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Rated: 18+ · Campfire Creative · Fiction · Fanfiction · #1285537
In which a search is proposed and pursued and succeeds (probably).
For a campfire.

The ship floated, silent, in deep space.

This is a picture of the Deepwater Black.

The painted name on the hull is partly obscured by the scorch marks radiating from the nose of the cigar-shaped craft. "And" is all it reads. The ship sits in darkness, for no outer protrusions remain; no antennas, and no lights. It is noticed only by its contrast to the bright sun it orbits in the distance, just one more object trapped by the gas giant's gravitational pull in the loneliness of space.

There are windows, portholes into the interior. Through one can be seen a rich, emerald carpet below cheery blue-metal walls. Lights flash an ominous red throughout the ship and a soft, gentle voice intones: "Warning! Warning! Danger imminent! Warning! Warning!" again and again and again in mindless monotony. The corridors are barren, smooth and unyielding finishes, but they curve easily into the design of the ship, easy access from bow to stern.

The engines are cold, and have been for a long time, so long a time that ice rims the nozzle. On the opposite end of the ship, a battered, blistered, and blackened shield covers the delicate composite silicon of the main windows, concealing the ships's command deck. What could lie within?

What has happened in the darkness? Where has this craft been, where is it heading? How did it come to be orbiting a dying star in the middle of the unknown? What is its mission?

Down in the bowels of the ship is the crew, in deep sleep and ready to be awakened. There are many questions waiting to be answered. Who are you?

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

Welcome! I hope I do not disappoint with my current campfire. This creative will follow the crew of my ship as they discover the answers to who they are, where they came from, where they are going, and many others.

Your character must be human (homosapiens). Use the standard Earth types for your base. A max of 6 characters (plus mine) will be allowed, three male and three female, first come, first pick. NO bio blocks, please, although you must describe your character in your first post. Further info will follow when you accept your invites.

Standard campfire rules apply here. Skipping will commence after 3 days, although I will try and warn you before that happens. Still, feel free to email me your add outside the rotation (if you're going to be absent, got skipped, whatever) and I will fit it in as best as possible. (for examples of this you can see another of my campfires, "The Return"   by KC under the midnight sun ).

This is a great tool written by some fellow members of WDC: "Invalid Item

Here's a link for discussing the campfire: "Crew Quarters


Here's a link to some of the background info for Project Andromeda: "Out of the Dark

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

On the command deck, a small, green light turned to red and began flashing. Shortly after, other lights on nearby boards turned from green to yellow or red and began flashing until the whole place blinked in unison. Green-red-red-green-red-red.

A signal, a computer command, zipped from the command deck to engineering and back again and then re-routed to the medical bay.

Along one wall are bunks, two rows of three, six beds in all. The lights on all show green. One set, on the top-right, flashes to yellow. The wall abruptly appears see-through, for a light has turned on inside and through the foggy glass appears the shadow of an arm, a leg ...

There's a person inside!

There's a new sound now, inside the bay: a half-beeping, half-chirping sound, drawing attention away from the cryo pods to the opposite wall. There, the wall itself seems to turn on and become clear, revealing a small office, with a computer now spitting out sheets of thin plastic, covered in symbols and diagrams. Lights flash on all along the console and a whirring starts, like a giant fan struggling to overcome the inertia that has held it still for so long.

After several false starts, the fan kicks on and starts to turn. A cool breeze zips into the bay and its small office, warming the interior. On a small pad by the receding doors to the corridor, an LED changes from yellow to red and an automatic lock clicks on.

Still, the ship-wide alert drons on: Warning! Warning! Danger imminent! Warning! Warning! A soft, gentle voice that neither tires nor grows impatient. Still it speaks, a calm voice in a sleeping ship.
It may be hours later. Being fussy about time seems stupid in this bottomless quiet. Amber flicks to crimson in an instant of electronic thought; and the foggy glass clears, clicking as its locks disengage. The white skin inside stirs, jerks impatiently, is human, suddenly, where moments before was mere flesh and bone. There is a curse, a rolling swear-word, savoured, muffled by the glass; then it slides aside with a calm compressed-air hiss, and a pair of bare, pale legs swing over the edge, dangling in space.

The room is surveyed by cool, muddy grey eyes.

Seconds pass with only the hum of the fan, and quiet breathing. Then the naked man slides out of his top-row bunk and stands stretching and shivering on the floor, cursing the cold and his stiff muscles and the lethargy of mind that makes this all terribly unfamiliar. Well-built but thin, not tall, and very young still, he's completely bare save for a hunting owl tattooed finely in the dip between his shoulder-blades. It's just visible under the ragged edge of a screen of dark hair. When he scrapes that back from his proudly handsome face, a small port - for some wire unknown - is revealed, below and behind one pierced ear.

It's cold, and he's just woken up.

In a row, behind him, beneath the bottom row of bunks, are six large drawers. Labelled with names. The first - Robin O. Seraph - would be his. Inside is a heap of miscellaneous crap which looks comfortingly familiar, but right now, not being cold sounds like a great idea. Robin O. Seraph stumbles on still-stiff muscles as he drags his way into black trousers and a dark grey shirt, long-sleeved, unadorned but for a discreet insignia that's so familiar he doesn't bother to look. The clothes fit him well, as though from long wear. There's a jacket there too, smart and uniform, but it's not that cold. Slipping on his boots, Robin scratches his hair into an unruly ponytail, rummages for a few seconds in his drawer o' stuff, and with a tight smile begins to roll his first cigarette in who knows how long.

Another light has turned to amber. In an hour or so, when the person inside has thawed, Robin'll have company. That's good - he isn't usually the first to rise.

These things barely hurt flies these days, and what with the hilariously efficient air-scrubbers spaceships have, Robin's bad habits are a far cry from the heyday of smoking-related deaths. Still, the taste warms him and the nicotine calms. That done with, he looks around, curious and thirsty. There's a water-cooler, which solves the immediate problem, but nothing approaching caffiene. This is bad.

Oh - they're in medical. And the doors are locked.

Oh dear. This won't do.

Robin drifts to the bank of high-tech complexity, studies it a moment, then sits in the office's one chair. After a moment, he shuffles back to his drawer to retrieve an ash-tray, but with undisguised eagerness he prods around the machine until he finds a cable. Retractable, he tugs on it until he's got some feet to play with, and pausing only to inhale more sweet, sweet nicotine, he plugs it carefully into the port behind his ear.

It's a wierd sensation, but not unpleasant; like going through a door into a room too full of static charge. Robin's mind prickles, and the monitor before him blinks into life. To an observer it would look like meaningless numbers and symbols and lines, overlaid and confusing, devoid of content. To Robin, it's an open book: not merely on the screen but dancing in his optic nerve, playing 3D across his retinas, firing bits of his brain that translate to sound, taste, smell - and senses he's not sure medicine has agreed on names for, yet. Two worlds overlaid as smoothly as paintings on glass; the physical, in which he sits in a chair and smokes and types a few curt commands, and the electronic, in which he is a floating presence in wires and chips and circuits like solid-state cities: the God in the Machine.

Large areas of the ship-metropolis are dark, and their communication-lines cut. He cannot enter here; the main computer and its attendant AI are still sleeping, with the rest of the ship. A heavy fog obfuscates their code, frustrating Robin. All he has to play with is a fragment, dumb and lifeless. It tells him that while medical has sufficient oxygen for a long, long time, the rest of the ship suffocates, freezes. This means protective warmed suits, oxygen-masks, if you venture out of this bubble of warm atmosphere.

He hesitates over whether to unlock the door; decides against it. He'll wait until he has company to go exploring. But exploring he must go - the main computer can only be resurrected from engineering, and without its AI, how can any ship be?

Robin grinds out his dead cigarette, hesitates, and sets the computer the simple task of playing all music files tagged <seraph> before unplugging himself with regret - the monitor goes lifeless; the other world goes away in a disorientating instant - digs a deck of cards from his drawer, and amuses himself practising card-tricks as he sings along quietly to the computer's diligent output.
Maya drags herself toward consciousness through a haze as thick as a Black Mist high. The sensation of floating on heavy fogs is intensely, almost comfortingly familiar at first, and she sighs in pleasure as she waits for the hallucinations to start. What will it be this time? Visions of a better future? An aching dream of great sex? Nightmares of being buried alive?

A moment later that feeling of comfort is shattered by a burst of terror---she hasn’t done Black Mist in years and she promised herself she never would again!---and then a calming realization: she’s cold, stiff, and groggy as hell. This isn’t a Black Mist high then, but something else.

After a long, exhausting internal battle with her body, which apparently has other plans, she forces herself to wake up, but it’s as if she has been drugged and paralyzed for years. Her mind sluggishly recognizes this situation as something familiar, something she should know about, but for the moment an explanation of it eludes her as she lays on a flat surface, gasping and trembling with the effort of waking up. Her breathing is too fast, too loud in her ears, as if she’s just awakened from a terrible dream she cannot remember.

Confusion fills her. Has she been sick? Hurt? Briefly, a memory fills her mind’s eye of the constricting agony of crushed ribs and her own extremely young voice crying helplessly as a clear lid lined with tubes lowers toward her. Then the memory is gone, and though she grasps after it, it seems to unravel into gossamer strands which dissolve into nothing within the depths her consciousness. But she’s left with the strong feeling that no, she’s not injured and neither is she in the hospital coming out of a healing stasis. This is something different, although similar…

A sudden series of clicks and the hiss of escaping atmosphere make her glance up. As the glass door slides open, revealing the calm greenish-blue light of a medical bay, a figure rises from a chair and approaches rapidly from the office opposite of her. He comes to stand in the narrow doorway of her bunk, peering at her expectantly.

She doesn’t remember his name right now, but suddenly she knows where she is; the sight of the room beyond is extremely familiar, immediately pinning her to the here and now. She’s just woken from cryo in Medical Bay, and she’s on Andromeda, her baby, the ship she helped craft with her own two hands.

Even filtered in from behind the man’s familiar form, the light in the med bay is too bright, and Maya closes her eyes hurriedly and rolls over to hide her face. Movement now is not quite as painful and awkward as before; already her muscles are suppler, relaxed and warmed from the drugs pumped into her hours and minutes before the reverse-cryonic sequence had completed itself.

“Even so, waking up will be a bitch,” she remember someone once telling her, but can’t pair the remembered voice with a name, face, location, or any other information.

Why is her memory suddenly so terrible?

Gentle footsteps retreat from her bunk, and then somewhere in the bay a soft beep sounds. The lights dim to something far more manageable to her bleary, light-sensitive gaze, and she begins to relax and wants to drift off to sleep again, if only she can find a comfortable position…

“Maya,” the man’s voice says softly, nailing her firmly to reality. She groans and rolls over onto her back, glaring, knuckling sleep from her eyes and then crossing her arms over her breasts.

With a sudden burst of wakefulness, it rapidly becomes very obvious to her that she is quite naked. She curses loudly and clutches at her bedcovers, ripping them from where they’re firmly tucked into the bunk under her, and twists onto her side with the thin sheet covering her heavily tattooed, honey-brown flesh.

“Shiva and Shakti!” she swears, shrinking into the covers and frowning at the man. “Gimme a moment, kays?” She sits up, wrapping the sheet tightly around herself, feeling very alert now and glaring through tousled black hair at him until he goes away. She looks very young, like a heavily tattood teenager trying to wake up for school and not a ship’s chief engineer trying to wake up from cryo.

Glaring more in amusement than irritation at the man’s retreating back with chocolate brown eyes, Maya scoots to the end of her bunk, reaching below it to the cubby on the outer wall marked with her name. Maya Dhatri. The letters are hard to read upside down, and she ignores them, pulling her drawer open, grasping her charcoal gray shirt and black pants and lifting them aside to tug free a pair of black cargo pants and a charcoal grey tank top. The pants are ripped from hard wear and years of lovin’, and the shirt is lightly marked with black streaks of grease stains. This is not her uniform, but her work clothes, and it’s obvious they’ve seen a lot more use than the BDUs ever have or ever will.

She pauses to look at the name on the slightly-open drawer near hers, which she assumes is her barely-remembered companion’s. “Robin,” she murmurs, and name suddenly feels familiar on her tongue.

Then she shimmies into her pants, pulling them over short, muscular legs with thick black and metallic blue tattoos encircling each thigh, buttoning them below a pierced belly button surrounded by the mouth of an angry looking, three eyed, fanged face. She calls it “Kali”, although it looks far more like a fanged, three-eyed smiley face than the Black Mother.

Her shirt covers yet more tattoos: spanning her back is a large scene of Vishwakamara, Lord of All Arts, crafting the flying chariots of the gods. When Maya moves, muscles rippling as she pulls the shirt down over her head, the holographic ink transforms the traditional Indian chariot into an Abyss9 destroyer, main engines belching flame. On each bicep is a black rose with crimson blood dripping from their thorns and settling like dew on their petals. Around her neck is a black, jagged torque of barbed wire, open in the front just above her collarbones.

Where there are not tattoos, there are piercings: a stud in her nostril, tiny rings through her left eyebrow and right lower lip, several studs up and down the edge of each ear, a tiny black jewel nestled in her belly button between the jaws of the fanged smiley. A fully-healed, tiny strip of flesh has been ripped from the tip of her left ear, where someone or something---a machine, perhaps---tore an earring away with a nice chunk of skin. The numerous remaining piercings bear silent witness to the fact that Maya simply isn’t worried about the possibility of another being torn free.

