by Isegrim - 24th Aug 1999
The bar in VDS-1 was loud, there had just been a major battle and the troops were unwinding, getting rid of excess adrenaline and pent-up emotions.
At a table near one wall a small group of Fenrisians sat together, away from the hubbub surrounding the drinks dispensers. Two tall lupines and a shorter vulpine, cradling various drinks in their paws. A quiet group, not saying much and looking rather somber...Their discussion had sort of petered out after the third round of drinks, none of the scouts being able to do more than speculate on the fate of their lost comrade, all questions had been voiced, could they have done more, would the search parties find Tors, would he still be alive? For that matter, why were they still alive?
Grimar’s muzzle was aimed at his glass, eyes absentmindedly scanning the tabletop under his paws as he read the myriad inscriptions and figures carved into the formica surface. 'Gyran sucks vacuum! ', 'Knights forever! ' and even a short limerick 'There once was a girl from Vendor, who couldn’t stop yelling for more ~ ', hmm, the rest didn’t leave much to the imagination...obviously a gifted poet. And then another, fresher scrawl '...never forget you Alfred...' Damn...
The lupine sighed, looked up and glanced round at the crowd in the bar. Subdued lighting cast strange shadows and the air was filled with the sounds of strange voices, strange languages...the only word he could think of was 'exotic'. More alien races than he’d ever seen in his whole life and they all seemed to be getting along fine, it was amazing. Humans, Accipterons, Kalai, Vendorians and a glimpse of a lone Zutorkian...There was even some kind of party going on, a rowdy group at the counter. Must be Mek pilots. That thought managed to bring a slight grin to his muzzle.
The tawny wolf sitting next to him was lost in thought though, oblivious to his smile, one paw wrapped around a mug. The broth in the mug was insipid and luke-warm. Salty water would have been just as appetizing, she thought. If this was the human’s idea of food they were going to be in for a rough time. 'Gods, they call this ‘soup’?' she muttered, wrinkling her muzzle and sticking out her tongue in disgust.
Seeing an opening to talk about something else than their missing friend, Grimar replied: 'It’s not all bad Shanni, I had a hamburger after stowing our gear, it was fine. I think you just got unlucky.' Nod with his nose towards her paw. 'What do they call that dishwater?'
'Kuppa Soup'. Shanni’s voice was listless, obviously not receptive to his weak attempt at humor.
'I’ll avoid it.' It was nice to be able to think of something as mundane as food. Better than thoughts of robot pincers dissecting a mesh-mek, slowly peeling away layer after layer of nanites until finally reaching the pilot, then peeling away the next layer, and the next, and the...'Argh...' Dammit, he shouldn’t let himself sink into despair like this, he had a responsibility towards the rest of his team, they were counting on him to be strong, to be their support...
The wolf shook himself and looked up. 'Hey Derah, we’ve been on VDS-1 for a couple of hours now so I’m betting you’ve made some interesting aquaintances already, right?' He forced a grin, which wasn’t all too difficult, since Derah was notorious for making ‘friends’ in every port of call, usually among the male population...
'Hear any news? What’s the buzz on this last battle, mm?'
'Well Grimmy...' Argh, he hated it when she called him that. '...the GC meks kicked butt, but I heard they got kicked back pretty hard too.' Derah’s voice was slightly sarcastic, she’d apparently seen through him but he didn’t much care, anything to keep their minds off Tors, if even for a few minutes. 'We lost a Jonesboro, it got creamed by suicide drones while on first salvage run.'
'Also heard there are some hot flyboys among our feathered friends, the guy I talked to was mucho impressed. It figures, I guess, they must have an innate talent for flying or something...Oh yeah, and I heard we’re scheduled for a medical. Guess the brass wants to be sure we won’t drop dead on the next mission.'
Grimar winced inwardly at the fox’s choice of words. Nobody would ever be accusing Derah of being subtle. Talking of death only made him think of Tors again...
The russet fox continued, her dark vulpine muzzle creasing in distaste . 'Frag it, I hate medicals. All they do is prod and probe, I always leave feeling worse than when I went in...grrr. And why is it that doctors always have cold paws?'
Dry chuckle 'I’ll inform them of your preferences...all of them, heh. I’ll even tell them about...' Grim’s voice trailed off as he saw a human approaching their table. The male was fairly tall, with a slender build and a narrow face. His sandy hair sat atop his head like a spiky brush and he sported a small beard, somewhat raggedy-looking. In counterpoint, the uniform molding his lanky frame was immaculate, attesting to a precise and meticulous mind.
Seeing both wolves’ gaze shift to somewhere over her left shoulder, Derah turned and looked up, then smiled. 'Ahh, duty officer Haynes...right on time. Sit your cute tail down.'
