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Chapter Fourteen

High Speed Gamble

"Commencing take off procedures," Kain announced from his position in the pilot's chair.

"Acknowledged," said Lore from the navigator's seat to the right and behind him.

Hugh entered the bridge from the door in the back of the cabin. He appeared restless, and in somewhat of a hurry. He set down his backpack, slung the Neisword beside it, and collapsed into the copilot's chair beside Kain. "Thanks for waiting," he breathed.

"Set course," blared the autopilot.

"Dezo, Skure," said Lore crisply.

Kain waved Hugh off. "No problem." He looked over to his friend. "What took you..." He trailed off when he saw what Hugh had beside his pack.

"Rolf had some parting words for me," Hugh said tiredly, head tilted back and looking up at the ceiling.

"Hmph. He had more than that," Kain muttered, turning back to the controls.

"System status green," announced the autopilot. "Preliminary checks are go. Prepare for lift off as secondary checks are initiated."

The trio fastened their safety harnesses and settled themselves into their seats.

"Rolf has left the launching area," said Lore. The whine of the engines rose. "There's some activity below around the base of the Command Center. I think they're on to us." She paused. "Yes, there're some people running towards the old spaceport outside the city."

"Secondary checks completed!" blared the autopilot. The ship shuddered as titanic forces gathered beneath it. "VTOL functional. Engaging thrusters."

Kain clung to the arms of his chair with a viselike grip. "Here we go!"

Hugh muttered something about always hating this part.

The main and auxiliary thrusters fired, pressing the three Palmans deep into their seats beneath the sheer power of their gravitational forces. Steadily the craft rose, gaining speed with altitude. Its nose tilted up, engines swiveled and shifted as thrusters realigned themselves.

"Tertiary stage reached!" The autopilot's voice rang unnaturally loud amid the ship's vibrations.

No signs of pursuit flashed on the monitors. The turbines wailed and the sky before the windshield began to fade to black, revealing the pinpoint lights of the stars, unhindered by the barrier of the atmosphere. The shaking of the ship and the pressure in the cabin increased.

"Quaternary stage reached!" The engines suddenly cut. The ship made a rapid circle around Motavia once, and proceeded to slingshot out of orbit. Gravitational forces began to decrease. "Conditions for freefall met. Antigravity engaged."

The g-forces decreased out to a bearable level and the three found themselves in a normal gravity environment.

Lore let out a breath as she slumped herself forward against her harness. "You guys never told me what a ride that would be." She shook her head. "Well, that was interesting. How long now?"

"A few hours, give or take a few," said Kain. He shrugged. "It depends on where Dezo is on its orbit relative to us. You ought to have the information on the navigation panel in front of you."

The onboard computer sounded a tone as she brought up the information. "Five hours," she stated.

"That's pretty good," said Hugh. "Last time it took us eight."

"Was the Earthmen's ship near Dezo?"

Kain seemed about to answer when he suddenly scowled. "We actually don't know," he admitted. "We had to go to Dezo to get there, so I just assumed..." He grumbled inwardly. "We'll just have to hope it shows up on the radar. They had to have been inside Algo since Mother Brain was run off their ship. They weren't around Mota or we would've picked them up, and Palm would've noticed them if they were anywhere near their exodus. So that leaves Dezo or thereabout."

Lore sunk into her seat. "Still, that's not very reassuring."

"Well, we have five hours. We can try doing some active scanning rather than just lying about. We didn't bother on our last trip out, so maybe we missed something."

"Got anything else to pass the time?"

"Not really, though I suppose we should tell Hugh what's going on."

"Good idea. You tell him. I'll take care of the busy work." Lore purposefully focused her attention intently on her displays. She smiled slightly, pretending not to be aware of the disgruntled look Kain shot her.

"So what is going on?" Hugh asked. "Lore hinted at it on our way up the Command Center."

Kain turned his attention to Hugh, then to the console in front of him. He picked at his controls. "The New Council has something planned. It's called the Daughter Project."