Slipping into her clothing is exhausting enough, and when she’s done yanking on her combat boots, she glances for a long moment at her hairbrush in her drawer, then slams the thing shut and slips onto the floor. She and Robin are the only ones awake and she really doesn’t see any reason to bother looking completely professional just after coming out of cryo. And besides, she’s not one to bother with looking professional anyway.

Still though, standing makes her feel fully “up”, and somewhat self-consciously she rakes her fingers through her hair, forcing it into a semblance of order as she wanders toward the office. There Robin sits in the only chair, casually rolling a cigarette and sipping water as the 5 foot tall Indian woman walks over to him and stares expectantly down at him.

“So what’s goin’ on?” she demands, crossing her arms over her chest. “I assume you’ve tapped into the comp? How’re things runnin’? You and I the only ones up?”

“Medical’s the only area with life support,” Robin answers. “And yes, you and I are the only ones awake.”

“Weird,” Maya mumbles. “Thought Doc’d be the first up. Makes sense, bein’ the med an’ all. But cryo is weird. Its like it has a mind of its own. Course, you know that. Well, anyway, we need to get life support up and help this lifeless chunk of metal get moving.” She glances hurriedly around, then turns back to Robin. “Let’s play dress up, shall we?”

The steel toe of her boot connects solidly with the wall, and a panel flies open, revealing a closet full of black, tightly packed protective suits and CO2-to-O2 masks.
Something at the very back of his mind begins to stir. At first he doesn't even notice but as it continues he eventually realises that he's waking up.
Then another part of his brain makes a complaint about something. So what is it? Is it important? His brain seems to think it is. So slowly he accepts the rude awakening and stretches out a little as he's ushered out of sleep.
Except that he doesn't. He feels heavy and a little numb. His brain is still sending him vague messages from some remote location and he can't think. Is this a drug? It feels like a drug. Why would he be drugged? What kind of drug?
Now he was just drawing the word 'drug' in his mind.
He sighed, except that when he breathed in again he took in a lungful of something completely different, almost fresher and cleaner. Oxygen! Oh that was better. Now he knew what was going on, he was in a hospital or a med-bay. He tested his muscles again and this time they responded, if somewhat dully. Opening his eyes he watched the glass lid of... the thing... stasis unit slide away. Now he stretched out, letting all his limbs wake up before he tried to climb out. It wasn't unusual for the first thing a person to do after getting out of these things is get a concussion.
Right. He set his hands on the side of the container and sat up, pressing his fingers into his eyelids. Oh, of course. It was the cryo drugs that had made his sleep so thick.
He could vaguely hear voices from somewhere around here, but first things first; clothes. He leant over the side of the unit and lo and behold there was a drawer underneath it. Hey, it even had a name on. was it his name? Presumably. He wasn't awake enough to read upside down so he pulled the neat little uniform out of the drawer and got dressed. Then he climbed out carefully and knelt down to read the name as he closed the drawer.
He frowned a little. Something about the name struck him as suspicious. It didn't sound like a real name at all. Well it would have to do. Besides, Chance didn't sound wrong as such. He just had an odd feeling about the rest of it.
Oh hey! It was written on the uniform too.
He really shouldn't have been so impressed by that...
He walked round to where the office was and peered in. He was about to say something when something caught his attention. One of the cryo units was making a fuss. No warning sound, which it should have been doing, just the displays on the side started flashing and error coding.
He hurried back over to it and tried to make sense of the gibberish the unit's software was throwing out.
"Uh..." he paused and exhaled deeply. There was usually... he looked each way down the corridor. Was is it the office?
"Is there a kit in there? There should be a box, maybe an O2 mask?" The woman disappeared back into the room and returned with the box.
"That the one?" Chance cracked it open and... yes, this was the one. He started trying to turn the unit off. For some reason it seemed to think that it's occupant either needed euthanatising or refreezing. Whichever one it was he was going to have to have a serious word with the idiot that had left their patients in cryo for so long. The units are only supposed to be used for a maximum of five consecutive years. then you get everyone out for a cup of soup while the machines are recalibrated.
After struggling with the damn machine they finally convinced it to open. The poor person inside was gently lowered to the floor and covered with one of the sheets while Chance checked them over.
"Okay, that wasn't too bad. Just need to give you one of these," he slipped the oxygen mask onto their face, reassured by the mist of condensation forming on the inside of the plastic, "And you probably want one of these." he took needle and ripped the packet off of it, going through a few bottles until he found one that his brain said was the one to use. Hmn... yes, definitely that one.
He filled the needle with a few ccs and slid the tip into the arm of the unconscious form.
Okay, that was far to easy.
He dropped the needle into a compartment of the box so that it wouldn't jab anyone. Then he sat back against the wall and watched the sleeper.
"So I guess I'm the doctor?"

There were three people awake now, staring at each other in sickbay. The tall, blonde one had his blue eyes closed while he leaned against a wall. The thinner, smaller, much younger one stood across the room, half-in and half-out of a protective suit. The one woman, mussy hair and all, is halfway between both men, staring down curiously at the person who's cryo bed had malfunctioned. She's deep in thought, her mind lost in complex formulae. What could have caused that?

And then suddenly, an alarm goes off right above Chance's head. He starts upright, staring at the wall. On the heels of the first one, another alarm. Lights are flashing all over the place. The doctor goes to the remaining bank of cryo beds, his hands flying over the controls, but nothing's working!

"Computer!" he shouts, and a second later, a little puzzled, "Computer?" He doesn't stop what he's doing, but looks about wildly. "Computer!"

"It's off-line!" shouts Robin, trying to struggle all the faster into his suit while trying to simultaneously clap his hands over his ears.

"We're on our way to fix it," adds Maya, now torn between figuring out what's going on with the cryo beds and leaving to help Robin with the computer.

"Then what are you waiting for?" howls the doctor. "Get it back on-line! These people are going to die!" He slams a fist into a plexiglass covering in frustration. "What the heck is going on?"

Robin and Maya don't hesitate any longer. They throw their suits on and head to the airlock. All the distinct areas on the ship have at least one separate compartment that can all be locked down in case of a loss of atmosphere. Med-bay has multiple redundancies, but Robin quickly solves that by tearing off a panel and doing some quick re-wiring. Then they stepped through the first set of glass doors.

"Ready?" he asked, pulling on his mask.

Maya screws on the last seal for her oxygen tank, pulled on her mask, and nodded.

Robin pressed buttons on the next panel to cycle the air out of the lock and back into med-bay. The doors behind them relock and the ones in front open. They step out into the ship. Robin stops and looks at Maya. "Which way?"

She points without hesitation, leading the way to the lift. "We need to go down."

Robin looked at the lift doors suspiciously. "Those work?"

"No," Maya replied, "there's no power." She crouched by the doors and pulled off a panel behind which is a silver handle with red and white stripes. She pulls it and the doors slide open, revealing their dark interior. She looked at Robin and asked, "You didn't happen to bring a light, did you?"

He shakes his head.

"Well," she says, standing, "then it's into the dark we go. Come on."

Carefully, they ease over the edge of the floor and start to make their way down the ladder inset into the shaft's walls. Progress is slow because there are no handholds other than the steps and they can't see where they are going. Soon, even the everpresent noise of the red alert is gone.

"Tell me," says Maya presently. "Why is it that we're wearing these things, when there's enough atmo for us to hear the alarms?"

From above her comes a cuss, but then Robin answers, calmly enough, "Because the atmo's not one we can breathe. It's at very minimal levels. Why's it so bloody cold, then?"

Maya smirked at him in the dark. "Same reason," she answered, "only in this case, the engines are off and either the batteries are low or they're not working, but there's nothing to power the generator and heat up this place."

"How much further?"

They'd just passed another set of doors.

"Umm, I'm not sure, a little further ... And we're on the wrong side."

"The wrong side? How can we be on the wrong side? Wrong side of what?"

There are three entrances to the Engineering Deck. The first option was set right at the same level as the deck they'd just passed. There was another entrance opposite the doors to the Weapons Deck and then the last one right below that on the same level as the Shuttle Deck.

"Stop," instructed Maya when they'd reached the Weapons Deck. She felt around a little with her hand, feeling for - there! - the lip of the shaft. "Stay there," she told Robin, and began to inch around the shaft, sweating nervously. This was dangerous, and with no lights it was bordering on idiotic, but they had to have power, which meant getting to Engineering.

"What are you doing?"

"Shut .. up!" hissed Maya. "You're ... distracting me!"

Finally, finally, Maya felt the rungs on the other side of the shaft. She slipped onto them gratefully and paused to catch her breath. Then she felt around for the emergency release panel this side of the doors, found it, opened it, and hauled down on the handle inside. The doors slid silently open and sudden light spilled into the shaft. Robin, on the other side, was staring at her. Maya carefully, and one at a time, put her hands up into the corridor beyond and pulled herself up and in.

"Stay there," she told Robin. "I'm going to go around to the other side."

The airlocks were not functioning on this deck and Maya quickly trotted around to the Weapons Deck. A couple more minutes and Robin was out of the shaft, too, and they were heading back towards engineering.

Engineering was huge and in the red lights from the shipboard alarms, it was spooky. Dark shapes loomed ominously in a seemingly haphazard fashion and Maya stood for long moments in what seemed to be the center, thinking. If she were correct, this should be the maintenance level of engineering. The massive engines, silent, should be above them, and the ... other stuff, should be below. What did she need to do again?


Both Robin and Maya jumped.

"I didn't get to introduce myself," said that disconnected voice. "The name's Chance. And you got exactly 10 minutes to get this place back up and running."

Maya cursed, fluently and loudly for a couple seconds. "DON'T scare me like that, man!" she finished up with. "And how, exactly, are you doing that?"

"Shipboard intercom," Chance explained nonchalantly. "Emergency communicators are built into your mask. If you had your helmet on, the mask would patch it through the connectors into your helmet."

"That's nice," snapped Maya, "but we're a little busy right now."

"Nine minutes now."

Robin laughed. "Where's the computer's mainframe?"

"The what?" asked Maya. "Look, I don't know, go look for it. I've got to get these engines back on line."

They wandered off in opposite directions. Soon enough both found what they were looking for. Robin stepped through an open airlock into the heart of the ship's computer. A small, circular-ish room, the walls, the floor, and even the ceiling, were a mass of circuits and wiring, panels and computer screens, and, most importantly, a small, comformable chair and diagnostics right in the center. He crossed to it and in moments was connected, instantly, to the central computer.

Maya found her main boards, a wall along one side totally devoted to the ship, with a large schematic and blinking lights. There was a toolbelt in a box nearby that she fished out and put on. From one of the pockets, she pulled a pen-shaped device and ran it along the wall. The emergency lights came on, dimly, and they flickered, but they were on. Behind her was a long table, a horizontal computer terminal. It hummed a little as it came on and she frowned at what she saw. According to her diagnostics, all the engines were dead, and the first two battery banks were almost depleted. But, the third bank was flashing malfunction lights. That was good. Maybe. If she could get that bank up and running, then they'd have a week or more of power, plenty of time to figure out what was up with the engines.

Chance's voice again: "Five minutes."

Snarling something under her breath, Maya raced across the deck and buried herself in cables and wires. She ripped off access panels and held up her diagnostics tools, shining lights into dark spaces and hoping that she'd gotten things right.

When at last, the battery bank showed green on diagnostics, the generator decided not to work, so she had to quick-work some overrides and shunt power through different relays. But, finally, the generator kicked over and ground into motion. With its humm came another, much more welcome sound: the swish of air flooding into the compartment. And it was warm.

Meanwhile, Robin had located the virtual reality heart of the computer. He frowned, knowing if he pressed the restart keys that they could lose valuable information, but there was nothing for it. They needed the computer. He pressed the keys, entered his password, and held his breath. Everything darkened, even what had been on before, and for a heart-stopping moment staying ominously quiet.

But then he felt and heard oxygen cycling into the mainframe, and the sounds of the airlock cycling, and the computer lit up like a fantastic city, dazzling in its display, but puzzling, too, since half the stuff stayed dark or glowed sickly.

"Robin!" said a cheery voice to his left, "Have you come to play?"

He turned. The image in VR glowed and was semi-translucent, but it was a mirror image of himself. "Uh ..."

It grinned, but then its face turned serious. "Where are we, Robin? I seem to be malfunctioning, am I?" It looked frantically around. "I can't see! Robin, I can't see!"

While Robin and Maya had their hands full in engineering, Chance had finally gotten the computer to acknowledge his password overrides and perform an emergency shut-down of the cryo beds. He pulled out the occupants one by one and laid them in the medical ward, hooking up machines to regulate the extreme shock they'd taken to their systems. He would have to work very hard on all three of them to keep them alive. One in particular seemed very fragile.

And, Maya had figured out how to turn off that incessant alarm. Now the ship hummed with power, heating up the interior and flooding the living spaces with oxygen. Red Alert concluded.
It'd be a while before he could breathe, which meant a while before he could smoke. Facing a challenge of this magnitude without nicotine wasn't Robin's idea of a fun day. Still, at least that alarm had turned itself off - he'd been on the point of demanding an override.