Haynes stopped as he reached them, his pale complexion looking slightly healthier than usual in the bar’s soft lights. It could also have been that Derah’s comment had made him blush, but Grimar wasn’t sure about that.
'Um, no thank you miss Ans’Kil, I have to get back to my post immediately. I just came to deliver the half-hourly update.'
Grim saw by the officer’s expression that he wasn’t bringing the news they’d all been hoping for...He sat silently, waiting for the human to tell them that there’d been no sign of their friend. Shanni’s thoughts had apparently paralelled his own and after a deep sigh she voiced what Grimar had been afraid to ask.
The human cleared his throat and spoke in precise, clipped tones, slowly shaking his head.
'No, miss S’Than, I’m sorry. Nothing from the sweeps, and no response to the broadband transmission either. I’m very sorry, I wish that I had better ne- '
Grimar interrupted gruffly. 'Transmission? What transmission?'
'Ahh...oh, you haven’t been told? Perhaps Commander R’tan was too busy, he’s asked not to be disturbed for the next couple of hours.' The officer shrugged. 'Well, about twenty minutes ago a voice trans went out to your missing squad member, from your commander.'
'Our commander, Khantur R’Tan, sent Tors a message? Probably ordered him to come back pronto, threatening him with court-martial if he didn’t comply, grrr...' Grim’s voice held a note of bitterness and frustration.
'Yeah, or rather slow mutilation, I’ll bet.' Derah, of course.
The other wolf remained silent, her gaze fixed on the human, one eyebrow quirked in a quizzical arch.
Haynes blinked once, uncomprehending, then continued. 'No, no, not at all, you’ve got it all wrong.Your commander sent a message to lieutenant Du’Ran, telling him about all the effort that is being put into finding him and basically telling him not to lose hope...' The human grimaced slightly, he knew perfectly well that the chances of ever seeing the canine alive again were very slim, almost non-existant. 'Your commander must care a lot about you guys, the message was...rather emotional.'
'Now if you’ll excuse me, duty calls. I will be back in half an hour.' Walking off through the crowd, the duty officer left a group of very bemused scouts behind. They looked silently at each other, until Derah raised an eyebrow and broke the silence.
'Hell. You think there’s a heart somewhere under that dark fur of his?'
In the dark void of space a modulated carrier wave was spreading out, getting further away from its point of origin with each passing second. The signal was boosted by each GC transmitter it met on the way, until it’s pattern resembled a three-dimensional representation of raindrops striking the surface of a still pond, sending ripples out in all directions...
Finally, after more than two hours it reached it’s destination. A cluster of sensor arrays on a transport vessel picked up the signal, filtered it through onboard com systems, which scanned it for trojans, worms and other hostile codes. Satisfied that the transmission harbored no hidden threats, the data was routed to the appropriate boards.
On the bridge of the ship the comm officer read his diplays, then swiveled his seat to face the figure slouched in the seat behind him.
'Captain, somebody’s trying to get a message to our ‘package’. What do you want me to do?'
Hengist Bloat wiped a greasy hand through his equally greasy hair, which only resulted in a rather non-productive exchange of oily residues. Without removing the ever-present cigarette from his lips he moved his underslung jaw and muttered a terse reply.
'Bloody hell, what now? Hmpf, send it to my pad.'
After listening to the message twice the captain scratched his chin for a minute, rasping through a three-day stubble. Then, with a mighty sigh and an unhappy scowl, he heaved his bulk out of the padded seat and shuffled off towards the passageway leading to the rest of the ship. As he reached the door through the bulkhead he turned and slurred an order. 'You’ve got the bridge...I’ll be with the Kinth...'
'Oh yeah, and have a drink ready when I get back..'
Crewmembers were quick to flatten themselves against bulkheads as the large humanoid figure strode through the passageway, not pausing for anyone. They were used to their captain’s harsh rule and had become quite good at recognizing danger signs, but what they sensed from this creature was far worse than anything Hengist Bloat had ever made them endure. This...’thing’ lacked all humanity, it could (and would) snuff out a life as readily as flicking a speck of dust off it’s shoulder, as one unfortunate technician had already discovered.
Passing through a final bulkhead and into the cargo hold Brutus stalked over to the corner where the Fenrisian mek was still strapped to it’s platform. Crew made themselves scarce, pretending to have urgent business elsewhere, hurrying to the other side of the dark hold or disappearing altogether.
He stood beside the platform, arms folded over his chest while gently tapping his chin with the datapad he held in his left hand. The active pressor field cast a purplish glow on his features as he looked down at the immobile shape, listening intently for any sign of life. The pilot might be dead, he thought, previous sensor readings had shown that he was badly injured. Diana hadn’t given him any specific intructions to bring the pilot back alive, all she wanted was the mek...but...but...
