Babylon 5 Crusade: of Fusion and Fission
A Technomage's spacecraft looked like a small black dart, but their outer size was deceiving, for they were much bigger inside. Galen the Technomage’s ship had many rooms and several laboratories. He had spent the last few hours preparing his mind and body to perform a dangerous and powerful ritual, in one of the largest. He had drawn a pentagram on the shiny black floor, in mercury and liquid gold. The glowing lines of the pentagram delineated the borders of a new reality. Inside each arm of the star, symbols and lines of power created a bubble universe where different physical laws and conditions applied. Galen had carefully planned what those conditions were, and it was his hope, as he sat in the middle of the design, that they would be enough to let him survive the ritual.
Around the edges of the pentagram, in the area, most people labelled "reality," was a tree growing out of the floor, at the apex of the pentagram, and at each of the other four points, twisted pieces of Shadow technology. Body stripped to the waist, his mind focused inward, turning off the parts of his body and brain that created the sensations of pain. Relaxing deeper and deeper, mind relaxing body, and body relaxing mind, his focus reached down to the cells in the spine that linked the nerves coming from the body with the nerves that carried the signal to the brain. Scientists called these the Gate Cells. Galen closed the gates. Then he did the same to the pain centres of the brain. He knew it would not be enough to shield him from the torment of the ritual, but it would at least dull the immediate pain and shock.
Galen turned his focus to his techno-organic implants. They gave him many extraordinary abilities. They had been created centuries ago by Shadow scientists to turn people into weapons of terror. But the Technomages had rebelled and tried to become more than just living weapons. The implants had been kept alive, passed from mage to mage down the generations, ever since. He directed his body's blood and nutrients away from most of them, concentrating on the one that had grown to be part of his liverting down the rest of them.
When Galen was ready, he sent a thought to the Ship, and power began to flow into the room, grounding itself in the corners of tables, leaping from point to point before crossing the boundary to store in the pentagram.
Galen's heartbeat slowed, and he felt his mind separate from the body. He looked down at the body sitting cross-legged on the floor. Lean, the pale skin showing black implants and blue veins. Not bad condition for its age, he thought. He was never sure if this stage was a lucid dream, or if his spirit was outside of his body.
“Nice work,” Alwyn said, suddenly standing next to him, looking at the equipment taking up space on the work tables. “I’ve known this was possible, but I never wanted to put my body through the stress.”
“Am I dreaming you?” Galen asked, “Or is there something you want? As you’ve noticed, I’m a little busy.”
“Yes, your Place of Power is rather in need of repair,” Alwyn waved a hand at a wall of the ship, and it faded, revealing the Excalibur floating in space close to the Transport. The flagship of the Terran fleet, usually the mile-long craft looked vaguely like a sword and moved sleekly through the void. But now there was a hole amidships, and one of the rear gun batteries was missing entirely. The Excalibur floated, crippled, in a debris field made up of many dead ships. The alien vessels had attacked without warning, and when it was apparent they were losing the fight, the last four had immolated themselves, diving into Excalibur. The crew had been working ceaselessly for days, trying to repair systems that were not just damaged, but had significant pieces missing.
“The tree’s a nice touch,” Alwyn said. Stepping carefully over the lines of liquid gold, which seemed to flow in an intricate pattern of they're own, as the power built up. His robes kept changing, from white with the gold embroidered dragon, to black and a blue dragon, to gold and a black dragon. Galen realised the old man's ideal of himself was changing. That thought disturbed his concentration. Alwyn had always been a steady anchor in his life.
“Excalibur is not my Place of Power,” Galen said, sending a thought to the ship to begin the next stage. Energy leapt from the pentagram to the implant in Galen’s stomach. His body arched its back and froze, every muscle taut, the skin white as blood surged into the implant.
“Then you’re going to a lot of trouble for a place you are just passing by. Even with all the resources of your ship- you do not have enough power! You cannot succeed in this!”
“I’m using the pentagram to store the power, it should work with enough time to build up," Galen said. He watched his body writhe in pain. He could feel it pulling his mind back in and fought to stay aloof.
The gold began to rise from the floor, wriggling into basic shapes.
“I don’t think it will hold, but I can help,” the old man reached into Galen's body, and power flowed. His body lit from the inside, and his skin became transparent. Galen had a lucid moment to wonder where the old man had gained this kind of power? He could feel the body trying to pull his mind back and resisted. The skin of his stomach turned red as if a fire burned insideplexus- then turned black. Every muscle in the body was tearing itself apart. The skin bulged as something grew inside. Galen felt all his careful preparation eroded as his skin stretched –
The body swallowed him, and Galen screamed- mindless screaming- every muscle straining to rip itself from bone. The black skin grew and burst open like a flower bud, and something crawled out of it.
And was followed by another, and another.
When the bedroom door slid closed behind him, Mathew Gideon felt his body slump against it and his eyelids closed heavily. He had not slept in five days, and this last day or so he had been keeping his body vertical only by force of will. The whole crew had been working on saving the Excalibur, and he could not show weakness. Even after the shock of being attacked and almost destroyed by a fleet of unknown ships. He had spent time with the Doctor, looking at carcasses of four metre long aliens, wondering what the hell they had walked into? The weapons and technology had been unlike anything anyone had seen before.
Now he wondered if he had the energy left to make it as far as the bed?
Gideon started awake as his knees gave, staggered across the room and fell gratefully onto the bed, his mind gone before he hit the mattress.