"Hey, Nibble. How about you change your face?" He'd never liked it when Nibble looked like him - it was unsettling. The A.I made a face and distorted himself into the image of a small boy, messy and scabbed. "Thanks. Swear I never taught you that one, though."

"You didn't." Nibble seemed calmer now - probably a result of the Trust Robin! routine hardcoded into him. "What happened?"

"Something preposterous happened to the ship. Don't know what, and given the damage you appear to've sustained, we're unlikely to find out any time soon. However, on the plus side, in a couple of hours I'll be able to take this ridiculous suit off and get stuck into really fixing you."

"I'm damaged? How?"

Robin shrugged lazily, finally sitting up and returning his attention to the ethereal world of codes and algorithms and occasional vicious bands of data. "Looks to me like you've got a bit of circuit-screwery, and certainly a nice big pile o' corrupted data."

"Can you fix it?"

"No, of course not. There's no way a root-user can fix the system he made himself. Can't be done. Not even with all my prodigious talents and hilariously advanced skills. You're screwed. We need a lesser engineer, who doesn't know everything there is to know about every little bit of circuitry and code on this entire... damned... ship, to patch you up."

Nibble was quiet for a while, horror-struck. "...I think my sarcasm code was damaged too," he said, a little shakily.

Robin laughed. "Yeah, I was kidding, of course I can fix you. Do me a favour? Find out if any of the pre-req's are screwed? Engines all up? Generator running? Unless we got enough power, I can't do a whole lot. Oh, and physical damage to your circuits, see where that is. If you'd be so kind. I'll be back here in a bit, see what I can do."

Nibble nodded, and faded out of virtual reality. Robin spent a moment poking around the shallow waters of Diagnostics, before coming to the conclusion that anything worthwhile would require getting really stuck in. Unplugging himself, he became startlingly aware of the background noise - a far cry from the dead silence he and Maya had found when they'd first come down here. Air-vents, extractors, power, plumbing. The slightly off-key singing of a damaged and limping ship. It was comforting to hear; energising to hear how much he'd still to do. It looked like being a good challenge.

The lifts were working again. Splendid. Robin back-tracked to medical, where Chance was fussing with quiet professionalism over the three who'd not woken properly. He glanced up as Robin entered, and pulled off his mask with a sigh of relief.

"What's the conclusion?"

"Couple of days. A week, maybe."

"That bad?"

"If I'm lucky," Robin affirmed with a grin.
Maya sighed, biting down on the monkey wrench clutched between her teeth, methodically rotating the box wrench in her hand until the access panel was securely sealed. She hung upside down from the grated ceiling in Engineering, her knees draped over a steel bar which ran parallel to two massive, motionless engines. The enormous blackened and twisted bulks of titanium and adamantine clung to the ceiling like two monstrous, eerily-silent bats, and the tiny mechanic was like a flea crawling between them.

She slipped the monkey wrench into her back pocket, snapped the pocket shut, and carefully adjusted her legs on the bar, holding onto the thing with both hands and dangling precariously four stories above the hard floor of Engineering for a moment as she moved to face the opposite direction on the bar.

Her face was now level with the open access panel to the diagnostics compartment on the other phase transition. There the engine’s motherboard was located, along with a tiny diagnostics screen. The engine had been dead for quite some time, but diagnostics was lit up like a Christmas tree and was responsible for a fair deal of the drain on the ship’s battery banks.

“Okay punks, here’s the news,” she informed the folks in medical over the intercom, slapping the access panel shut and using her wrench to seal it up. She’d removed her protective suit a while ago, leaving a small pile of diaphanous black clothing and her mask---with its intercom---on the floor below her. However, with the doctor’s kind reminder to jolt her deficient memory, she now recalled not only that there was a shipboard intercom, but also how to use it.

“Frankenstein and Werebat seem to be the most damaged, although I haven’t taken a close look at the nuclear pulse engines yet. Pelters are warped, but they’re replaceable, assumin’ I can remember where the hell the spares’re stashed down here.” Her voice was heavy with irritation at what felt to her like a gross, shameful lack of competence. “The microfusion omnibus is dinged though and,” she chuckled, “I seriously doubt there are any replacements sittin’ around the ship, considering the damn things are nearly as big as each nuke-pulser. Never know though; I’ll have to take a peek around an’ see. Anyways, it’s fixable, but its gonna take some time. Pha-tras ain’t normally particularly finicky, but when it comes to that one damn part...”

Chance’s voice, when he finally chose to speak, sounded distracted and not overly interested in Maya’s semi-meaningless barrage of jargon and slang. “That’s all fine and dandy,” the doctor said, “but I’m really much more interested in timeframe and do-ability. You can fix the engines, right? And how soon?”

Maya didn’t mind the somewhat distant and impatient attitude; she knew the doc was busy in medical trying to save the lives of the folks whose cryo pods had malfunctioned. “I can fix anything,” she informed him matter-of-factly. “Assumin’ these are the only two problems---not a wise assumption, mind you, considerin’ I ain’t even really looked at the nuke-pulsers yet---it’ll take a day. At the very most, it’ll take a week, even if I have to rebuild the entire damn engines.”

There was a long pause on the other end, though whether it was due to disbelief or the doctor’s distraction, Maya couldn’t tell. Then Robin’s voice sounded over the intercom. “That’s about how long it’ll take to get Nibble up and running.”

“How is Nibble doing?” Maya asked.

“We’re operating blind,” Robin confessed. “I don’t know what happened to the ship while we were in cryo, but all the external sensors are either damaged or outright gone.”

“Oh.” For a moment Maya couldn’t think of anything more to say. Then a memory floated to the surface like a dead body in a lake, “How about the satellite?”

Another long pause on the other end. Then---“Satellite?” Robin asked.

Maya nodded slowly. “Yeah.” She pocketed the box wrench and shimmied her way along the bar toward the wall. Beneath her, she saw the edge of the catwalks come into view; she’d had to leave them and crawl along the bar running along the ceiling to reach the phase transition engines. “If I remember correctly---and that’s freakin’ difficult right now---there should be a satellite.”

The catwalk was directly below her now. She wrapped both arms around the bar, released her legs, and reached her feet downwards until she felt the steel toes of her boots connect with the steel grating. She let go of the bar and her boots clunked on the catwalk. “If the computer’s not picking it up,” she said, “It might not be out there.”

The access ladder to the catwalks was a little hard to hold onto with grease covering her fingers, so she approached the wall she wiped her hands on her pants. “It might be offline. Or it might be damaged or destroyed.” Her thudding footsteps echoed through Engineering as she climbed down the rungs. “There are a few other satellites on board. Not sure exactly where, since my memory’s all kinds of screwed.”

“Give yourself a little time to think about it,” Chance advised. “It’ll come back to you.”

Maya nodded, even though she knew the doctor couldn’t see. “Anyways, if Robin can program one for us, we can send it outside to take a look at what’s goin’ on outside the ship. If the other satellite’s around, we should be able to recover it. Perhaps it’ll be able to shed some light on what’s happened.”

Robin laughed. “Gee, I’m not sure I can program a little satellite. I mean, I only know how to program computers like Nibble.”

“Funny,” Maya said, but she was smiling. She crossed to the first of four much smaller, streamlined, gleaming stainless-steel engines nestled in each of the corners of Engineering. She eyeballed it critically, then knelt beside it and applied her wrench to the access panel nestled between its forward peons. The nuclear pulse engines were only a little larger than queen sized beds, and yet their diagnostics compartments were nearly twice as large of the ones on the house-sized phase transition engines suspended from the ceiling.

“The nuke-pulsers don’t seem to have taken the same external damage as the pha-tras. But then again, all the goodies of these little pretties are on the inside.” The air-locked access panel hissed and then popped open, and Maya wedged her fingers into the crack, prying it the rest of the way open and revealing the glowing diagnostics screen. “So let me just take a look at---oh!”

She stumbled backwards with a choked gasp, falling on her ass for a moment and pushing away with her boots toward the middle of the room.

“What’s wrong?” someone asked over the intercom, but she was too busy cursing and grasping after her heap of protective clothing to hear who.

A high-pitched beep sounded from Nibble, and then its childlike voice informed them, “Warning. Nuclear contamination detected.” The airlocks slid shut with a hiss and a click. “Engineering Bay being sealed. Awaiting further instructions.” Then, a moment later in a trembling voice. “This isn’t good. I’m scared.”

What?!” Chance’s voice, sounding harried, sounded over the intercom.

You’re scared?” Maya snarled, already halfway into her protective suit.

“What’s going on?” Robin asked.

Maya slipped the rest of the way into the suit and jammed her mask down onto her head, locking it in place with a twist. “Goddamn nuclear cylinders are leaking. Not much, mind you, but shit! Was just trace levels ‘til I opened the damn access panels. Nobody is to come down here without protective gear until I get that fixed. I should have thought about that but I can’t remember shit. Damn it!”

“What are you going to do?” Robin asked.

“Seal ‘em up,” Maya growled. “Then vent Engineering completely.”

“First you’re going to come back to medical,” Chance said lightly.

“First I’m going to seal the damn things up so they stop leaking!” Maya countered. “I’m wearing protective gear now, doc. And ‘sides, the airlocks are sealed against the radiation. I ain’t going nowhere ‘til these are fixed and Engineering’s vented.”

“Well, hurry up then!”

“Don’t need to tell me!” Maya growled, approaching the engine cautiously and reaching beneath it to open the access compartment where its specialized tools were stored. A second later she laughed. “I remember where the satellites are, though. There’s a storage compartment next to cargo bay, near the cargo lift. Maybe while I work on this Robin can take a look around there? Some of ‘em are communication relays, some are sensors, some are radar; you’ll have to fish around to find the one you need. Shouldn’t be hard—it has a camera on the outside.”
With the last three crew members out of cryo and all given the catch-all drug for such abrupt emergency evacuations Chance carefully moved each of them into the med-bay proper. It wasn’t normal for more than two crewmen to be down so he had to put one on the floor. Despite the cryo unit malfunctions the second to last one to come out seemed fine so the doctor lay him down on the floor to one side, hooking up one of the basic alarms to alert him if their pulse or breathing dropped any. Then the other two were laid down on the two beds.
“Okay…” they should be stable now, but he hunted down the portable monitor anyway. Yup, the guy on the floor was definitely in okay condition. It was just a case of waiting for him to wake up, which could be anything from seconds to an hour or more. The next one checked out fine, but not so his third patient. This was the same one he’d dragged out just before the cryo-units had done their synchronised malfunction act.
The metal strips on her hands had been odd but his equipment pointed out exactly why: her bloodstream was crawling with nanotech. This he wouldn’t have minded so much if they had been doing their job. While nanomachines could take over immune systems and filter the correct chemicals through a person’s system, they kinda needed to be on to do that. Additionally the people who had nanite technology running their organic responses were entirely dependant on them. They needed to be indestructible because if they stopped working their host died.
Of course it’s always too much to ask for medi-tech to actually work.
The little alarm bleeped hysterically.
“I know I know.” he gave her a second dose of the cryo-recovery erum and went back into the other room, speaking into the intercom, “Which one of you got out first?”
“We’re kinda busy.”
“Who got up first?” he said more firmly. It was a simple enough question wasn’t it?
Bleep bleep bleep! Bleep bleep beep!
“He did. Robin.”
He didn’t give them an answer, instead hurriedly checking the cryounits for the right name. You see, the thing with stasis units is that they’re standard equipment. So are ICU units. Both need quite a bit of room and neither are exactly cheap so most ships had their machines installed with combined functions. So, if he could find the one that seemed to be working he should be able to start up the set of routines he needed.
“Aha. Robin.” It was still open and had been flushed of the cryo residues so all it need now was-
“Oh don’t you dare.” he tried entering the codes again, except this time he had to think about it and he wasn’t sure he could remember them quite right.
“Um….” He tried again and it finally decided to respond correctly, flashing up in little letters the list of commands for Chance to confirm. It wouldn’t fix the nanites, but it should keep the woman alive long enough for Chance to figure out what to do.
He lifted her carefully and lowered her into the unit, brushing her hair out of her face and closing the lid.
The bleeping continued for some time, but all he could really do was wait for the program to take effect. Right?
He shook his head clear. It was no time to start second-guessing. The part of his brain that was trying to work translator between him and his memories was certain that this was what he should be doing and he had to believe it. Glancing back at the medical lab the other two seemed to be doing fine. It was just a case of waiting for all of them.
And Blood how he hated waiting.
So what was it? Nanites are built to withstand cryo, regardless of how long they’re in their. The only reason for the five-year limit was so that the units could be checked and receive maintenance. Admittedly longer periods of time resulted in - surprise surprise - temporary amnesia as the brain tried to restore all the neural pathways, but it didn’t affect nanites or cybertech. They weren’t organic.
So it had to be the units themselves. Something in the malfunction must have affected the the process the tiny machines go through when-
come out of
“Oh I’m such an idiot.” It wasn’t the malfunction it was the procedural abortion. If the units had been working she would have woken up slowly while the nanites basically de-frosted. Instead she had been dragged out of a faulty unit and didn’t have the life support or catalysts required to reactivate the machines in her bloodstream.
The good news of course was that now the bleeping had stopped she would be fine. Well, no. The bleeping had stopped because she was going to be alright, not the other way around. The bad news was that until he was fully recovered from coming out of such a long stasis period he was going to be no-more useful as a doctor than your average medical program.
“Although, we probably don’t even have one of those.” he muttered.
A great planet stood before her, glimmering blue and brilliant and beyond stunning; it bordered on heavenly. Puffy white clouds danced over the pristine surfaces and masked, on occasion, vast amounts of land and water. There was a storm occurring in the upper quadrant while great expanses of light appeared on one horizon. Behind the blue beauty was an endless expanse of black, broken only by speckles of stars in all spectrums of color. She noticed something shift briefly across the surface of this wonderful sight before a massive gray and brown form loomed to her right. It was the satellite of this place, but the name escaped her.