"Daughter Project?"

"Yeah, apparently she began as some sort of backup system for Mother Brain on Mota." Kain's eyes wandered around, seeming to look for something to do. "Her housing was built during Mother Brain's time, an assisting terrestrial command center, I suppose. It's currently underground right now, somewhere northeast of Paseo. I had no idea it even existed. Apparently no files of its creation were kept on Mota, only on Palm--probably because that's where the central government was. Those of us on Motavia didn't need to know about it.

"Anyway, the year before Mother Brain's demise equipment began to be moved in. All work was performed by robots, and with the current biomonster crisis it's not like anyone on Mota was around there to see what they were doing. Since Mother Brain's destruction work stopped, of course. Without any power nothing could be done. The labor droids were probably either destroyed if they were sent to attack us when we were outlaws, or the hunters got 'em after Mother Brain's death."

"But something happened," Hugh prompted.

"Ya got that right," Kain mumbled. He leaned back in his seat and looked up at the ceiling. "Vahal Fort it's called. The location that is. And from the designs I looked at, that thing really is a fort. There are all sorts of new top of the line guardian AIs there. They're currently deactivated as near as I can tell, probably not even full built, otherwise we would have seen them by now."

Kain shifted position again, leaning forward over his console. He rested his head on his hands. "Anyway, the majority of the New Council--virtually all the Palman Palmans of course--want to connect the old control systems with what will essentially be a refurbished version of Mother Brain. That would be Daughter. They have the parts for her and everything, what with their world ships and all."

Lore ceased her clicking of the keys at her station. She looked over her shoulder towards Kain. "Are any of the environment systems connected to Vahal yet?"

"Thankfully no," he said grimly. "You know they'll push for it though once this thing becomes public. They'll need lots of people to work for them. Linking everything up and laying out kilometers of cables is nothing to laugh at."

"What's the earliest they could get such a thing operable?" asked Hugh.

"I'd like to say a few years," Kain replied. "But if people get motivated for such a thing the work'll go a lot faster. The Council had a tentative schedule I found. If they get what they want from Noah the announcement and subsequent recruitment period will begin within a couple weeks of the Noah team's return."

Hugh let out a strong breath of air. "They don't waste any time."

"Think about it," said Lore, "didn't you ever hurry up and finish your work because you knew you would be able to play immediately afterwards? As soon as Daughter is completed, theoretically they would be able to relax and go about being idle again."

Kain nodded as he played with his displays. "I have no problems with using leftover technology, we need it. But creating a surrogate Mother Brain is just wrong. What if something in her programming is overlooked and placed into the new system? We could have a second disaster on our hands, and this time we might not survive. It's not worth the risk."

"People need to learn to think for themselves," Lore added quietly. She gazed out at the stars through the windshield. "We--they, feel so small right now. But once we help them regain some control over their lives, they'll feel better. They won't want to let that freedom go."

"I hope so," said Hugh.

Lore turned back to look at him. "You're one of the people we're fighting for, Hugh. You'd better do more than hope."

* * * * *

The next few hours were quiet. The three settled into a routine and spoke only when necessary, Kain and Hugh reporting which quadrants of Algo they deemed empty. Lore followed their course on the monitor in front of her and marked the negative areas as they were called. Kain and Hugh each operated a separate scanner and left the flight work to the autopilot. The computer system itself remained silent, and there continued to be no signs of pursuit.

Kain yawned and stretched his arms above his head. "I'm starting to feel like this is too easy."

"Simple is more like it," said Lore. "I wouldn't call this part of our job easy. It's downright tedious."

Hugh nodded and glanced down at his main monitor as he spotted a blip. "Hey, I've got a-"

His words were lost as the ship careened away on impact. The entire cabin shuddered beneath the weight of an unidentified source and the three Palmans experienced of a dizzying sensation of being flung end over end while always remaining on the ground. For a moment the power failed, and the sudden zero gravity sent them fits of rising nausea. Lore cried out and all three of them tumbled about the cockpit like rag dolls as a result of their leftover momentum.