"You're an easy man to find, Captain, just scan for battlefield debris and there you are," a familiar, jovial tenor voice said. Gideon opened his eyes with a start- it took him a moment to realise he was in his bedroom on the Excalibur.
Alwyn stood in the middle of the room, his flesh and brown robes seeming to glow. The captain recognised the signs of a Technomage homunculus, a projection with more substance and abilities than a simple hologram.
“What?” His mouth was dry. Alwyn strode to the small bathroom and returned with a glass of water. The old man’s blue eyes had the intense glow the Captain had last seen when Alwyn was trying to shoot down an Earthforce spaceship.
He took the glass and sipped water, feeling the inside of his mouth moisten as a horrible taste washed away.
“I knew you weren’t dead,” Gideon said. Even as he had been forced to order Excalibur to open fire on the old wizard, he had known the old man would somehow escape.
“Very perspicacious of you,” the old man waived vaguely in the direction of the rear of the ship. "Once your ship is repaired, you must come to the planet Rakthett in the Ortach system. I need you and have something you need.” The old man began to fade.
“Not possible- we repaired the communications mast and are waiting for a tow to the nearest space dock… for extensive repairs,” Gideon concluded. Deep down, he feared his ship was only fit for scrap. “Even after repairs, we need to follow up on the leads the Whitestars have given us.”
The old man sighed theatrically, as he un-faded into view.
“The Technomage Order are famed for our mystery, Mathew. But I forgot how straightforward you like to be so that I will ask a question: do you still want a cure for the Drakh plague? There’s something here that can help you, and the Drakh have already found it. I can only fight them off for so long." The homunculus faded, leaving the Captain to take a gulp of water and throw the rest of it over his face. A glance at the clock next to the bed told him he had only been asleep three hours and his head felt hung over.
"Unfair," he thought since he hadn't had a drink in weeks.
Gideon slapped his communicator onto the back of his hand and activated it: “Call all available WhiteStars, tell them to go to the Ortach system and find out what the Drakh have found on the planet of Rakthett. Tell them to be prepared for a fight.” He said to whoever was manning the Command Deck, then he rolled over and closed his eyes.
Galen woke. The room was dark and empty. “Lights!” he ordered. Nothing happened. He reached out with his mind and discovered the ship was in a maintenance cycle. Slowly, he forced his body to sit up and ran his fingertips over the scars on his stomach. They felt healed. Something scuttled around the edges of the room. He hoped he knew what that was.
Excalibur’s Main Engineering deck was usually a busy place of computers and men working to keep the ship’s many systems fed with power, but now it felt dead. The engineers had brought energy in from one of the wrecked attack ships using heavy duty cables, but it was only enough to keep life support and communications running. The few lights that were on were red. The Chief Engineer and most of his staff were in bed, recovering from the mammoth task of just keeping the ship alive until they could call for help and the engineer that was left to watch a dead room was the guy nobody liked. This Engineer still called Galen the “Spooky Guy” when the Captain wasn’t around. Putting mumbo jumbo around holograms and such was childish nonsense in his humble opinion. The clicking of Galen's staff on the deck plating woke him. He sat up and tried to look alert: "I didn't hear the door open," he said, mainly for something to say.
"I did not enter by the door," Galen replied. He was leaning heavily on his staff, and his leather robes hung loosely on his form.
“There's nothing you can do here," the Engineer burbled. “There are about 4000 square metres of components missing from the power chain- and it’s Vorlon technology, so we don’t have replacements.” One of the components had been the size of a ten-storey housing block. Provided by the Vorlons, the humans had never worked out what it did.
Galen threw back his hood and gave the Engineer a wide-eyed stare. The man stood and backed up a half step.
"Unless it's not a question of parts, but energy," Galen chirped, waving one finger in the man's face as if lecturing a child. Every muscle in his body ached as he moved, but he was used to compartmentalising pain. ” Matter is just energy dressed differently," Galen said as he took a sizeable ball from his robes and watched with a smile as legs uncurled. It was black, had the texture of burnt wood and when it dropped to the floor, it ran on eight legs. The Engineer looked horrified.
“Is that… a Shadow?" He asked, having heard that they looked like giant spiders.
“This is my…familiar,” Galen said, trying out the archaic word. “I grew him for this spell. I call him Fluffy. Took me a while to prepare for this one."
“But- but- holograms won’t help us here,” the Engineer stuttered. Fluffy ran into an open access panel and disappeared into the depths of machinery. Galen raised his staff and light seemed to swirl around him, blue and green streams spiralled out from him and away into the access port, flowing more like mist than light.
“Technomages have access to energy sources Earth science has only dreamed of.”
The brilliant light seemed to penetrate the bulkheads from the damaged area of the ship.
“That’s leakage from matter formation,” Galen said in a helpful tone. “You may want to cover your eyes; it will get brighter."
Galen raised his staff high, using it to focus the energy he was pulling from hyperspace. The problem had never been tapping the power, for Technomages, the problem had always been controlling it, shaping it into matter. The familiar now gave him that control. His mind focused on energy flows and mathematical models of reality which Fluffy was weaving into reality. His implants became so hot that his flesh burned, but he was too focussed to feel the pain. Galen shaped energy into matter, into cables and circuits, condensers and bulkheads.
“But-but…holograms can't produce power…." The Engineer stuttered, staring at the white lights outlining panels and open maintenance hatches. Then the light flicked off, and the room seemed dark after the brilliance. The room lights and control panels lit up, showing normal function. The man’s mouth dropped open. He was alone in the room. He slapped himself a couple of times on the face to see if he was dreaming before he woke the Chief Engineer and told him what had happened.