Brutus slowly smiled, which would have scared off even the most hardy space marine, had there been any around to see it. Diana would be pleased if he could get the pilot out, and keep him alive. He was special, the scanner had said it, it said that the pilot’s body was full of those nanites. Diana liked special things. He’d give her an extra present, a surprise.
Taking a half-step back, Brutus drew back his leg and kicked the mek in the side, hard, his cybernetic limb delivering the force of a hydraulic sledge-hammer. The shocked gasp and agonized whine that came from the mek’s external speakers made him smile. The pilot was still alive.
His smile faded when the pilot suddenly screamed in pain, a long drawn-out howl of agony that echoed off the bulkheads and reverberated across the cargo bay. 'What the hell is happening?', he thought, he’d only kicked the thing in the ribs. Peering down curiously, he waited while the cries of pain died down and faded to a soft whimpering interspersed with labored breathing. This was interesting.
Since he’d been unloaded from the bomber and moved to this corner of the cargo bay, all Tors had been able to see were crewmembers going about their business. Technicians and cargo loaders it seemed, checking equipment or just smoking and lazing about. They didn’t seem to pay him much attention, just an occasional curious glance or two, so he had lots of time to think about what had happened.
The set-up had been simple, but it hinted at awesome resources.
The big humanoid who’d brought him here, the one he had first mistaken for a robot, had been in contact with someone else while the transaction was taking place. She’d verified that the payment had been made, then left. She must be a mercenary or some other kind of hired help, part of a larger group. Now he was in the hands of yet another party, transporting him to someone who had most likely paid a lot of money to get him. He’d also seen the strange creature that was in charge here, a big cyborg with what looked to be a human face. Tors knew that that kind of technology was rare and very costly, a full bodyshell like that cost a small fortune.
These people were definitely not minor criminals, they must be STARR.
He had to get out of here. He had to escape before his wounds weakened him to the point where he’d be helpless and unable to make any serious attempt. If that didn’t work, he’d at least have to get a message back to GC High Command, telling them of his whereabouts and informing them about the true nature the scouts’ little ‘accident’.
First things first. How to get out from under this pressor field? Brute force had proved useless, but he may have a few more tricks up his sleeve. The canine twitched his system displays on and selected a configuration icon, then custom mode. He had to be very careful, manually altering the mesh-mek’s shape from inside the suit was potentially dangerous. By overriding the safety contraints he’d be able to choose any part of his suit and alter it at will, but if he accidentally chose a shape that disagreed with the dimensions of his own body, he’d be in serious trouble.
On the other paw, with some patience he just might be able to wriggle out from under the field by making the nanites flow to one side. Taking a deep breath, Tors concentrated on his thorax and started shifting layers of nanites. Thirty seconds later, while he was in deep concentration and making good progress, Brutus’ boot suddenly slammed into his side.
The canine stiffened in shock as pain lanced through his back. The suit responded to what it thought was a twitched command and altered it’s shape accordingly, narrowing the diameter of the thorax by more than ten inches, effectively squeezing the canine’s upper body in a vice-like grip.
The pain was indescribable. The darkness that followed was a welcome relief.
'I said, wake up!' SLAM!
The pain jolted him awake. Tors couldn’t breathe, the pressure on his chest was slowly crushing the life out of him. Tuning out the excruciating pain in his back, he focused all his willpower on his displays. Just...one...adjustment... 'Aaahhh....ohgods...'. The canine gasped for breath as the suit expanded, gulping in lungfulls of air and hoping the stars before his eyes would soon disappear. His breath ragged, he forced himself to lock the mek’s controls and gave himself a booster shot and a massive dose of painkillers. Gods. To hell with safety, anything to make the agony go away...
'Ah. Good. Listening now?' SLAM!
'...y-yes! Stop, pl-please!'
The darkness at the edge of his vision was starting to pull back, the drugs were taking effect, if only that creature would stop hitting him! Tors toggled on the external view and tried to focus on the figure standing over him. Yep, it was that cyborg, Brutus. What now?
'You hurt?' The voice sounded unconcerned, just mildly interested.
'...yes...' The canine’s voice was reedy, the punishment he’d just taken had almost been too much. The only things keeping him going now were the drugs in his blood, and he had no illusions about those. They wouldn’t last much longer...
'Get out of mek. Medics will take care of you, then feel better.'
It was a trick, they wanted him for questioning. No way was he going to get out of the mek, it was the only thing protecting him. It was also his only means of escape. 'I...I can’t open it...'