The lights flickered back on, bringing with them the sensation of weight. Kain winced when he banged his shoulder into the floor as he fell. Hugh clambered off his accidental landing on the majority of the control panels, and Lore crashed into the cabin door then inadvertently collapsed back into her seat.

"Damn," muttered Hugh, shaking his head to retrieve his wits. He dropped back into his seat, feeling bruised but still healthy as he strapped his safety harness on. "Are either of you seriously hurt?"

Lore groaned, holding a hand to her head. "Miraculously no."

"I'm fine," snapped Kain, nursing an abrasion he discovered on his wrist.

"I think we got lucky," said the historian. "If this cabin was any bigger..." She grimaced as she found a tender spot just above her forehead.

Another blast rocked the ship, but this time the power held. Hugh swore. "Kain, what happened?"

The wrecker gritted his teeth as he brought a schematic of the ship up on screen. "I'm not sure just yet." He magnified a section towards the aft of the ship. "It looks like something just punched a hole through our main power cells. The left rear stabilizer has been shot." Kain took a deeper look at his display. "And I'm afraid I mean that quite literally too."

Lore centered her sensors on Hugh's sector. Her eyes flashed with sudden fear. "Incoming!" she shouted.

The lights in the cabin flickered beneath the strain of the third impact.

"Who's shooting at us?" Hugh demanded, throwing his arms over his head should any part of the cabin come crashing down on him. "Why isn't the autopilot responding to anything?"

"Autopilot," barked Kain, "change trajectory to evade... evade..." He paused, uncertain of what they fled or where it was.

"Nothing's on the radar," stated Lore. "We only get a warning as it heads towards us, and that stuff moves fast! By the time we see it..."

"Command cannot be completed," the autopilot intoned.

"Dammit," growled Kain. "We're sitting ducks out here. This shuttle isn't built for combat!"

"Could it be the Council?" asked Hugh.

"Ain't likely, otherwise we'd be able to see their ships through the radar." Kain's eyes narrowed. "It has got to be Noah. Nothing else would have the technology. Remember Gaira?"

Lore tapped out a couple more commands. "Okay, I'll try to put together a trajectory based off the angle of their fire."

"Autopilot disengage!" said Kain.

Something clicked as the command was carried out. Panels slid open to present a flight stick to Kain. A second one emerged at Hugh's station.

Lore gripped an arm of her chair with one hand as she used the other to continue the calculations. "I guess we're gonna find out the hard way whether you can fly or not!"

"Another one's coming!" announced Hugh.

Kain blindly threw the ship to his left, sending them careening into an inadvertent circle. He straightened out and managed to pull back on to the original course laid for them.

"The projectile has missed us," Hugh reported.

"All fire is emerging at some point in quadrant 108 at roughly 195 degrees," Lore reported. "The angle varies, but not by much. I think whatever's shooting is trying to match speed with us."

"Then it's intelligent." Kain gripped his flight controls tighter. "It's got to be Noah. Even without the Earthmen, there's nothing else out there."

Hugh nodded. "Quadrant 108 is between Motavia and Dezo's orbits. We must have passed within a certain distance of it to trigger some kind of a reaction."

"Well, since we seem to have found Noah," said Lore, "I don't suppose we're actually going to try docking with it now."

"I'd sooner kiss a dezo owl," Kain replied.

Lore nodded when another thought occurred to her. "Hey, what about those other world ships from Palm? Didn't Commander Yurik say one group was supposed to remain drifting around the systems? What happened to them?"

"You think they're shooting at us?" asked Kain.

"Another attack," warned Hugh.

Kain swerved, but the blast clipped the end of the ship, sending another shudder through the small craft.

"I don't know," said Lore. "It's just, if Noah is still out there and operable, what happened to the other ships? Are they okay?"