“Sir!” A young, excited voice yelled from Gideon’s com. “The power generation system is working; the engines are starting up!”
Another voice joined it babbling excitedly. "Yes, sir- but we don’t know how. One minute the engines were fried slag and the next we’re reading factory specifications. The generators are cycling up, and we'll be ready to power up engines--“his panel beeped “Oh…now.”
“Ok, set course for the Ortach system and get ready to open a jumpgate," Gideon commanded, raising himself off the bed. He wondered how long he had been asleep. "Not long enough," he thought.
“Er. I’m not a navigation officer, sir- I’m an electrician. Officer of the Day is arguing with the Chief Engineer.”
Gideon stared at the com on the back of his hand until his brain caught up:” Ok… then wake the appropriate shift and warn the engineering section - I want to get underway as soon as possible- have senior staff meet me in the conference room. ”
Galen always marched along the corridors of Excalibur, keeping exactly to the middle of the path he was taking. People usually moved out of his way, without him having to do anything, but now they jumped to the wall and stared as the familiar followed him. Finally, he paused before an apartment door, examining his feelings. There had been a time when he expected to carry the guilt of surviving his love's death for the rest of his life. But he realised even that burden had lost its sting, and he looked forward to being with Dureena. Technomages were big on symbols, and Galen had been leaving a blue toothbrush in her bathroom for a while now. He reached out with his Power, turned off the lights in the room beyond and then stepped through the wall. For a moment the binding energies holding the atoms of the wall together, and the binding energies holding his body together, merged. It tickled.
Dureena’s golden eyes looked startled for a moment as she jumped to her feet, and then she grinned. “That’s a new trick- show off!”
“The Technomage Order prefers to believe that we have a flair for the dramatic… showing off indeed.” He stopped the lights flickering and grinned back. “Besides, I like the way your eyes go large and round in surprise," Galen bent and kissed her. Dureena leaned forward and kissed him back even harder. “She always gives more than she gets,” he thought. “It’ll be interesting to see what she does with the Gift.”
“You look terrible,” Dureena said when they came up for air. “Do you want something to eat?”
“No, I’ll be fine,” Galen said, looking into her eyes seriously. “Are you ready to take the final step in becoming a Technomage?”
“So have you got something for me?”
“That’s what you said last night,” Galen’s grinned as his sense of humour surfaced. Dureena poked him in the ribs, and he shrugged and drew a wooden looking globe from somewhere inside his robes. It seemed to be covered in bark and looked as if it had grown as a solid sphere. Dureena took it in both hands. His own familiar watched this and scuttled under the table spider-like, and hid.
“What do I do with it?” She caught the look in his eye and poked him again. “Don’t let your inappropriate sense of humour ruin my big moment… please?”
“Okay, just hold her, it'll probably take her a moment to wake up," Galen said, taking Dureena's hands in his and pressing them against the rough surface of the ball.
“Her?” The sphere felt heavier than it looked. “This…thing… is a her?” Dureena glanced from the ball to the familiar under the table, noting the difference in texture and looks.
“Well it’s really a techno-organic seed, but yes there is some of my DNA in there. I kept the Y chromosome to myself, so it is female. Are you sure you want this, love?” Galen asked for the last time. “The pain will be extraordinary, and you can't have drugs, it would interfere with the Blending.”
Dureena bit her lip as her eyes began to tear, her legs lost their strength, and she sat down abruptly on one of the low, wooden chairs: “No one’s ever given me a gift like this… a choice like this. I was made a slave by my family; I was made a thief to survive… do I deserve this choice?”
The light blinked off, and in the darkness, Alwyn stood in front of her, the old man's face seemed to glow as he bent and cupped her hands in his.
“The Technomage Order,” his sharp voice declaimed, “once searched the stars for the greatest minds in each species, and persuaded them to join the order, to accept the implants. They sought knowledge and power and just when it would have been of some use to the young races of this galaxy- they ran away and hid! We need your heart, your spirit. It is not up to you to deserve this; it is we who need to be deserving of you.”
"Alwyn…" Dureena said, but the light was back, and the old man was gone, she blinked away the dazzle and the tears. "Has a way with words.
“Yes,” Galen grinned suddenly. “You should hear him sing.”
“Okay, I’m ready. Your vision is worth some pain,” Dureena said, looking him in the eyes.
"Our vision- I hope?" Galen said this moment had been months in the planning. The sphere unrolled as it felt her acceptance and wound itself around Dureena’s wrist and arm. She felt it growing warmer and softer. It now had ribs and a dim green glow of light between the ribs. As it reached the top of her arm its texture changed again; softening and oozing across her chest. Filaments overgrew the body, giving a furry look. The lights between its dozen ribs began to pulse as it became more malleable. “Unlike the implants developed by the Shadows, this will blend with you at the cellular and genetic level, so that your children will be born with all the abilities of a Technomage. For the first time, we’ll be more than an Order- we’ll be a species.”
Dureena nodded, her mouth too dry to speak. The familiar was burning hot on her skin; threads flowed out of the body, penetrated the pores in her skin; disappeared into her. She grit her teeth as she doubled up - felt Galen drop to his knees beside her and grabbed hold. She screamed, aware only of pain. Timeless pain.
Gideon watched from his command chair, as Matheson and the pilots navigated the Excalibur out of the debris field, opened a Jumpgate and slipped into hyperspace. His thoughts were a jumble. He found joy in being on the move again in a ship he had, for the last few days, given up as wrecked. But a Whitestar had reached the Ortach system, counted twelve heavy cruisers in orbit around Rakthett and jumped out of there. There was a good chance that taking Excalibur into a system full of Drakh would result in her again being wrecked.