A grunt. SLAM!
'Stay in mek and you die. Now get out, commander say you cooperate.' SLAM!
Through a red haze Tors could see that Brutus was waggling a datapad in front of his faceplate.
Exasperated sigh. SLAM! 'Listen to your boss, be smart. Then you live. Maybe see frriends.'
The Kinth flicked a tungsten-molybdenum alloy fingertip against the datapad and a voice started speaking.
'Tors, I sincerely hope that this message reaches you. I realize that you haven’t had an easy time under my command, but I want you to understand that I have always had your best interests at heart. I care for you, just as I care for the rest of the squad. At this moment, we have all available resources out searching for you, and it will only be a matter of time until we are successful.'
Inside the mek, Tors listened in growing wonder as he heard Khantur R’Tan give him a...pep-talk? This was surreal, to say the least. The dark wolf had never been anything but brutal and domineering, slighting him whenever he somehow failed to meet his commander’s arbitrary standards. Nothing the young canine did was ever good enough for the wolf, he’d been lowest in the pack and Khantur had let him know it every day, without pity. And now this...?
'In the meantime, I urge you to exercise the greatest caution in dealing with your captors. Give them what they demand, if you consider that it will ensure your survival. Cooperate if necessary and remember that Gyran’s forces operate on the basis of logic, and that logic will dictate their actions towards you.
Yeah right. Tors took a shuddering breath, shifting his muscles to ease the numbed discomfort in his back. Turning his attention back to the message his jaw almost dropped open at the hypocrisy of what he was hearing.
'Do not lose faith Tors, we have not given up on you. I will personally monitor the progress of the search parties, and I also promise to keep your mother advised of the situation. Never doubt that everything is being done to return you safe and sound, and never doubt that you are in our minds and our hearts, always. I look forward to welcoming you back, but for now I must say goodbye...'
This didn’t make sense, he didn’t even have a mother, he had been an orphan from birth! Did Khantur think for a moment that he’d fall for ... His thoughts were interrupted by a flashing icon, a system’s message from his mek. That was peculiar.
Twitching a command, he disabled the external speakers and listened as a shorter message played itself out, running on a loop.
SYSTEM MESSAGE. Auto-destruct sequence engaged. Containment field failure in 2 minutes, 46 seconds. Enter command code to override. SYSTEM MESSAGE. Auto-destruct sequence engaged. Containment field failure in 2 minutes, 34 seconds. Enter command code to override. SYSTEM MESSAGE. Auto-destruct sequence engaged. Containment field failure in 2 minutes, 22 seconds. Enter ...
Well. That explained everything.
Tors slowly blinked and switched the message off. He didn’t have command override codes. Of course not. That would have been silly. The large humanoid in his displays was talking, he could see his mouth move, but he’d shut off the sound. Even when the pounding started up again, it hardly impinged on his consciousness. He felt...detached. Not really involved. Had he given himself another analgesic...? He didn’t remember.
He’d miss Shanni. He’d always wanted to take her on a picnic, but had never had the courage to ask her. They had talked over drinks sometimes and she’d always seemed interested in his stories, but...asking her on a date had always seemed beyond him. He told her things he’d never talked about to anyone before, things that were...personal, things that he thought no one else but her would care about. It must have been her smile, or her warm voice, or the way she took his paw and pulled him along the corridor at the Academy to show him a particularly beautiful flower in the hydroponics garden. The look on her face had been so sweet, her muzzle tilted just so, a twinkle in her eyes as she anticipated sharing something nice with him...Swallowing was becoming difficult and his vision was becoming blurred.
Thinking of her seemed to bypass the painkillers somehow...
In the mesh-mek’s backpack a relay clicked shut and the small fusion reactor started processing a large influx of deuterium. The power management system shunted all available terawatts to the containment field, strengthening it to it’s maximum. A fraction of this power was reserved for the mek’s com system, allowing for one omni-directional microburst from the transmitter before it burned itself out.
This process took about three milliseconds.
The combination of increased fusion and stronger containment produced a spectacular pressure build-up in the reaction chamber, but that wasn’t half as spectacular as what occurred when the design limits had been reached and all safety margins were exceeded. The sudden collapse of the magnetic bottle released roiling plasma against the surrounding composite ceramic panels, flash-vaporising them instantly and doing the same to everything else it encountered in its path. The resulting super-heated ball of gases then expanded violently in a huge explosion which was directed downwards by the still-active pressor field. As the conflagration pounded down through the deckplates to the engine-room, primary and secondary systems were disrupted and a chain-reaction of critical failures was caused, adding to the devastation.
Seen from space, the explosion of the transport vessel was actually quite beautiful.