"I think we're having enough trouble just worrying about ourselves," said Hugh.

The lights flashed and flickered out for a terrifying ten seconds before coming back online.

Kain grimaced. "We're loosing power! At this rate all our systems will shut down before we can away from this thing! How much further to Dezo?"

Lore eyed their trajectory. "We're holding to our course, but since we got off autopilot we've slowed considerably. It's probably all our dodging. At our current speed I think Dezo should be coming into view in about" --she let out a heavy breath-- "a half hour."

"Damn," said Kain. "I don't want to keep this up much longer! One more solid hit and we're all dead."

"It'll be quick at least," Hugh muttered.

"Don't be so morbid!"

Lore chuckled darkly. "Kain'll live if it kills him."

Their craft spun as the strongest attack yet punched through their ship. Gravity fell to zero, but their adrenalin had rose to such a level now they barely noticed. Lights came and went at blinding speed. Their harnesses kept them in their chairs and Kain furiously punched in a series of commands every time he was certain the computer was operable.

"I sealing off the cabin from the rest of the ship!" he yelled. "Unless they breach us here we'll at least have air!" The ship shook again. "If you're feeling religious you might want to start praying," he added grimly. "I'm gonna floor this thing as fast as it can go. I don't know if we'll hold together or if we'll be able to evade fire."

"We don't have much choice at this point," said Lore. "Do it."

Hugh looked over at the displays on Lore's monitors. "At top speed we just might surprise them long enough for them to loose us. Go."

Kain nodded, released the flight stick from his hand. "I'm taking us off antigravity to save power. We won't need it once we're moving fast enough. Take care to breathe too, 'cause that might get a lot harder later on. This'll be as bad as take off if not worse."

He settled himself back, double checked his instruments, and pressed the accelerator.

The entirety of the ship shook as the engines shifted gears. The thrusters sputtered and fired, sending hundreds of additional minute vibrations rattling through the small craft. The ship held though, and nothing more appeared to break. Kain spoke no further, conserving his energy as the gravitational forces built.

Blue flames raged from the exhaust, propelling the small ship forward with a sudden burst of energy. The craft leaped, narrowly missing the fire of its invisible assailant, but its acceleration did not waver. The shaking of the hull continued to increase.

Lore eyed her scanner, the lines of enemy fire had vanished, for now. Was the enemy recalibrating to match their speed? Were they still able to keep track of them? Silent minutes passed without a sign.

A small bluish white dot appeared in view ahead of them. It grew steadily, revealing a thick layer of clouds over a land of snow and ice. Dezo! Kain thought fervently. A second thought came to him, and he realized it wasn't good.

Fighting the g-forces, he depressed the accelerator and took hold of the flight stick. The ship began to slow as he forced its deceleration. He brought the antigravity back online, eying the depleted power cells worriedly.

"What-" Hugh managed to breathe.

"Gotta get into an entry orbit for Skure!" Kain seethed. "We're going too fast right now! We could pass Dezo altogether!" He cursed, thumping the console in front of him with his fist. "Autopilot engage! I don't want to land this thing myself!"

"Unable to comply," came the computer's terse response. "Type 25 error."

Lore swallowed deeply. "Uh... what's a type 25 error?"

Kain fumed. "At this point I don't care." He turned to her. "Is our course plan still up?"

She took a moment to glance at her console. "Yes, it still is. I'll patch it into your left monitor with an overlay of our position."

"Great, let's hope I can get this right."

He angled the ship on to the entry trajectory, set it on its course. The ship followed its path with as much precision as possible for its battered shape. The atmosphere neared. Kain readied the retro thrusters which would slow their descent into the sky.

The ship rocked, struck from behind. Something critical burst and sent flames racing throughout the ship. Kain turned back towards the rest of the craft, knowing what was about to happen. He shouted garbled words to his companions just as the final explosion came. Voices lost and surrounded by a ball of fire, they began to tumble to the ground thousands of meters below and away from their pursuer who would not fail.

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