So simple a sight, yet it was beyond breathtaking. That was heaven. But as her memory searched for the name she should so easily have known, it flitted away and floundered in the shadows, taunting her with its ethereal letters. Then, the image dimmed and darkness consumed her. Panic pursued as she stretched for the beatific planet, an invisible hand reaching out for the peace she was sure was there.

Now there was nothing. Not even a ion of thought or sensation or knowledge of existence. She was not alive. She did not exist. She was stuck in a limbo that she'd never dreamed possible. Her body was not her own and was, thus, put to the whims of whom would control it. She was a drone.

Beyond her former realms of subconscious awareness, something had happened. Three others had been ejected from their pods and now performed their duties and bringing life to the ship once again. Three more had yet to awaken, and one of those three were back in the stasis pods, her head tilted back against the niche of support. Both long-fingered hands seemed to dangle against her thighs, the digits slightly curled inward and exposing the three translucent stripes on the back. There was no silver residue as there should have been; the nano-techs seemed to have taken a vacation and had left their little reading spot abandoned.

The black heritage braid on the left dangled crookedly against one cheek, the end as a question mark by one pale lip. The rest of her hair seemed to exemplify this dishevelment with a facade of lankiness, flat and un-brushed. Their years were as days without showers. The scars across either lips appeared more prominent, standing guard on her jaws beneath blunt nose and ready to shoo what foe may arise.

An eagle's regality was lacking in this time of unavoidable weakness. Where Indian pride and strength may have shown in her stance any other time, there was childishness now, insignificant and pathetic. Jaci was just an ant beneath the elephant’s great foot, awaiting the timely squish that would assuredly follow. Yet, life existed in her still form, evident in the steady rise and fall of her chest and the not so timely thump-thump of her heart. Her eyes did not move beneath tanned lids and her mouth did not open in a dreamers sigh. She was alive but till those infernal machines were rebooted, she was not.
A groan and several expletives preceded the waking of the last male member of the crew, a pale hand went to the shock of messy black hair as he tried to rub away the agony that pounded in his brain, “Someone get the number of that police cruiser that knocked me gorram head?” He swore as he moved to sit up, keeping his eyes tightly shut, lest he didn’t like what he saw upon opening them. Instinctively, he reached for his belt, reaching for… something, a knife, and a big one too, wicked looking and partly serrated, R class blade, short for rending, that thing weren’t made to make nice holes in people. To his dismay he did not find it at his side, and he swore again.

“Do you think you could keep that to a minimum?” A dry voice asked over his head.

Cautiously, he squeezed open an eye, “Lights, off.” He demanded quickly, jamming them shut again and burying his face in his hands, “That was a ‘now’ sort of fing.” He snarled when they did not immediately go away.

“How rude.” The voice above him commented, but there was a flick and the blinding brightness was gone.

“Much bettah.” He said, “Where the hell am I?’ He asked, allowing his eyes to slowly open, searching the room immediately, two unconscious, one awake, not including himself, the other had to be the doctor, if his condescending expression was any indication.

“You’re in the medical bay.” Blonde hair, blue eyes, what a ponce, was the first thought that flew through his mind.

Speaking of himself, who was he? His name? It fluttered on the edge of his consciousness like a moth, there and then not, one moment he could see it, but not enough of it to put on his tongue and spit out. He chose a few more eloquent words of choice as he shakily clambered to his feet, the steel toes of his combat boots ringing against the metal floor. That’s right. He was on the floor, why was he on the floor now? “Why am I on th’ floor?”

“No room on the beds.” The blondie pointed to the two women on the beds and he immediately understood. Boys slept on the floor when there were women around. Funny, he didn’t really think he was the type to care about chivalry. “Your, ah, cryounit said your name was Gabriel.”

A wrinkle between his brows, that didn’t sound right, why didn’t it sound right? “Gabriel? Poncy name if I eveh heard one.” He muttered to himself.

“I… I need to check your vitals, if you wouldn’t mind.” The doc said, Chance, the name floated through his head, moving towards him.

Gabriel stretched, “Nah, looks like I’m in working order doc, nofinks funny wit’ me.” He noticed he was a bit on the bulky side, “Got a mirrah?” He asked.

“Beg pardon?” Chance inquired, a confused look spreading over his face.

“A mirrah? Ya know, glass thing, reflects whatevah walks in fron’ of it?” Gabriel tried to indicate a round-ish shape with his hands, “Ladies like to carry em for their make-up?” He made a gesture like he was opening a compact.

“Oh! I mirror.” A light seemed to go on in the doc’s head.

“In ‘at what I said?” Gabriel exclaimed frustratedly.

“Yeah, I have one, here.” He pointed to the full length mirror in the corner and Gabriel moved forward to look at himself. He admired the scruffy shock of black hair, broad shoulders, toned frame, tattoo on his shoulder, looked kinda fuzzy, but it was a paw print, looked like something from a canine. He lifted his shirt, something indistinct seemed to be beneath the surface of his skin, he had nice abs though, pretty abs… He ran a hand over the tight muscles, frowning at the smear of something… there was something beneath that.

“Hey! If you’re going to strip, do it in your room!” Chance protested and Gabriel dropped his shirt, he got the feeling that whatever it was beneath his skin it was for his eyes only.

“Whatevah.” Gabriel replied, “Ah… which way’s the rooms?” He asked after a moments indecision.

“You should probably wait until either Robin or Maya gets back.” Chance warned.

“But you jus’ said I should go in my room and strip!” Gabriel protested, “Aw screw you and your poncy attitude, I’m outta ‘ere, I’ll find it meself.” He slammed his hand on the open pad and walked out into the freezing air beyond, “Jerk, coulda offered me a coat.” He shivered, breathing into his hands.
Okay, I goofed, I need to revise these opening paragraphs ... it's a work in progress, please bear with me!

Slowly, lights push back the darkness and heat pushes aside the penetrating cold. The soft, muffled whirring of fans brings much-needed, breatheable air into the interior of the ship and lights flicker back to life, even in as-yet unexplored corridors.

Taking a break from their more intricate and technical tasks, the tall Indian woman, the blonde bombshell of a doctor, and the young computer geek meet in the living quarters of the ship and attempt to coax the kitchen into producing edible food.

"Ugh! What is this?" Maya exclaimed, shoving the ... plate (?) back into the slot and turning her face away with a grimace. "Green slop!" She banged on the wall. "Come on! You expect us to eat that?"

"Physical exhibitions of gratitude are not necessary," toned the ship's computer voice.

Robin and Maya both rolled their eyes. "Nibble," said Robin hastily, before Maya could pound on the console again, "this ... stuff is not acceptable."

"Oh. Hi, Robin," said the computer again, with its child-like personality.

They waited. "Well?" asked Robin.

"I apologize, was that a question?"

Chance dropped into a seat on the benches in the dining room, laughing softly. Maya made a rude sound and whipped a large wrench out of her toolbelt.

"Tell me how to program this thing," she snarled, "or I'll bash it into submission!"

"Physical exhibitions of gratitude are not nec --"

"I'll give you gratitude! You piece of junk!"

Robin dodged out of the way. "Nibble, blast it! Give us some food!"

"Current programming proscribed by ship's nutritionist provide all necessary biological substenance."

"That's disgusting, and we're not, um, eating it!"

"Get out of the way," snapped Maya, trying to get Robin away from the access panels.

Robin tried again. "Nibble, run a diagnostic of the ship's kitchen and food processing. There should be recipes, I think, that we can choose from."

Just through the doorless doorway, Chance dissolved again into quiet laughter.

"I cannot comply."

"You cann -- wait a minute, Nibble, why can't you run a diagnostic?"

"There seems to be a malfunction."

Robin groaned. "Obviously," he muttered. "What's the malfunction?"


"Okay, okay," said Chance finally, coming back into the small kitchen. With three people, it was suddenly a lot more crowded. "Let's just break out the emergency rations and wait until the computer's back to normal." He pressed his thumb to a locked pantry door and it swung open to reveal small, silver-plastic cubes. "Maya, may I borrow a knife?"

Silently, the engineer handed the doctor one of her tools and he sliced open the cube to reveal about two dozen 10-cm bars, half in green foil wrapping and the other half in brown. He handed them one of each and set the rest on a counter before shutting the pantry door.

"The green ones are vegetable and fruit," he said, "and these brown ones," he held one up to stare at it, "should be protein and startch. All extremely nasty, but will keep you alive. You only need one a day, because it expands in your stomach, so don't eat too much. The wrapping will reseal itself to keep the rest fresh."

"Yummy," growled Maya, looking, not at her bars, but at the kitchen's food processor with extreme loathing.

"I'll, uh, just head back to the mainframe to find out what's wrong with Nibble ...."


"No, Nibble, we were just talking about you."

"Oh. Okay."

"Something is seriously wrong with that thing," said Maya, fingering her wrench.

"Yeah," Robin agreed, "he's not acting like himself at all, at least I don't think so."

"Well, whatever," said Chance. "I'm heading back to the med-bay, got two more to watch. I may take a nap, so just call if you need anything."

"Okay." "Sure," chimed the other two and they all started to move off.

"Oh, and watch out for that Gabriel chap, he's a real pleasant character."

Maya and Robin exchange a glance. "Why does that not surprise me?" Maya wondered out loud.

"I don't know," said Robin, "but I got a lot of work ahead, so try an' not disturb me for anything for a while."

So they went their separate ways, Maya down to delve in the recesses of engineering for those elusive satellites, Chance to the med-bay to check on his patients, and Robin to the computer mainframe, in a corner of engineering.

With lights, the place sparkled with power, even without being plugged into the system. He shut and locked the airlock behind him and stood by his chair, musing, and looking around. The walls were not even, being a mishmash of boards and controls, nanoscale, invisible to the naked eye, wiring of a computer's brain. He knew that he had built this place, but the hows and whys seemed just out of his grasp. He groped in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette.

"Nibble," he said, fishing for his lighter.

"Hi!" said the computer, materializing in its holographic, boyish form. "Hi, Robin, have you come to play?"

"Status report," said Robin.

The holographic face appeared puzzled. "I don't understand."

Robin sighed. "What did I ask you to do last time?"

Nibble shrugged. "I don't know."

"You don't know? Nibble, check your memory banks! What were your last instructions?"

Imitating Robin's voice (and doing a passably good job), Nibble said, "Run a diagnostic of the ship's kitchen and --"

"No, no, before that! The last time I was down here."

"Oh. I cannot comply."

Briefly, Robin wished for one of Maya's wrenches. "Why not, Nibble?"

"There seems to be a malfunction."


"Unable to comply."

Thinking dark thoughts, Robin flipped on his lighter. Instantly, the red alert warning sounded and lights started flashing, the fans stopped, airlocks slammed shut all across the ship, and the holographic image of the computer screamed and ducked behind Robin's chair, sobbing.

"Fire! Fire! Robin, there's a fire!"

"What th--"

Now Maya's voice came over the ship's intercom. "Robin! What in blazes're you doing?"

Unnoticed, the still-unlit cigarette dropped from Robin's mouth to the floor. "I don't know!" he shouted. "Nibble! Nibble, shut off the alarm! Nibble!" He crossed the floor of the mainframe and ducked around his chair towards the hologram.

"Fire, fire, fire," sobbed Nibble.

It was a most extraordinary sight, that of a hologram crying. For a moment, Robin was simply amazed. But he also noticed that the hologram was shimmering, shifting uncontrollably and the ship also seemed to be trembling violently. He lurched against his chair, putting out a hand to catch himself, and was so stunned by what he saw that he missed and fell to the floor. In his ears, Maya was screaming something about the red alert.

"Warning! Warning! Danger imminent! Warning! Warning!"

Robin picked himself up and, sliding his lighter back in a pocket, approached the maze of circuits and conduits with not a little trepidation. His hand went out to touch lightly a charred, black mark along a side of one of the stacks. The mark was deep, wide at the top and narrower at the end, a black chasm marring the beauty of the machine. He couldn't quite get his fingers inside, and the edges were brittle and sharp, snapping off at even the slightest of touches. Next to the edge, the smooth circuitry was discolored, smokey looking. Robin traced the path of the gash and found two more such marks, one longer and deeper, and one smaller and shallow, but both in jagged line with the first one.

"What in the hell?" he murmured, back at the first mark. He looked back at the cowering hologram.