Matheson had informed him that it would take thirteen hours to reach the Ortach system, and then what?
Another odd thing, the Whitestar had not been pursued. The Drakh knew the mission of Excalibur and the Whitestar fleet and interfered with them whenever the opportunity arose. So what was on Rakthett that was more important than stopping the Whitestar fleet from saving the Earth from the plague? Did that make Rakthett important enough to risqué the Excalibur and the lives of everyone on board? He couldn’t tell.
Gideon’s thoughts were a jumble so he, mentally listed his options. Then he did the sensible thing and in the ancient jargon of the classic period: “phoned a friend.”
Galen lay silently with Dureena in his arms, watching her breathe, until he felt her begin to stir and wake.
“Would you like something to drink? Tea? Water?”
Dureena tried to talk, coughed, and then tried again: “I’m aware of you…even with my eyes closed.”
“Yes, you’ll learn to block that information stream when you want to.”
“Information stream? Funny way to describe your own thoughts,” Dureena said. Galen shrugged, he was a realist.
“Are you aware of Alwyn?”
“Yes,” Dureena reached out with her mind and shuddered. “So much pain- he’s dying!”
“She’s fighting him- but he will survive a while yet.”
"All this time, holding her, bending her to his will; her defences are tormenting him."
"Yes, but he's a stubborn old goat. And he always hated the Shadows. They wanted everyone to be what they were told to be, and Alwyn’s always enjoyed the differences between peoples.”
“He’s dying…I tried to lend him strength, but he refuses.”
“As I said… stubborn,” Galen said sadly.
“Hang on… how long did the Blending take?” Dureena asked.
“Twelve hours, we’ll be in range of the planet in another hour,” Galen said, brushing the hair from her face as her eyes opened in surprise.
“Twelve hours… I don’t remember it,” Dureena said.
“Probably just as well, you were screaming for most of it.”
“Were you holding me all this time?”
“Yes, although I popped out for drinks with the lads for a couple of hours.”
“I can read your mind now, you can’t hide from me,” Dureena grinned, moving her hands over her lover’s body, pulling him close. They had an hour to kill, and she thought- why waste it?
Excalibur was minutes from opening a jumpgate to the Ortach system when Gideon felt movement behind him.
“Galen- we really need to know what the plan is here. Our latest intel says there are 19 cruisers and three Motherships in orbit. These guys are serious about whatever’s down the- oh?”
Dureena nodded: “Sorry captain, it's me. Galen's busy with the Doctor and Max's people. Apparently, I put him behind schedule." Dureena grinned, and Gideon decided not to ask "how?" He noticed that she was leaning heavily on a wooden staff as if her body needed the support. She also wore a woollen cloak clasped at the neck with a silver half-moon broach that he hadn’t seen before.
Lieutenant Matheson hustled to bring Dureena a chair and seat her next to the captain.
“I sensed your pain- I wasn’t prying- but I hope that’s over? You’re well?” Matheson asked, real concern on the telepath’s face.
“Yes, over… and successful. I am now a fully functioning Technomage… as far as I can tell,” Dureena smiled and squeezed his arm in thanks.
“Congratulations, I know you’ve studied hard for this,” Gideon said. “Now- Excalibur can’t fight all those ships, so tell me there’s a plan here?” Gideon didn’t doubt that the Technomages had a plan and he also knew they were instinctively opaque about these things. Went with the hoods and the magic sigils, he thought.
“Alwyn has the plan… and has already started without us. I'm to act as the liaison between Excalibur, Galen, and Alwyn, who says the first hour was nothing much to look at, anyway,” Dureena said, her eyes and smile were unfocused and far away. “When you leave the Jumpgate, stand-off at 30 light seconds from the planet.”
“Did he tell you any more than that? Is he coming to us or do we have to get passed that fleet? We've only just got this ship up and flying again; I don't want her wrecked,” Gideon said.
“Galen is taking Max's away team to the planet. He’s sorting that out now. They’ll bring back what we need. In the meantime, stay alive and don’t bother targeting the Motherships, they are in too low an orbit to escape, Alwyn says.”
“To escape what?”
The jumpgate opened, and the Excalibur powered out of hyperspace. Something blinded the ship’s sensors with static on all frequencies. Executive Officer Matheson got an earful of fast chatter from his officers and tried to summarise what he was hearing for the Captain, while they were still talking: “Sir, Ortach is giving off unprecedented sunspot activity, the sensor people have never experienced anything like it- we are completely blind here.”
“All stop. Start warming up the jump engines, get us out of here as soon as they're ready," the Captain ordered. They could not fight blind, even though he realised the Drakh ships would also be blind.
“Oops, sorry, I missed my cue,” Dureena said, hauling herself to her feet with the staff, she began muttering a spell. A globe appeared in her hands, and she shaped the patterns inside with her fingers and words. She hoped the new parts of her body knew what all this meant or it would be embarrassing. The sensor screens cleared and displayed information in vastly more detail. Matheson reported:
“We’re getting sensor feeds from Galen's ship! We are showing 19 cruisers and heavy cruisers in high orbit between Rakthett and her four moons and four Motherships in low orbit, as Alwyn said. The Motherships are firing on the surface of the planet. We think the Drakh must be blinded the way we were; they are very far apart and in staggered orbits. Oh… standby…”
Matheson spoke into his mike quietly, then tried to interpret the facts for his captain. "Sir, the area of space around Rakthett is inside an asteroid field, and they seem to be... flowing... towards the Drakh fleet. We have no explanation for this. They are moving at 400kph and accelerating. It's as if Rakthett's moons are creating gravity flows… streams… filled with asteroids?”
