"What?" she asked sharply, arms crossed over her chest.
"Why, your ertfully trimmed nethers, neturelly!" He smiled widely. "I suppose I've never tecken the time to eppreciate your finer quelities."
Dr. Pemma, whose pubic hair was neatly cut into the shape of a rounded heart, jammed her hands between her legs and flushed angrily. "Kindly keep your eyes to yourself, you horrid little ape!" she shrieked, bending down to gather up her clothes and labcoat.
"A heart -- thet's very cute," persisted Ting.
"Shut up!" she scowled, turning on heel and fleeing the bridge.
Ting's eyes followed her up the stairs. "End thet's a hella fine bottom too, miss -- no lie!" She swore at him and the captain laughed heartily. To us he said, "Meybe she's not so bed efter ell."
"You are a pig," I told him kindly, squeezing his slick shoulder. "But we all owe you our lives, my dear captain. Thank you."
"Nonsense," said Ting easily. "I heffen't hed this much fun in years. Nothing like death to meck you feel elive!" He wheeled on Glory. "Respectfully, are you still in business, miss?"
"Nope," said Glory, giggling.
"Ah well," sighed Ting. "Thet's why men invented simulation dens, I reckon." He wandered toward the stairs. "I'm geng to heff a...shower. Keep me epprised, Mr. Oliver."
As he departed Glory watched after him. "He has a nice bottom too, actually," she admitted.
"Let's go Pish," I suggested. "Glory?"
"I'm going to hang around with Mr. Oliver for a while," she said lazily. Mr. Oliver hunched over his controls, a fresh layer of sweat beading on his back. "Maybe he can show me how to fly a spaceship," she added playfully.
Jeremiah followed Pish and I up the stairs. "Sir, I suggest you take what rest you can. We do not know what conditions to expect on Metra."
"What do you mean you don't know?" I asked. "Don't you human executives know everything?"
"The system has been closed," Jeremiah replied. "To all."
"But I thought audits were performed on closed systems, to track their progress."
Jeremiah nodded. "You are correct, sir. This is an audit."
I stopped in the corridor and turned to look Jeremiah in the face. "So you're saying we have no idea what's down there? None?"
Jeremiah shook his head. "Sir, I am afraid not."
"How will we ever find what we're looking for?"
"I have reason to suspect that the Speaker's Palace at Thallos houses the puzzle we must decipher."
"The Speaker's Palace?" I echoed. "The Speaker being Volmash?"
"The Speaker of Kamari was Terron Volmash, yes. But we have no idea who is in power now."
I chewed my lip and crossed my arms. "So we're going to waltz into the palace of an evil dictator on his own homeworld and ask to rummage around his attic for some kind of bird puzzle?"
"Sir," said Jeremiah with a curt nod.
"Mother of love," I muttered, pinching the bridge of my nose and feeling suddenly very drained. "What did I do to deserve this?"
Jeremiah did not answer.