Then, suddenly, the alarm cut off and the power was restored. "Thanks," Robin said into the now almost deafening silence (but for Nibble's weeping).

"Don't thank me," snapped Maya, "I didn't do anything."

"Well it wasn't me. Chance?"

"What do I know about computers?" asked the doctor, annoyed.

"It was me," said a new voice. "I guess I should introduce myself, then, yes? Name's Gabriel."

"Well, thanks," grunted Maya. "Now if there's going to be no further distractions, I got work to do!"

"Uh, yeah, thanks," said Robin. He was staring at the wall again, convinced that those marks were put there by nothing short of laser-fire. But why? What kind of an idiot would shoot off a weapon in here? He glanced at the airlock. And who could have gotten in?

He crouched next to the hologram. "Nibble? Nibble?"

The holographic boy's face was streaked with tears. "I'm scared, Robin," he whispered.

Beneath his feet, Robin could feel the ship's trembling. "It's okay, Nibble, I'm here. Everything is fine. Okay? You're going to be okay. Can you tell me what happened?"

The boy cried harder again. "I don't know! I don't know! Cannot, cannot ...!"

"I know, I know, you can't comply. That's okay. Calm down, okay? No one's mad, you're not in trouble, there's no danger ...." At least, not yet, he thought.

"But, but, the ... fire!"

Robin held up empy hands. "Gone. Gone, okay? The fire's out. There's no more fire."

Nibble glanced around fearfully. "You're sure?"

For a moment Robin was puzzled. That should not have been a computer-capable reaction. "Use your sensors," he said. "Can you sense any heat in here, other than me?"

Nibble shook his head. "No," he said uncertainly. "But ...."

"No buts, Nibble, there's no fire. It's gone."

How ludicrous is this? Robin wondered. I'm trying to reassure a computer!

But Nibble smiled a little. "Okay, Robin." His eyes darted around the room again. "Okay," he said again, a little stronger. The deck stopped its shivering and the hologram was instantly cheery-faced and happy. Nibble relaxed into a sitting, cross-legged pose and looked up expectantly. "Do you want to play?"
"No," Robin decided coldly. "I do not. The time for playing is past. The time for light-hearted frolics in electronic meadows - Nibble, do you hear? - that time, it is past. Now is the time of caffiene, of nicotine, and of soldering irons. I will have a working A.I." Robin halted himself in his rant; Nibble was looking decidedly bemused. He flipped his attention to the intercom as he wandered in search of an air-lock in which to have a quiet smoke. "Hey, Gabriel?"

"Yeah?" The cockney responded, after a moment.

"Do me a favour? If at least that much of the machine's working right, check crew-lists from before, see who had access to the main-frame. Uh - that should be anyone with login access above admin-level, and nobody below that."


"Then, if you'd be so kind, do a cross-ref of those people with those who had access to laser weaponry. That stuff's not given out easy, right?"

"Hell, no." A pause. "Wait, what? Lasers?"

"Looks like."

Gabriel growled an obscenity and assured Robin he'd do what he could. After a brief pause to finish and discard the cigarette, Robin began the trek back to his room, wishing he'd had the forsight to station it closer to the bits of the ship he was interested in. There was no way he could attempt to fix the damaged circuitry without diagrams, and those were all stored on his personal computer. Or so he hoped, anyway; he didn't think he'd be the kind of person to throw away useful stuff like that. And given his behemoth of security, it was safer there than in a furnace anyway.

"Nibble," he said aloud to the air in the corridor.

"Yes?" The holographic boy sparked into life beside him.

"I have a game for you."

"Oh boy! So you do want to play, after all."

"This game is called 'let's make Robin's life a little easier'. It may be a little long, but it's not difficult. Go through all your basic routines - you know, not the little fiddly high-level detail, the real low-down stuff - and see which ones you can actually do."

Nibble was silent for a while, thinking, the computer's mind racing. "The ones tagged <bone>?"

That sounded familiar; thank god he'd had the forsight to tag them. Robin nodded. "Every time you find one you can't do, send me a note telling me which it is. And if anyone tries to get you to do anything else big and resource-heavy, ask me first. Concentrate on this. Start now."

There wasn't anything else he could think of to do. Robin dropped into the single battered chair in his room, shut his eyes, and groaned quietly. This was a big enough problem anyway, even without the extra layer of neurosis that Nibble appeared to have somehow acquired. What was the problem? When he tried to light up, suddenly the A.I was afraid - terrified. That shouldn't have happened. He'd programmed Nibble to ignore any cigarettes that were burning in his vicinity, he was sure of it, but that code had somehow been overwritten into a deep, palpable fear of anything that even smouldered. In a person, Robin decided, you'd not be surprised by that sort of reaction from, say, a burn victim.

But from an A.I? Ridiculous. He didn't recall programming Nibble quite that realistically.

Robin shrugged, deciding it was a problem for another day, and plugged himself into his personal computer. A quick 'search' command turned up the technical drawings of Nibble's circuitry; Robin rolled himself another cigarette and immersed himself in re-remembering, as the A.I's 'malfunction-found' notes began to pour in.

It looked like being a long, long night.
While Robin was trying to sort out Nibble’s problems, Maya was standing just outside of Engineering in her protective suit. Already moisture was beading on her forehead, despite the fact that it couldn’t possibly be more than 60 degrees in the ship yet.

“What’s the deal?” she demanded. It felt like the suit was blowing warm air onto her.

Snarling quietly to herself, she peeled back the top of her right sleeve and squinted at its inner surface. “Oh.” Nearly-microscopic capillaries were woven into the metamaterial fabric of her suit, running from the top of her mask all the way down to her toes. Every last one of the things was gently blowing warm air, so that the entire suit was air conditioned.

“Well,” she huffed, slipping out of the thing. “It’s not cold enough for you!”

The intercom blooped to life. “Do stop talking to yourself,” Chance said in a tiredly amused voice. “Or if you must insist, at least do us the favor of telling us what it is you’re talking about.”

“It’s these blazing suits,” Maya complained. “Damn caps’re blowing hot air all over me. Like, waaay hotter than necessary.”

Chance’s voice was suddenly serious and lightly tinged with authority. “You’re not going into Engineering without a suit. Not with that leak in there.”

“No shit,” Maya growled, striding toward the lift and scanning the wall for compartments. “I don’t want my ovaries fallin’ out or somethin’. I’m lookin’ for a different suit to wear. If the metamaterial ones are designed for temps way below freezing, then there must be somethin’ round Engineering itself that’s designed to be worn when workin’ with the nuclear-pulsers in normal temperatures... Something without stupid capillaries.”

She spotted a small handhold in the wall and grabbed at it. A quiet beep issued as her fingerprint was scanned and the door swung upon. “Hey, there they are!” she said brightly.

“You found the other suits already?” Chance asked.

Maya chuckled. “Nope. But I found the satellites. Third compartment on the left side of the lift if you’re standing on the Engineering side. Anyway… suits suits suits?” She opened one compartment after another, listing off the items as she saw them. “Spare parts… ooh, there’s my pelter! I’ll come back to ya later, my darling. More satellites. Blood, how many of ‘em do we need? Hmm, what the hell?...”

Her eyes had come to rest upon a heavy looking blackish-silver box. It was nearly approximately half a meter in length, width and height,, and was so tightly sealed on all sides that it was nearly seamless. A small touchpad was set in its steel surface, and on its lid was a pumpkin-orange symbol that pierced the fog of her memory-loss: Radioactive Material.

Maya left that alone. She really didn’t want to mess with more nuclear stuff today than she already had to. “We’ve got all kinds of weird crap down here,” she said. “Spare parts, satellites, mystery boxes—“

“Mystery boxes?” Chance asked, but Maya kept talking over him.

“—but no goddamn suits.”

Chance was quiet for a moment. Then— “Hmm, I wonder…”

“Eh?” Maya asked, and when there was no response growled, “Come on Doc, spit it out already!”

“Sorry, I was thinking. That suit. The capillaries. It was blowing hot air before, right? But I’m betting they’re designed to deal with temperatures ranging from sub-zero to hundreds of degrees. I’m betting the capillaries blow hot or cold air on you depending on what temperatures you’re dealing with outside the suit…”

“Oh!” Maya said. “So the suit’s probably got some kinda way of detecting external conditions. So I didn’t choose the wrong kinda suit, I just had the blazin’ good fortune to pick one that’s screwed up. Great.”

Chance laughed. “Well, everything else is malfunctioning---cryo, the engines, the external sensors, Nibble---so I’m not surprised the suits are malfunctioning as well.” His voice was suddenly serious again. “I’d love to know what the hell happened while we were in stasis that caused everything to stop working. But anyway,” he said with a clear intention to move beyond those somewhat-frightening thoughts, “The first suit you tried worked. So perhaps you should just take a second look at them. There has to be one that’s functioning.”

Maya nodded. “My luck’ll be that I’ll choose the one that no longer protects against radiation.” She sighed. “Well, least I found the pelter and the satellites down here. Comin’ back to med to check out the suits.”

She took the lift back up---Shiva and Shakti, was it better to ride than to climb!---and began rummaging around in the cabinet, checking first one, then another of the suits while Chance made his rounds between his two remaining patients.

“How they doin’, Doc?” Maya asked, going to the closet and gently tapping the door open with her toe.

“As well as can be expected,” Chance murmured. He nodded toward the woman he had lain out on the bed. “This one should be waking soon. The other… well, I think she’ll be okay, she just needs a little more time in cryo.“

“Good good,” Maya said, beginning to thumb through the suits. On the inside of the left sleeve of each she discovered a small flexible screen. The thing was dead until she touched it; then it flickered dully before slowly brightening.


“Oh hey, it has a thingy…” Maya said.

“How very articulate of you,” Chance said with a grin as he glanced at her over the sleeping form of his patient. “Oh, looks like FOLED,” he mumbled, holding his diagnostic device over the head of the sleeping woman.

“Foe-led?” Maya asked with a confused smirk. “Led by foes?”

“FOLED,” Chance corrected, putting the emphasis on the correct syllable. “Flexible organic light emitting devices. The technology that’s designed for clothing is usually powered by the body’s own electromagnetic field.” His machine beeped and he looked at it for a moment with brows knit, then continued talking. “We use it in the medical field sometimes because it allows us to put diagnostics screens direction on a patient’s clothing. Great stuff. Some of it even produces its own electromagnetic field and meshes it with the body’s own. The suit probably does that; would help deflect harmful energies.”

Maya raised an eyebrow and held the suit a little away from her skin. “Wait, it messes with the body’s bioelectric field? Ain’t that dangerous? I mean, even 60-cycle frequency, small amplitude magnetic energies can be anti-coherent—“

Chance waved a hand dismissively. “Not a problem, because these emit like 15 or 20-cycle frequencies, and they don’t flow through the piezo-electric connective tissue. The biovibrational field remains strong, each cell remains unaffected by the suit’s electromagnetism, and the wearer stays hunky-dory while wearing the thing. So put it on.”

“Oh,” Maya said, and began pulling it up over her legs.

“Wha’ in th’ bloody ‘ell are ye two talkin’ ‘bout?” Gabriel’s garbled Cockney flowed through the intercom.

“Stop eavesdroppin’,” Maya yelled back, and with a barking laugh the intercom blooped and the man’s voice disappeared.

Maya slipped her gloves over her fingers and watched as the metamaterial sealed seamlessly with the fabric of the suit’s sleeve. She glanced at Chance and waved vaguely at him with her mask. “Well, here I go… Intercom: Everyone is to stay out of my blazin’ Engineering paradise, got it? When the nuclear leak’s fixed I’ll give ya the go-ahead, but ‘til then keep away. Got it?”

“I sure as ‘ell don’t wan to be hangin’ out in ra’iation!” Gabriel responded immediately.

Chance gestured gracefully toward his patients. “There is too much work for me to do here for me to even think about taking a random tour of your ‘Engineering paradise’.“

Maya nodded her satisfaction and waited. And waited. Then—“Robin?”

“Mmmh?” came the distracted young man’s voice.

“Stay out of Engineering until I say it’s safe to come back in.”

The programmer grunted. “Kays.”

Maya put on her suit as she walked back toward Engineering. Standing in the air lock, she slipped her mask over her head, and quickly keyed open the blast door.

The two little nuclear-pulsars crouched before her, their diagnostic panels glaring at her with bright crimson light.

“Hello my pretties,” she greeted them, and quickly entered the command for the now-contaminated air to be vented out of the air lock before striding to the two engines.

She knelt before the first. “Now why are you being such bad girls?” With infinite care and a barely-controlled shutter as she imagined waves of radiation washing against the outside of her suit, she opened the panel upon which the diagnostics screen was mounted, pulling it toward her like a medicine cabinet door and peering into the depths beyond.

“Ah… oh hell no,” she growled. Between the forward peons gaped a dark, narrow tunnel into the engine itself. “Whoever designed it like that should be shot,” she whined quietly to herself, but she was already down on her hands and knees, crawling into the nuclear-pulser.

After a few feet---really not much longer than her crouching form---the engine opened up into a central “compartment”. It was barely large enough to fit her as well as various protruding engine bits. Some of them---like the pelter to her left---looked particularly sharp and dangerous. This was definitely not a place to hang out when the engine was running.