Dureena’s grin widened as she received Alwyn’s thoughts. “You know Alwyn fought the Shadows during the war? He set this star system up as a trap to ambush their ships. You will find the wreckage of three Shadow vessels in orbit- the fourth is on the planet below, blinded, crippled, but largely intact. The Drakh have placed themselves right in the kill zone!”
“Technomancy can alter a sun?” Gideon guessed.
“Yes, for a short time.”
"The Drakh are blind, but they haven't tried to leave- they must really need that ship!" Gideon thought aloud.
"Yes, the technology of that vessel is a lot more sophisticated than the technology the Shadows allowed the Drakh to have," Dureena said.
“So if we’re using the sensors of Galen’s ship, how is he transporting the science away team to the planet’s surface?” Gideon wondered.
“He’s using one of the new powers his familiar gives him.”
Galen had drawn a circle fifty feet across in the same landing bay occupied by his Transport ship, by the time Max and the Doctor arrived with their people. Max had formed an "Away Team" out of the younger and more capable members of Excalibur's numerous scientific community. They wore backpacks and carried odd shaped pieces of equipment that experience had taught them may be useful. For this occasion, they had also dressed in survival suits with rebreather masks dangling from their necks. Galen finished drawing the lines of a pentagram inside the circle, and his familiar took up a place in the exact centre. He noted that the Doctor and Max were carefully not looking each other in the eye and wondered if their on/off relationship was off again.
He had left a three-foot gap in the circle. "This way, through the gap, into the middle."
"When I got the message to meet you here, I assumed we were going down to the planet aboard your ship?" Max asked.
“Even my ship couldn’t get passed the Drakh fleet in orbit. So we're taking a shortcut," Galen said.
"So how does this mumbo jumbo help?" One of the newer scientists muttered and was stopped dead by a Look from Doctor Chambers before Galen could open his mouth. Max marched to the middle of the circle and began examining the familiar.
“I heard what this thing did in Engineering. I may want one for Christmas.”
When everyone was in the centre, Galen used his staff to draw the circle closed. The gold and mercury were very active, bouncing around within a foot of the floor.
“I swear that stuff breaks the laws of physics,” Max said.
“Between here and there… imagination and reality… being and non-being, I write the laws of physics,” Galen declaimed grandly, as he joined them in the centre of the circle.
“You had that one ready, didn’t you?” Max grinned, unabashed by science he didn’t understand. Galen struck his staff on the floor, and suddenly it was dark and cold. The air was thin, and people started using their rebreather masks. People gasped or swore.
Galen looked around- his aim had been accurate. They were in a broad corridor; dim lights showed that doors opened off it. There were doors in the floor and ceiling, as if whoever built it had no interest in gravity.
“This corridor leads to the labs. Look around quickly, take what seems useful. We don’t have long,” Galen said. The rest of the group stood agape. “Bring anything you want to keep, back here to Fluffy.”
“We’re in the Shadow vessel,” Doctor Chambers whispered it, as she wondered if she was having a nightmare.
“Yes we are,” Galen said. “You did read my message? “Crashed Shadow vessel, bring visors and UV lights?”
“Yes… but we were expecting more travel time, I guess,” Max said. Even he appeared to be mildly stunned.
"I said we were taking a shortcut," Galen grinned as he walked away. An ultraviolet beam flicked past him and lit his way up the corridor. He could hear Max reading Shadow notices before he turned the corner. He was following a set of footprints in the dust and wasn't surprised when he had to step over a cluster of Drakh corpses. They were lying back to back as if they'd made a last desperate stand. Further along, the corridor reached a tube that simply went down. The Shadows had not needed lifts or stairs; they simply walked on the walls. Galen conjured a force field and stepped into the darkness. The force field carried him safely down the tube.”
The Drakh sensors had finally spotted the approaching asteroids, and their defence grids had opened fire.
“That’s not going to help them,” Gideon commented as he watched a half mile long lump of rock, blasted to fragments. “All they’re doing is turning cannonballs into shrapnel."
"They must have realised that Sir, the Motherships are warming up their Jump engines.”
“Will they make it?” Gideon asked. As he watched a screen, the first swarm of asteroids tore through a ship, adding more shrapnel to the orbit. Some of the cruisers were pulling away, defence grids firing as they went. The rocks were still large enough to tear through the hull when they struck.
"Unknown – there are too many variables."
Gideon took his seat: “Bring the defence grid online, energise main guns. Get me a firing solution on the nearest Mothership.” He brought down the periscope next to his chair, and studied the tactical information.
“There are too many asteroids and Drakh cruisers in the way. No clean shot,” Matheson informed him calmly. Gideon highlighted a cruiser on one of his screens:
“I want a firing solution on that ship, fire Main Gun when ready.”
Lightning flowed from the three rear guns into the capacitors of the forward batteries, stored for a moment before launching a single, brilliant beam of destruction into the vacuum of space. It took every erg of power Excalibur had to fire Main Gun, and 60 seconds for the systems to re-energise.
“Power down- sensor screens still active, Galen’s ship must be energising them,” Matheson informed him. “Target destroyed, ship powering up.”
Gideon did not like it; this was too much like shooting fish in a barrel. But those Motherships were a danger to Earthforce. Each one could launch a fleet of fighters. As he watched, an asteroid passed through the space the cruiser had occupied and closed on a Mothership. The defence grids opened up and chopped it to bits, but a hail of massive stones smashed into the ship from above and pulverised it. Five cruisers destroyed and one Mothership dead or crippled, he thought: two to go.
Gideon checked the time, noted the away team had been planetside for twenty minutes and hoped they were finding something useful.
“I can’t tell what any of this stuff does,” Doctor Chambers complained, poking and pulling at what she hoped were buttons on a broad table, with a jumble of arms at one end. Without the UV specs, the room was a huge pitch black hole, but with the specs, the room was well lit and the equipment covered in symbols. But it still didn’t look like any equipment she’d used.
“Well,” Max said, “You have to remember that the Shadows have an exoskeleton, like spiders or crabs.”
“So this thing is a medical table, and those arms are varying sized saws and drills for getting through the carapace.”
“Oh… lovely. So probably not something we can adapt for use on people?” Doctor Chambers wondered aloud.
Max was bent over it, examining the control systems.
"Probably not people, but this thing could be useful when it comes to repairing Starfuries. It's welded to the floor, though, so there's not much hope of bringing it back with us. We need to get this ship out of here and then spend years stripping the science out of it. We could make several fortunes from patenting this technology," Max waved a small UV torch up and down the aisle and then stopped as he noticed a pile of something lying by the far wall. The Doctor beat him to the wall. "More Drakh bodies?"
"Yes, all dead. It's like the Drakh tried to climb over each other to get away from something," Doctor Chambers picked up and checked a couple of the weapons they were holding. "All discharged- they died fighting, but what could terrify Drakh warriors like this?"
Galen marched along a dark corridor, one side of which had been ripped open to the thin atmosphere of the planet. The floor was inches deep in a floury sterile dust that had blown in. The force field held air and warmth around his body. Then he stepped through a door, and his force field merged for a moment with a larger one, like two bubbles touching, before he passed into a room which had air and the warmth of a deep cave.
"You took your time," Alwyn griped in greeting. He was cocooned in cables and sensor feeds. Only the old man's face was clear of them. Galen studied him, noting that he looked uncharacteristically wane and thin.
“That’s the station the telepath takes, to blend with this ship,” Galen stated.
“Yes, I needed to blend with her to use her power. But she's not happy about it. These things are only semi-sentient at best, but she senses that I'm the one who crippled her and left her here in the dirt." Alwyn said.
“Are you sure you’re going to be able to get out of there?” Galen asked, frowning.
"I'm hoping you'll be able to help me with that?"
Galen took a small globe from inside his robe and touched it to the base of Alwyn's neck, the only bare skin apart from his face. The touch was enough to wake it and it uncurled and began squeezing itself inside Alwyn's robes, underneath the tentacles. The old man caught a brief glimpse of a head and long slender neck.
“A dragon?” He asked. “A golden dragon?”
“Yes, I thought you’d like that,” Galen smiled. The old man was known to have a thing for dragons and used to conjure hologram ones for kids at parties. “It can’t fly at the moment, but I’m sure you’ll find a way around that.”
The old man smiled: “I always said you would go beyond us, but what you’ve achieved with Dureena has surprised even me. The Circle won't like it, they always held back from making changes to the implants and our DNA."
"Then they shouldn't have run away and hid," Galen replied, his voice harsh. “Our Order had a place in this galaxy and a duty of care and they just-”
“You’re preaching to the converted, remember? When our Order ran, I stayed and fought. Consider me to be cheering you young people on from the sidelines. Now you better get back to your team, you'll have to be leaving soon, so your captain can destroy this ship."
“Are you sure you can escape?”
“Well, I’ve never teleported before, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it,” Alwyn grinned. “Off you go, help your family find what they need.”
Dureena’s body was so exhausted the weight of it seemed to drag her eyelids shut. She woke with a start when Alwyn’s voice in her mind, delivered bad news.
“Captain,” Dureena said, coughing and licking her dry lips.
“Yes? Are you okay, maybe you should go lie down?” Gideon asked.
"I'm fine- I have a message from Alwyn, he apologises, but the Sun Blind spell was never designed to last this long; in six minutes the last of the solar winds will pass us, and the Drakh sensors will be fully functional. Shal I warn Galen to bring our people back to the ship?"
“No… no need… we’re not going anywhere. Matheson, turn off life support all decks, rotate the ship one hundred eighty degrees and power down the defence grid; prepare to fire Main Gun."
Matheson turned to his officers, talking into the mike at the side of his mouth. The vast ship slowly obeyed Captain and powered down.
“Sir.” Matheson said, “Should we launch fighters? Give ourselves a defensive line?”
“Ah, well spotted, lower the launch frame for the fighters about half way, then power it down too.”
Matheson looked stunned for a moment then turned and delivered the commands to the correct departments.
“Sir, the crew are… nervous? Some people are saying that since the Drakh will attack, shouldn’t we-“
Gideon stopped him with a hand gesture and clicked on the PA system that would allow him to be heard all over the ship. He licked his lips and swallowed to moisten his mouth and keep his voice steady and low and assured: “Message to all hands, from the captain. Two years ago, the Drakh struck a blow to Earthforce from which we still have not recovered. We lost too many ships and people… friends and family, fighting the Planet Killer swarm. Today, we've destroyed a Mothership and six cruisers. But just one Mothership can deliver a fleet of fighters anywhere in Earthspace, and I aim to destroy the two remaining-"
Gideon noticed the clearing of the solar storm, clicked off the PA and ordered Matheson, “Firing solution on that cruiser, nod when ready,” and clicked the PA back on. “What we do today isn’t in revenge for the fellow officers and friends who died that day. What we do today is for the living, to give them a chance to survive the Drakhs onslaught." Matheson nodded, and Gideon clicked the PA off and said “fire!”