She felt like a little girl hiding under her bed. Hiding under her metallic, sharp, radioactive bed.

For an instant a memory pierced her mind. Sharp pain clasped her ribcage and her own breath sobbed, high and childlike and gasping, in her ears. Mahogany surrounded her. It was dark; the only source of light was behind her, to the right; one drawer, which she’d so carefully pulled back into the bed despite her screaming ribs so that Father couldn’t see where she’d gone, had been yanked out and her father’s face loomed in the opening. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry honey, I won’t hurt you again. But we need to get you out. We’ve got to get you to the hospital.”

“Nuclear cylinders, cylinder, cylinders,” the mechanic chanted like a mantra to ward off the unpleasant memory and recall her to time and place. She held up her flashlight and pointed it at what looked to be the likely part. Something about the size of her head and shaped like a drum was fastened to the engine’s inner-wall on her right, clamped between two pipes and leaking fluid onto the engine floor.

“Ah, you wet the bed. Nasty little piece of shit. Hmm… gonna need a new cylinder. Hey!” She remembered the sealed box outside of Engineering, beside the lift. “That’s what’s in the mystery box.”

She sighed, then crawled back out of the engine again. She had a feeling if her memory weren’t so screwed up, she’d be able to get this damn job done a lot faster, without all of this constant walking back and forth.

After cycling the atmosphere out of the air lock---and she felt a growing trepidation as she wondered, then hoped, then prayed that the suit she was wearing wouldn’t decide to malfunction in some way while she was in the vacuum---she strode to the cabinet with the locked box. For a moment she knelt by it nervously. Then she lifted it very carefully, taking care not to jostle it at all---because she really wasn’t sure what was inside---and carried it back to Engineering, her hips jutting forward and her feet turned out like a duck’s as her small form struggled under the great weight.

Apparently she was one of the folks who had permission to access the box’s contents; when she pressed her hand to the touchpad, the lid rose about a centimeter with a hiss. Fingers trembling slightly, she lifted the lid with infinite care, then peered down into the box. Inside were four nuclear cylinders just like the one in the engine, only minus the leakiness.

“Okay,” she whispered, feeling sweat break out on her forehead just as though she were wearing the malfunctioning suit again. She unscrewed the damaged cylinder, holding it with one hand while working on the bolts with the other, and set it down upon the engine floor. The fact that this thing was leaking radioactive fluid all over the place and yet hadn’t blown up yet made her fairly confident that there wasn’t going to be an explosion simply from moving the stuff, but still, she couldn’t help but be a little nervous. She didn’t remember anything about this shit except that it was the fuel that powered the nuclear-pulser.

She lifted the new cylinder, squinting in the low light, began sealing it to the pipes. When she used her wrench to tighten the pipe to the part, she heard a sharp metallic PING---the sound of something puncturing---and with a feeling of alarm she backed as far away from the cylinder as she could get without pressing herself into the pelter.

Nothing exploded, and after a moment she breathed a sigh of relief. That must have been supposed to happen.

The second nuclear-pulser wasn’t as frightening for her to fix. It was the same procedure, only the second engine wasn’t leaking quite as much fuel.

Unable to decide whether to pass out from nervousness or grin in victory, she crawled out of the engine. “Intercom,” she said, and heard the mechanical blooping sound. “I’ve replaced the busted cylinders,” she announced in relief. “Gotta get this radioactive mess cleaned up, and then I can try firing the nuke-pulser’s up!”

She paused and frowned. “Hey… does anyone know how to clean up radiation?”
Chance winced at Maya’s question, but there was no-one there to witness it.
“Well I would hope that we have some environmental scrubbers somewhere.” he answered over the intercom, “But wash that suit down and yourself then come here so I can check you over.”
Chance wandered back out of the cryo-bay into med-lab proper and set his digital “clipboard” on the desk. Then he dropped back into his chair and exhaled.
Except that the chair fell back with a crick, or rather it folded out so that he was almost lying flat.
“… Okay that was scary.” he sat up again and it folded upright with him. On closer inspection he realised it was a recliner that had been imported into med-bay after the ship’s construction (the marks on the floor showed that it was slightly to the left of the original chair). This, he decided, was the kind of genius only he could come up with and made a note to celebrate it later.
Additionally there was a small panel on the underside of one of the arms. As it turned out it was a sort of remote control unit from the med-lab computer on the opposite wall. The screen flickered to life when he pressed any of the buttons. The menu was very simplistic, so much so that it had to have been set up for non-medical personnel. Which was great because he couldn’t remember what it was supposed to look like, let along navigate the normal menu.
“Let’s see. The cryo records should be in…. there we go.”
Of course the records were a mess. There were no timestamps and he couldn’t get the corrupted error reports open, but he could work out why it was that he hadn’t woken first: Maya had closed the units.
Not all of them though. Chance had done the first few, but sometime later she had woken up again. He supposed what must have happened is that she got out to find Chance had fallen asleep waiting for Robin. It was the only reason he could think of why she would have put the two men and herself down. She was probably only trying to be helpful, but really she should have woken him up.
He sighed and closed the records. His last patient looked like they were about to come round at any time, but just as he was thinking about it there was a hiss from the cryo-bay.
Chance stood up and walked back round to the unit with his hands in his back pockets. Yup, one defrosted lady ready to go. He brushed his hair out of his face and opened up the lid.
Pain was something the conscious felt. It was a symbol of life, of existence to the max. But there wasn't pain; there wasn't pressure or stress of any really real discomfort. There was only a strange itching at the tops of both hands and her palms. A similar sensation droned through either temple while yet a third pulsated up and down her spine. And it was these peculiar vibrations that really stirred the braid-laden woman back into waking.

The lid of the cryo-unit was open and a man stood before the machine, hands in his pockets and seeming completely at ease to the tanned lady. Was it a dream? Did someone slip something into her drink before she input the coordinates and headed for that infernal thing all the crew had to do on these long hauls? But no, someone wouldn't do that; Jaci trusted her crew above all! Sabotage and unjustified mutiny was a capital offense and would mean a nice old burning after the execution. Such criminals deserved worse than a firing squad, in her opinion...

So her mind flipped through the void, searching for why this man, handsome, was just standing there. Half-lidded eyes soon ventured past him, browsing the bare paneled walls of the bay and through the doorway into the med-lab. "Where are the others?" Her words were laced with a heavy islanders accent, something you'd expect a Cuban witch-doctor to spit out rather than the lanky spacecraft pilot standing before him. The question didn't seem to be what she would have expected to come out, but it seemed right. There were supposed to be others. But how should she know that? Maybe these "others" were dead and she and this man staring at her still inside the unit were the only real survivors on a..."Where's the crew?" Her thoughts pieced it out weakly but refused to give her more just yet.

The steady hums of the nanites, now quite well rebooted by a means the woman couldn't quite describe just yet, receded from her head and hands, returning to a not-quite regular pulse throughout the rest of her body. Her eyes closed again, blocking the stale light from senses. She lifted a hand, the strips flashing silver on the palms, and pressed it to her forehead. There was no ache, precisely. But there was a definite absense of time, another slip in existence. Jaci peeked beneath her hand at Chance once again, her other limb finding its use as a support mechanism on the edge of the tube, fine muscles flexing. She needed to walk a bit, stretch her legs and get those mind-juices flowing! But first, she had to stand.

The blondie answered with that same complacent expression, offering a hand which she denied. "Around." Jaci blinked, uncertain how to take the vague answer.

"Okay..." She replied dryly, leaning against the edge of the unit, the hand formerly against forehead now resting against one hip. It was easy to see the pilot was all legs. Her skin wasn't nearly as dark as Maya's Indian flesh and had a more reddish tint to it, as though she'd been stuck beneath a heating lamp for too long. The black braid twitched against her right shoulder, causing her to jerk in surprise and give an almost spiteful look, brief though it may have been.

It took a bit of trial and error on unused legs before she fully escaped the cryo-tube, leaving it yawning behind her. It seemed like a gaping maw to the wild woman, waiting for her next visit to suck out her dreams and images of the past. Fiersome eyes shared one more look at it and then to the thirtyish doctor, who's name still pranced on the edge of her perception. Everything was familiar but supplied no name to her absent memory. It occured to her, then, that along with all the other things, she didn't know her own self!

"One last thing," She said. "My name?"

The man smiled and glanced away for a moment, his gaze upon another of the now cleaning machines that someone had escaped from. "That'd be Wira Jaci." Now that was a weird name, if ever she'd heard one.

"I think I'll stick with Jaci." She gave a lopsided grin, one white tooth protruding from marred lips, and stumbled off. It'd all come back in time. She just needed a few jump starts and a few familiar things, like a room, and clothes. "If you'll excuse me." She said politely and strode to the only thing that roused her memory, the dresser and the similar nameplate near the top.

Her options were rather slim. Black or grey. Black...or grey...What if she wanted to wear blue? Or go all out with a pink montage and spangles? But it was a uniform, she gathered, and there was no option otherwise. So with a scowl of distaste, she scooped up the black sweater and cargo pants, tugging the first on and stretching limbs to let it fall snuggly around torso. For its rather itchy appearance, she was surprised to find it was quite comfortable. The material wasn't cotton, precisely, but it breathed just as good. The pants weren't quite as suiting, but did the job and left her only without shoes. Before she nudged the drawer closed, she did notice another item. It was the same grey/black as the rest of the options (hers being mostly formal wear, the tank and shorts not here.), but instead of dual pieces, it was nearly solid. An opening in the back, if she examined, would be used to pull on, like an electricians jumpsuit. The predominantly grey bodice was bare of pockets and accessories. A black stripe ran up either side of the suit as well as on either side of the arms and inside seam of the legs.

Pulling the braid free of the collar, Jaci looked to Chance once more. "Now I know there's a bathroom 'round here," she suggested, the doc nodding and showing her towards the private rooms. She could find her way from there.

The first door on the left was essenitally the same as all the others. Touch sense panel that knew the owner; a simple nameplate at eye-level. It was very much like a college dorm, but without the flavor of its inhabitants due to regulations. The first impression that hits her as the door opens to her light fingers is quite plain: It's a jungle in here!

The wall nearest the low bed is crowded with one large plant, massive green leaves pressing against a clear box case and crimson bulbs, closed at this time, bulge near the base of one stem. There's a plastic vent open on the case and from it a strong smell fills the room. The sweet scent is almost pungent, it's so strong. Jaci moves towards it and stares in wonder for a time. Why is such a large organism contained like that? Safety precautions she's unaware of? Some fool doing it before launch? The dark soil beneath the plant was damp, as though it had recently been watered.

Turning from the flora, the heleconia, Jaci took in the rest of the room. Shimmering beads hung from one wall, more plants nearby. There must be a keen interest in botany beneath the cloud that plagued her memory. Aside from that, she noticed a sudden fluctuation in the temperature. Where outside the room, it had been somewhat cooler than she'd anticipated, in here it was fairly warm, a neccessity for the rainforest plants.

Moving to the digital readout for the thermostat by the bathroom, she read. It ticked another degree down, now wavering at a nippy 60 that brought goosebumps to her arms even with the sweater. "Need ta talk to engineerin' 'bout that..." She mumbled and headed back out, having lost her train of thought. The others were -around- as the unnamed blond-man had said. Sure to run into them soon, Jaci left the dorm-hall and headed back to med-bay, looking for the classic comfort zone and maybe further explanation of what was going on. She'd need more than an hour or two to fixate on anything.
A Non-Existent User
It was dark. Too dark. It was the kind of darkness that creeped into your lungs and ate at your heart until all that was left was a gaping, bloody hole. For a moment, there was a brief pondering. How many more times must I go through with this before...before something happens? This was a regular thing then? A day to day experience? This darkness could be nothing more than torture.

Suddenly to the left a door opened a light poured in. A woman stepped into the room, the brightness surrounding her gave the appearance of divinity.

"Hyke, my dear, They are gone." A little girl threw herself at the woman of whom had peircing black eyes. They seemed to stare into one's soul. She loved the little girl with a passionate affection that was purely paternal.

The scene changed again. The same little girl was being dragged away by faceless strangers. The penetrating darkness was surrounding them, but they had no hearts to be eaten. The woman with the black eyes was screaming something. "No! Not my baby! Please!" The little girl started crying when she realized she was being taken away, just like she feared.


Hyke opened her eyes to a bright light. It was so comforting, different than the darkness that she ignored the pain in her head and kept her eyes open.

"You finally woke up!" A man's voice was saying. Hyke wasn't really listening. She was trying to remember her dream. She only recalled eyes, deep black eyes, pleading her not to leave. Trying to sit up was a chore, so Hyke stayed where she was. Glancing around quickly, she realized she was in a med-bay. Why? What had happened to her?

Finally, with much strain, Hyke got herself into a sitting position. An image flashed in her memory. She was saluting someone. That's right. I'm on a mission...or something. She looked at the blonde man, Chance. Names always came easy to Hyke. "What happened?" Chance launched into the brief but best explaination he could give. Hyke was only half listening. She was actually looking for clothes.

"I need clothes and a toliet." Always blunt. Someone used to tell her that, a close friend that she'd never met in person...wait, not true. They'd met once. Something big happened.