The Main Gun poured their light into the darkness. But the Technomage sensors allowed them to see a cruiser sliced through the flank and burst apart. Shrapnel began to scythe through space towards a colossal Mothership.
Galen found the away team. The Doctor and her people were exploring the room across the hall from Max’s people, even though Max was the only one with a working knowledge of the Shadow’s written language. Continually bickering, he thought, a family right enough.
“I hope someone found something useful?” He asked. “The Captain has, as they say in poker parlance, “gone all in” so we may need to make a run for it in Alwyn’s ship if things don’t work out.”
Doctor Chambers popped her head out of a door:”Alwyn’s here? Did he kill all these Drakh?”
“Yes, he probably did,” Galen admitted. “They are trying to take the place of The Shadows… Alwyn… disapproved of The Shadows.” His tone implied that Alwyn’s disapproval could involve a fight to the death.
Max appeared at his door, “We’ve found records of how they developed the technovirus, but our data crystals are incompatible with these systems, so we have to photograph each screen to save the data,"
“Really? You’re sure that’s what you’ve got?” The doctor asked.
“Well, not one hundred percent- there are centuries of records- but from what I’ve managed to read so far-“Max started, but the doctor shoved past him into the room. Max turned to the doctor's assistant. "Anything useful in your room? Anything valuable?”
“Lots of dead animals in cages, most of them unknown to Earth science. people.”
Max swivelled to Galen: “Is there any way we could fly this ship out of here? The salvage rights alone would set us all up for life!”
“No. For two reasons. One is, the human race would not use the destructive powers of this ship responsibly and two, the engines are smashed beyond repair.”
“Pity. Anyway, we’ve put some stuff back with your spider that we want to keep. I only hope we mere mortals can use the technology responsibly,” Max said.
“We can only hope,” Galen agreed with a quick grin. He strode into the room and read through the symbols on the screen
“I agree with Max, this is either the technovirus the Drakh used against Earth- or something very similar. How long will it take for you to record all the pages?”
Max shrugged: “could be half an hour, could be more.”
Galen listened to a voice only he could hear and replied in his mind "go to my ship and wait there, you'll be safe whatever happens." Out loud he said: "I don't think we'll have that long, if the captain's gambit pays off, he will want us aboard ship and gone.”
“Science,” Max declaimed grandly. “Takes as long as it takes.”
Galen got right in his smug face, suddenly angry: “Gideon is out there, fighting a battle he can’t possibly win, against overwhelming odds, to give you people the time you’ve had here today. The very last thing he must do is destroy this vessel so it cannot fall into Drakh hands. If he fails in any part of that, we're dead, and your species is dead. So if you wouldn’t mind hurrying science this once, I’d be grateful.”
The Excalibur had rolled and gone dark before the solar winds died, and the Drakh scanners showed them their lone attacker. The side closest to the Drakh fleet was still severely damaged from fighting the unknown aliens. The remaining mothership had climbed away from the asteroid streams. One 60 km long ship could be a fleet all on its own. As it cleared the moons, it began disgorging fighters.
The command centre was quiet, as every officer held their breath.
“She’ll probably open a jumpgate as soon as all her fighters are away,” Lieutenant Matheson pointed out. “And we still don’t have a clear shot.”
There was a cruiser between the Excalibur and the Mothership. Gideon asked for a firing solution on that ship and then ordered "fire!" The room powered down and through the Technomage sensors, they watched the cruiser cut to pieces, and some of the pieces smash into the mothership as shrapnel. The one man fighters spewing from the ship had arrayed themselves between the Excalibur and the mothership, but now three Drakh cruisers fired main engines and joined them. The purpose of this battle line was unmistakable.
“Sir, they’re going to charge our guns. Shall I activate defence grids now?” Matheson asked. His voice was calm and level, but the muscles of his jaw were tight and his face pale.
“No,” Gideon said. “Broadcast the ready signal.”
The Mothership turned, and main engines fired, not through a jumpgate, but joining the battle line, behind dozens of fighters and four cruisers. The remaining ships kept to their line defending the planet.
"We've pissed her off, and now she's coming to finish us," Gideon said, unnecessarily. Matheson hoped like hell this was a plan. He could hear the pulse in his ears and was struggling to control his breathing. The Mothership engines were burning hard.
“We’ll be in their firing range in three minutes, four seconds,” Matheson said, his voice harsh and tense.
"Target Main Guns on one of those cruisers, fire when ready," Gideon ordered. He felt Main Guns fire, and then the lights went out. "Send our friends the activation signal and as soon as we have power back up, activate all defence grids and launch fighters. What's the other half of the fleet doing?"
“Most of the ships are maintaining a defensive line around the planet, and two of them are firing on the force shield around the Shadow Vessel,” Matheson said. The lights came on, and he issued a stream of orders to his officers, even as he knew the defence grid would not be active before the fighters were in range.
The red smudge of opening jumpgates filled space on the flank of the attacking line, and four sleek Whitestars flew into battle. The first volley of fire crashed into the nearest cruiser blowing pieces of the hull into space. Drakh fighters tried to turn and defend the cruisers, but the Whitestars were passed them and unleashing a barrage of fire before they could bring guns to bear.
“Lock Main Gun on that Mothership, fire when you have a shot,” Gideon ordered.
“The Drakh fighters are in range, sir.”
"I see that lieutenant – but sometimes we need to trust our friends.”
More jumpgates were opening, but the Whitestars were focussing on the cruisers. Matheson watched the screens as a dozen fighters discharged weapons and felt the ship lurch as they peppered the hull. Suddenly the screens showed the blast bolts being deflected harmlessly into space. One of the fighters seemed to hit an invisible wall and exploded as it closed on Excalibur.
“I can’t keep this up for long,” Dureena croaked. She had one arm outstretched as if pushing and her face was colourless.
“Are you projecting a force field around the ship?” Matheson guessed.
“Just one side- it’s a big ship,” Dureena whispered hoarsely.
"Defence grids are powered up," he told Dureena.
"Then open fire!" Dureena said, dropping the arm and slumping back into her chair.
“Fire at will!” Matheson commanded, and the first broadside smashed the fighters from the sky.
"Sneaky," Galen commented as Dureena updated him. "Gideon convinced them the ship was an easy target, so the Drakh have split their forces; they're still trying to protect this ship while taking out the Excalibur," he told Max. "But we still need to get moving as soon as possible."
The barrage of fire striking the shield was loud, even in the laboratory levels. Max nodded and kept working.
“Can the shield stand this attack,” Doctor Chambers wondered aloud.
“At the moment, yes, they are only trying to bring the shield down so they can board us; when the Drakh gives up on the idea of salvaging this ship, though-"the barrage intensified. "Right! Change of plan- everyone back to the entry point. We have moments to get out of here!”
Galen grabbed two scientists and shoved them towards the door. Sometimes, science had to move fast.
The beam from Excalibur's Main Gun cut through the Mothership, and as the power died, it burst apart in the black vacuum of space.
A line of Excalibur’s Starfuries protected her from the Drakh’s firepower.
Gideon reached over and touched Dureena’s cheek and felt for a pulse in her neck. He was relieved to find she was only unconscious.
“Sir!” Matheson announced. “The Drakh are intensifying their attack on the Shadow Vessel. Once it's gone, that half of the fleet will be free to attack us!"
"I see that- try to get a message to our people, they need to leave!"
“We’re back,” Galen said, appearing at his side. “Max thinks they have something important. We can leave whenever you’re ready.”
Gideon didn’t stop to ask Galen how he got to the command deck so quickly.
“Matheson, call our fighters back, open a Jumpgate ASAP, we're heading to Earth. Sound retreat to the remaining Whitestars, ask them for covering fire while we land our fighters,” Gideon rattled off his orders. His belly was in knots. Landing the fighters and entering the Jumpgate was when the ship would be most vulnerable.
“The Shadow Vessel has been destroyed,” Matheson reported.
Gideon turned to Galen: “did Alwyn get out in time?”
Galen put his hand on Dureena’s shoulder while using the scanner in his other hand: “She’s asleep. She did too much, too fast,” he said, mostly to himself. Then he turned to Gideon “Don’t worry, we have your back.” He added and vanished.
Gideon turned back to his targeting system. The Starfuries were landing, but the Drakh fighters were harrying them all the way. He watched a fighter burst apart, and his stomach lurched. He was going to have a lot of letters to write to the families after this one.
Two sleek black darts appeared from nowhere and strafed the line of Drakh fighters, bursting ship after ship into pieces. One of the darts had a golden dragon symbol on each wing.
“That old wizard has more lives than a cat,” he thought out loud.
Matheson kept his attention on his officers, feeding essential information to Gideon. He felt a mix of relief and tension- they were close. So very close to surviving. But the ship was being rocked by enemy fire, and when a Whitestar blew apart, he felt a hole open in his gut. So close.
"All fighters are aboard, and engines are hot," he reported.
“Get us out of here. Alert the remaining Whitestars,” Gideon ordered.
He watched as the jumpgate opened before the ship. The Drakh cruisers intensified fire, but the defence grids were holding off most of it. Gideon's hands clawed the armrests of his chair as he waited and watched. He had done everything he could. Every command had been issued. Now he was just a passenger as the gunners fought for everyone's survival. He trusted his people. He had faith in his ship. He concentrated on that.
Excalibur entered hyperspace and left the Drakh behind. The sound and buffeting of hits on the hull lessened and finally ceased.
“They are pursuing, but Excalibur has pulled out of their weapons range,” Matheson said, obviously relieved.
Gideon turned to Dureena and noted her chair was empty.
“These new powers of Galen’s are going to get old, real fast,” he said.
It wasn't until the next day that Gideon found the time to meet with Max and his scientists in the conference room. Max pulled out his notebook.
“We’re in a good news/bad news position,” he said.
"Give me the bad news first then," Gideon said. He liked to know the worst he was facing, to plan against it.
"Okay, to begin with, the technovirus is artificially sentient. It's self-aware,” Max said. “If we cure some of the people, it will kill everyone it has infected immediately.”
“And the good news?”
“The good news is, there is a shutdown code,” Max slid a hologram of Shadow writings across the table. “The Drakh must have changed the code, but there are only six possible combinations of symbols, so we can experiment with captive samples of the virus until we find the correct combination to turn it off.”
“But we don’t have captive samples,” Matheson pointed out. “This thing is fully integrated into the bodies that it has infected.
Max slid another hologram across the table, with a grin.
“This is the address of a vault of the stuff. It’s a science station deep in Shadow territory, so we don’t think the Drakh have found it. How soon can we go look?”
“We’re stopping at Babylon 5 for repairs, and take on replacement crew,” Gideon said, grinning, feeling real hope for the first time in months. “Then we go.”