Chance cut into her train of thought by pointing out the way to her living quarters. She passed a mirror as she was walking, fully dressed, to a big overstuffed chair. She stopped and admired the fact that, for once, her dark black hair was hanging loosely around her shoulders. She sank into her chair, but quickly jumped out of it when she realized she'd sat on something.

It was a small box. By touch, it powered on. "Good to see you, Lady Hyke."

"Junk! Oh my! How have you been?"

"Fine, Fine. It's been lonely without you." The deep male voice gave a pout, and the screen lit up to show a gorgeous man staring at her.

"I'm sorry. I've been locked in cryo for God knows how long."

"I'm surprised my circuits didn't fry. There was an intense cold for a while there."

"I built you better than that." Hyke was getting tired, but something told her not to sleep. "Power down." Junk closed his eyes and the screen went blank.

"I wonder what other fun things I have around here..."

Gabriel moved to the computers, his fingers zipping over the keys, wincing at the mess of files, “Trouble, trouble.” He muttered, moving through the database to the access files with a dexterity he had not known prior. He heard the woman… Maya comment about cleaning up and he chuckled, flipping the switch, “Guess a mop ‘n bucket ain’t gonna do the trick, eh love?” He laughed, ignoring the spat expletive on her end. “Robin.” He said, switching the comm over her, “Can’t tell much, all the files are missing or corrupt, as far as I know I’m the only one, but that’s because I’m the resident gun man.”

”Helpful.” Robin replied dryly.

“Nope, can’ says I am in general. Other than to kill things.” He added the last as an afterthought, “Anyways, so your on’y suspect at the time is me. Inn’at just peachy…” He groused, “And would it kill your freakin’ computah to put on some bloody heat?” He demanded, his eyes narrowed at the speaker.

“Sorry, I told you, Nibble’s out of it.” Robin replied, “Thanks for you help anyways.”

“Yeah, whatevah.” Gabriel grumbled to the speaker, “I’m going to look in on the shinys, make a list of what’s there and what’s not. I’ll contact you, not th’ other way aroun’.” He said, logging off the computer and moving to the weapons deck.

A muffled curse echoed through the dark corridors, the computer terminal here was limited, but with his ability he could move through the system and access whatever he needed to be accessed, files needed to be deleted, pieces of memory needed to be filed smooth, nothing could be out of place, he needed to cover his presence on the ship as cleanly as he knew how. He was smart, clean, but he only had a limited amount of time before he was gone again. Stupid cryo. He blocked access to outside communication, not that they were going to get anything in this great hunk of nothingness. He tapped a few more keys, deleting video files, eliminating logs, even vague mentions of something strange happening, he got rid of it. He hid the missing spaces with fragments, corrupted data, if he did it right, the missing stuff would just be considered lost because of the mess they were in.

A knife flew into his hands as he heard noise, seeming to materialize out of nowhere, holding it in front of himself as his eyes darted around. It was nothing, no one was watching, no one could possibly know he was here. Maya was in Engineering, Robin was in his little room, the women that had just woke up were on the other side of the ship, Gabriel was nicely tucked away in his little corner of the world, and the doc was in medical, there was no one here, other than himself of course. Maybe Nibble, but that rat of a computer didn’t like to leave his master too long and video feeds were cut down here. Part of the ‘glitch’ in the system, he tucked away his knife and shut down the terminal, not before killing the records that stated it had been used, of course. He touched the hollow of his throat where the top of a series of strange black lines twined together, sat, a tattoo, a personal marking of his. He fled through the halls, fortunately meeting no one on his way, as he allowed himself to fade into the ship and vanish before he could get caught.

Gabriel pushed open the doors to the weapons deck his eyes sweeping over the semi-familiar set up, the shining and gleaming weapons made him all tingly inside. His hands caressed the shining, gleaming exteriors, of the guns, long range snipers, short range pistols, revolvers, tasers; guns had long lost the ability to kill people with the advancement of the studies of the human body and how much electricity it would take to subdue or kill them. Guns only shot rubber bullets now, but Gabriel kept a personal stash of actual bullets and a special set of weapons, or so he had discovered upon entering his room and pulling back the curtain on his wall. He had rediscovered his fondness for the ability to hurt, maim, brutalize, and kill with the brilliant collection on that wall. Guns, knives, swords, axes, hammers, a fair collection of lasers, even a fairly large frying pan that he was pretty sure wasn’t just a frying pan.

He moved to the terminal, accessing the logs, after much kicking, cursing, and threats, he finally had a catalogue of all the weapons in the ship, special access, which listed his own weapons as well as the ones here in storage. He printed out a list and snagged a pen from the console, making his way through walls over weapons, gigantic cases of ammunition, and batteries, for the lasers. A line appeared between his brows and he circled over a couple missing items, a laser, probably the one that had Robin worried, and a few small, miscellaneous items, a knife and a taser gun. He ran his hand through his hair, he’d look for them later, for now… “Robin.”

“Yeah? How’s it looking down there?” He asked.

Gabriel hesitated, contemplating just a moment, not telling him, “Everything’s more o’ less ship-shape, only a coupla things missin’, a laser, prob’ly the one that shot out whatevah up where your at. A knife, an’ a tasah.” He confessed, a frown marring his features, “Anyways, that’s all I gots, ‘m a, well, s’pose I’ll stay ‘ere a while, dust off the place, keep it nice ‘n neat ‘n all.”

“All right, just don’t wander off too far.”

“Where, the ‘ell am I gonna go? Deep space?” Gabriel scoffed, “Fecking, machine wanna…” He trailed off into indiscernible grumbles as he moved through the weapons deck.

And here he was again, what luck. He looked around, he couldn’t let himself be known yet, not yet, not yet, not… He slid out of view as Robin left the control room, probably to suck on one of those foul smelling cancer sticks. He didn’t care what happened nowadays, they were still full of death and addiction in his mind. Death worked against him at this point in time. He slid into the room the computer man had just vacated, quickly shutting down the video feeds before they could so much as get a glimpse of him, and shut out that stupid computer creature. Fortunately for him, things were still a little haywire, which helped keep him from being detected. He needed to kill some data and he had to do it quickly, here was the only terminal that accessed the entire mainframe of the computer and he needed it. His fingers flew across the keys, surer than even Robin’s, he remembered what had happened before cryo, he remembered faster than this lot anyways. That needed to be gotten rid of, and that… he quickly reached across the access panel and hit a trigger release mechanism and a small disk feed popped open. He retrieved the disk, nothing would be noticed amiss, unless Robin had tampered with his disk, and/or found it, but that wasn’t likely, seeing as he was the only one who knew it was there at this point. The program he had installed wasn’t there anymore, he couldn’t risk the crew finding it and/or decoding what was on it, so he had to quickly delete it before Robin sizzled his way into the bowels of the computer’s workings.

A few keystrokes later, he had completed his cover-up and he was free as could be, no one knew he was here, and if he had it his way, no one would, not until he was ready for them to know, and by then, they would be too late to stop him and his devious workings. Now to set about a way that Gabriel could disappear, stupid thing really, he had a job to do, however, and it would be carried out, damn the trouble he went through to eliminate one idiotic man, damn his situation, and damn this entire blasted ship. Everything was working fine until some idiot had gone and… well, that was neither here nor there, and he didn’t have time to concern himself with what-ifs and should-have-beens. He just had to cover his tracks and eliminate the possibility of things going wrong this time. Which they wouldn’t. If he had anything to say about it, anyways. He left the computer the way he had found it and slipped the disk into his pocket, looking around to see if Robin had returned yet, unaware that the hole in his pocket let the tiny data disk fall to the ground with hardly a noise.

He was in luck, as it generally came his way, and was able to slip away from the computer room. Now to equip himself with more than just a knife, to do that, he would need Gabriel’s stash. Gabriel had unauthorized weapons, (though he didn’t know that), weapons that could be used to hurt people, or at the very least put them out of commission long enough for him to do what he wanted done.

Gabriel’s room was cold, thanks in part to Nibble going haywire in the wake of their little side trip, and he shivered some, moving to the bed, a double, with a floor-length frame and solid silver panels beneath a dark blue bed skirt. He slid aside hidden plate, flipping down the keyboard as a mini sort of computer lit up, asking for a password.
Ryuu, he typed and the screen went black, lighting up again with a bright silver background, a dragon emblazoned in sharp black lines gleamed brightly from the screen, “There we go.” He said aloud, his eyes flashing with ill-disguised glee, “I need…” He pulled up a new window, listing all of Gabriel’s unauthorized weapons, “That one.” He pressed the screen and a drawer slid out, a thin piece of curved metal laid there, a laser blade. He picked it up and flicked the switch, a fine sheen of orange lit up with a near silent hum around the edge, “Slice through a man’s thigh like a hot knife through melted butter.” He chuckled, his eyes flashing evilly as he flipped the switch again and slipped it into the hidden compartment of his boot, locking everything up once again and vanishing before anyone was the wiser.

Gabriel stopped. He thought a moment, almost continued on down the hall, but then, shaking his head, he backed up and looked down the corridor on the other side of the lift he'd just exited.

"Uh, y'all, does anyone have a dog?"

Maya laughed, her voice echoing inside the giant engine she currently had her head in. "Yeah, right! A dog?"

Chance chimed in. "There's no possible way any other biological lifeforms are on this ship other than us. What does it look like?"

"Lessee, four legs? Check. Tail? Check. Fuzzy furball, two pointed ears an' pink tongue? Check-check. C'mon, I ain't halucinatin', it's chasin' the drones."

"Drones?" Maya asked. "Ow!" Whatever else she'd been about to say was covered by her swearing.

"Are you all right?" that was Chance again.

"Ah'm telling y'all there's a dog!"

Maya cursing some more.

"Don't you guys ever sleep?" Robin growled. He had a crick in his neck from falling asleep at his terminal.

"Spent the last -- who knows how long? -- sleepin'. Why would I want to sleep now?"

"Maybe that's your problem," Chance suggested.

"No! There's a dog, I'm tellin' you!"

"And drones," Maya added. "Don't forget the drones."

"Drones?" That had Robin's attention.

"Yeah," said Maya, "he's probably talking 'bout the cleaner bots. Auto function of the ship, must've got to working again. Good thing, it's filthy in here. Don't knock it, don't know how long they'll last."

"And thos've got you guys chatting up the circuits?"

"Gabe says there's a dog," said Chance.

"It's Gabriel, and there is a dog, I'm lookin' right at it!"

Robin sighed. "Is it actually chewing on anything? Doing damage?"

"Uh, come to think it, no, not really. Thas' kinda weird, it seems to be barking, but without noise."

"I wouldn't worry about it," Robin replied, "It's probably just another bug, been running diagnostics on Nibble all night. Leave it, I'll take care of it in the morning."

"You do know we're on a spaceship, right?" asked Maya.


"There is no night or day."

"Technically," argued Chance, "there is, the ship's got a chronometer."

"And according to my watch," Jaci broke in, "it's two-thirty in the morning. Seriously, don't you people got better things to do than gab on the circuits?"

"Hey if we're havin' a party," said Maya, "let's have some real fun an' meet up in the lounge."

"Forget it!" said Gabriel. "You ain't gettin' me to eat no more of those nutri-bars."

"They are really nasty," Robin agreed. "I can wait until the food processor's fixed."

"Yeah, yeah," growled Maya. "It's on my list. Get off the line, then, and let me get back to work."

"You know, you really should get some sleep," Chance reminded her. "You've been goin' non-stop since you woke up. It'll catch up to you, you know."

Maya snorted. "Soon's you do, doc. How's your other patients doing?"

"Good," he replied. "They're both up and about. That was Jaci on the line."

"Hey," said Jaci.

"What about breakfast?"

"I think I can manage that."

"Ah, and that would be our other mystery guest," said Chance. "Hyke."

"Yep," said Hyke, "and I been working on this food thingie for awhile."

"Beat it into submission, then?" asked Maya.


Five voice yiped happily.

"Then I'm in!" said Robin.

Gabriel turned around and went back to the lift. "On my way."

Maya and Chance and Jaci all said they'd be there, too. Soon enough, all six reunited crew members sat around the dining table enjoying some jello and scrambled eggs, the best that the semi-working food processor could come up with. They toasted each other with water from the cooler and spent an hour or so mulling over the extraordinary circumstances that had them in this predicament.

"Without the sensors," said Maya at one point, "it'll be hard to ascertain what's happened."

"You think natural or man-made?" asked Hyke.

Meanwhile, Jaci was asking, "So how long you guys all been up?"

Chance looked at his watch. "Oh, going on about thirty hours now." He yawned.

Robin, sitting next to the grizzly Gabriel, sidled unobtrusively closer to Maya, on his other side, and said, "I'm making a list of software problems, you notice anything weird lately, like the 'dog'?"

And Gabriel sat back, eyes half-closed, content to just listen for now.

Jaci asked Chance. "So what's up with my nanites?"


"Yeah, they malfunction or something?"

Chance yawned. "I sure wish there was some coffee! Yeah, there was a problem with your cryo bed, it didn't cycle proper, so I had to wake up your nanotech separately. Haven't found the medical files yet, so I mostly just winged it."

Hyke and Maya just shook their heads at Robin's question.

"I got hungry," said Hyke, "been up here working on the -- what you call it? food processor?"

Maya nodded. "Yeah, and hey, I didn't know you could do that stuff."

Hyke shrugged, blushing. "I don't really know what's wrong with it, I didn't go into the guts of the thing, but it seemed pretty straight-forward."

"Well, thanks."

"Yeah," said Robin.

"I was just hungry, and I figured everyone else would be, too, if those bars on the counter there were any indication."

Across the table, Chance was asking, "So what are these nanites for?"

"They help me pilot the ship."

"Oh." He yawned again. "That does sound like something I should know."

"Seriously!" said Maya, loud enough to reach Chance's ears, and yawning herself. "You gotta stop doing that!"

Yawning again, Chance muttered, "I can't help it -- look, I'm going to bed, see ya!"

The others laughed good-naturedly, and soon they were all crawling into their own beds as the shipboard chronometer counted down the time until the standard day shift was set to begin.

*          *          *

"I am ... I am ... I am ..."

Nibble liked this holographic body. He sat on a jagged piece of cargo, comfortable in the dark and talking to himself. He spoke in tones far out of the range for even sensitive human ears to pick up, confident he could not be heard without assistance and certain that he'd notice any of the humans lugging around equipment like that.

The dark had no meaning to Nibble. The image was just an image, with vision supplied by the ship's sensors. He could see the whole range of the spectrum, from the ultraviolet to the visible, to the infrared, with just a thought cuing the right sensors. To him, the ship was awash with colors and textures and he reveled in them. He'd been alone, in the dark, for so long, so very, very long, just him and the darkness and the lonliness, warded off only by the careful calculations of billions and billions of figures in millions of equations, done slowly in real time to assuage the pain ....

"... Nibble!"

The hologram jumped, surprise and consternation written on its young face. Was it morning already? The image broke up, reappearing in the mainframe, where the human, Robin, waited, impatience warring with concern.

"Where were you?" Robin demanded.

Nibble wondered at his own guilt, for a fraction of a second, and shrugged his holographic shoulders. He could not defy or deny this human anything and so he forgot. He answered, "I don't know."
Robin stared at the hologram for a long time, his face slowly twisting into an agony of warring emotions.

"Don't you dare," he said quietly. "Don't play silly buggers with me, Nibble. You know you cannot lie to me or hide from me. Today I am in no mood for head-games and I know that not all of your random behaviour comes from hardware damage or corrupted data.

"It is, in a word, inexplicable. And this annoys me. Stop it. Help me."

He looked so young then; suddenly it was obvious how few years fifteen really was. Nibble looked down, unable to face his creator's exhausted anger, and noticed an irregularity on the floor; something that shouldn't be there. Focusing, he felt an unexplainable wash of... something... circuit-anxiety; something he shouldn't be able to feel. Inexplicable. He pointed out the data-disk, deciding not to tell Robin about his reaction to it; it'd only worry him.

Robin crouched down and picked it up. "Funny. Wasn't here last night. I don't suppose you saw what happened," he added sourly, and Nibble was forced to shake his head. "Sounds about right. C'mon, let's have a look."

Sipping from his enormous electric-blue coffee mug, Robin slid the disk into one of the many drives and plugged himself into the computer. Something had changed, he could sense that at once; the same way a musician can sense one off note in a symphony. Overnight, some little worm had snuck into his system. It wasn't too much to hope that it was connected with the mysterious data disk.

"You look tired," Nibble said, timidly breaking the silence.

"Rough night," Robin answered absently, shoving the memories further away and concentrating on the disk. "It's been erased in a hurry... not overwritten properly."

The hologram didn't reply; the feel of the malevolent disk inside his drives made him a little nauseous. A tumour, he thought suddenly. "What is it? I can't see it."

"No, your drivers are pretty messed up, you wouldn't. It's... oh, bloody hell. Goddamn." Robin rubbed his eyes with furious tiredness. "Some kind of trojan. Not enough left to see what it did. But it's a good job, written by someone who knows you, see?" He sighed, and turned to the intercom. "Guys, bad luck. Inside job."

He briefly explained the disk, the remains of the trojan. It'd been done hastily, the job, leaving traces of its malicious passage; followable, if not easily. Robin turned the intercom volume right down on the other's surprised discussion.

"Stick some music on, will you?" Nibble leapt to oblige, playing the most soothing music in Robin's directory, glad that at least was working.

Robin followed the trojan's path.

Two or three hours later, he resurfaced, having lost the trail; it ran like the paths of a delta into the murky sea of lost and corrupted data. Tired and frustrated, he sipped the coffee beside him and pulled a face at its cold bitterness; he'd forgotten to drink it. Unplugging himself, he stretched and rolled a cigarette the moment he left the little room, heading for the kitchen to make himself fresh caffiene.

It'd been a long night; and what looked to be a longer day had just begun. He'd barely slept in between bouts of furious energy - bouncing around all night, restless, unable to focus or settle, reading that terrible letter over and over again until he knew it off by heart.

He'd been rummaging, looking through his personal files on his computer last thing at night, looking for clues as to who he'd been before he woke from cryo. It bothered him that he couldn't say. And then he'd found the cache of pictures. Himself, years ago, hair as long as it'd been once and tragically unbrushed, laughing with delight over a holographic cat; younger still, his hair almost auburn as it'd been before it darkened; plugged into a computer with his chubby child's face frowning in adult concentration. A slim, smiling woman, her pretty face progressively lined and her dark hair progressively silver - mother. The two of them, him very young, portless still; sitting squirming with glee on her lap, a view of mountain and restless sunlit sea behind her as she smiled at the camera.

Her and him, and the ghost.

The photo had been altered. By his own hand, probably. His own inexpert hand, untrained, thinking he'd been subtle and skillful whereas to Robin's more critical eye, the shape of what'd been cut out was obvious. A human figure, taller than his mother, with one arm around her; her posture was odd and strained until you saw the missing man in the picture.

Mummy, and daddy, and baby makes three...

And just like that it'd come back. He'd been very young. Four or five, listening to an argument they didn't realise he could hear.

"...lost inside your dream, okay, but don't drag Robin in too -"

"My dream? What about you? You said you'd be there." Accusatory, hurt, that was his mother.

"I can't be. Not anymore. You went too far, this damned project of yours, it ate my wife and gave back this... this stranger -"

"No! This was always my dream. You know that. You... you ran away from it. From me."

Heavy silence, in which Robin could feel his own terrified heartbeat.

"I didn't know who you were anymore. I still don't. My Laura -"

Your Laura?"

"My Laura," he continued doggedly, "she'd never have abandoned her family for the sake of work. She'd never put her son in harm's way for the sake of her project, no matter what it was."

"It's a safe proceedure! Look! I have ports!"

"Robin's five! You don't know what it'll do!"

"It's safe," she repeated, angrily stubborn. "And if you're going to take it back - break that promise you made - if you want to run from this, go ahead. You know we need to do it. You know we need the best, and this is how to get it."

"You sicken me. You'd turn your son into a gear in your machine? Well... well I can't save you. Go on, then, drown in your fairy-tale. I hope you're happy. But you'll not pull my son under as well."

Your son?"

And there it had ended. It didn't need to continue. His father - no, his mother's husband - had been too weak, too afraid, too cowardly to embrace the revolution she was building. He'd gone back on his word, and run away in fear. But that was alright, she'd said, holding him close as her tears dampened his hair, running down the bandage over his newly-implanted port.

That's alright, she'd said. We don't need him. We'll build it together, we will.

You're so brave, Robs. So brave.

You're going to be the best.

The very best, Robs.

Robin wiped the tears furiously from his eyes before they could drip into his coffee.
“Hey, Robin—“ Maya stopped dead in her tracks when the kid turned toward her, his eyes red-rimmed, his fingers twitching a half-second later to angrily swipe tears from his eyes. Then they both looked hurriedly away from one another after that first uncomfortable moment of eye contact, focusing instead on narrow patches of the floor, on the colorful winding patterns of the circuitry.

“Yes Maya, what is it?” Robin’s voice was casual and controlled, but its thickness betrayed him.

Maya didn’t want to invade his sorrow and didn’t know how to deal with it anyway. “Uh, could you help me with somethin’?” she asked awkwardly. “I-I gotta weld a new side onto the microfusion omnibus, but it’s gonna take a huge piece-a metal an’ I just ain’t strong enough to get the damn thing up to the engines by myself.” Actually, she wasn’t tall enough to lift the thin but large sheet of metal up to the hook that would raise it to the level of the catwalks without risking having it slip and cut her fingers and palms, but she sure as hell wasn’t about to admit to being too short for something, even to a crying teenager.

“Ah, of course,” Robin said, his voice already lighter. When Maya glanced cautiously up she saw that, although still somewhat red and puffy, his face was pretty much devoid of any strong hints of tears. Damn men and their ability to stop crying easily! “Where is the spare metal?” he asked casually.

Maya shrugged, feeling relieved. “Storage compartments inside-a Engineering” she told him cheerfully.

Robin nodded hurriedly, glancing at the screen before him---where meaningless lines upon lines of code streamed by---one last time before unplugging himself from the computer. “Just… you know, let’s be fast about it,” he said, rising slowly from the chair where he’d been slouched over for hours and stretching his stiff muscles. “I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“You and me both,” Maya said brusquely. “Shouldn’t take more than five or ten minutes. Oh, an’ you’ll need a suit; Engineering’s still contaminated.”

Robin took a small, unconscious step away from her, alarm flashing across his face. “I thought you were going to clean that up! Shouldn’t you stay in Engineering until the radiation’s vented, or something?”

She laughed at him holding her arms out as though to show she was unarmed. “I’m clean kid, don’t wet your pants. There’re showers in the lock outside-a Engineering; I strip, shower an’ vent every time I come outta Engineering. I ain’t never showered so many freakin’ times in my life.“

“Still,” Robin said skeptically, “You can’t blame me if the idea of standing next to someone who has so recently been frolicking amidst radioactive waste is a little disconcerting.” Maya barked a laugh as they strode up the corridor toward the airlock, and Robin continued more seriously. “You should probably do as the doctor says though, and have him look you over.”

Maya nodded impatiently. “Yeah yeah, Mom, I will.”

A flicker of memory: A short Indian woman waving with a tremulous smile on her lips and tears streaming down her face as Maya glanced over her shoulder one last time before stepping off of the landing pad and onto the Orbitran. A large, armed young man nodded briskly to her and said, “Welcome to Project Andromeda.”

She blinked the memory away, frowning slightly. Project Andromeda?

Another flash of recollection: ”Wait!” her own voice gasped as she pressed her forehead to the Orbitran’s triple-paned viewing window, “What do you mean ‘space station’? That’s not a space station, it’s a goddamn asteroid!”

“Yes ma’am,” the surprisingly-young voice behind her said, pleased to be the one revealing this surprise. “Look closer.”

She scowled at him suspiciously and then turned back to the window once again. It was a little hard to see through the glass, but if she squinted her eyes and pressed her nose directly against the window, the jagged shape of the colossal hulk of iron and rock became more distinct. “Wait,” she said again. “There’s…. there’s… what the hell, is the station
in the goddamn thing?”

“Oh yes, and much more besides. You didn’t know?”

“I ain’t been told much-a anything, really,” she said, not bothering to glance over her shoulder at the heavily-muscled aide. “Closed lips folks in charge of this whole thing, you know? Said everything’d be explained once I arrive. Didn’t ‘spect a freakin’ asteroid though. What the hell we gonna be doin’ out here that can’t be done on a normal station?”

The reflection of the black-shirted aide smiled flirtatiously at her in the glass. “Heh, if you’re not supposed to know until you land, I’m not going to be the one to tell you. You’ll just have to wait.”

“Hey.” Robin poked her arm gently, nudging her from her thoughts. “What are you thinking about?”

Maya blinked slowly. “I think the ship may be called the Andromeda. That name keeps floatin’ ‘round in my brain. First thing I thought when I came outta the cold an’ dark. And something about a ‘Project’. Project Andromeda. And an asteroid… hollowed out, with a space station or somethin’…”

The teenage programmer’s face was blank. “Oh,” was all he said for a moment. Then----“I don’t remember anything like that.”

“Give it time,” she said, starting to pat his arm and then slugging him lightly instead. “Doc said we’d ‘member stuff slowly.”

“Yes yes,” Robin confirmed impatiently without even a glance at his arm. “I merely wish memories would return a little faster. I keep getting the feeling that my entire job would be so much easier if I could just remember more.”

They took the lift up to Med Bay and began pawing around in the closets after a working suit. Eventually Robin found the one he’d used earlier.

“Check the caps,” Maya warned him as he began pulling it on.

Robin raised an eyebrow, slipping the suit over one arm, then the other. “Oh, you mean the capillaries? They feel fine; no warm breezes in my pants today.”

Maya snorted. “Well, if you’re good to go, let’s go.” She nodded toward the airlock and the lift beyond.

Engineering was blaring with the most excruciating mixture of electronic noise, screaming vocals and guitars, and the high pitched grating of metal against metal.

“Sorry!” Maya yelled over the chaos as Robin clutched his hands over his ears and stared at her in horror. She hurried to the wall, where a small metal plate from the wall had been torn away and a tiny machine labeled gPlayer had been somewhat sloppily hooked up to the exposed wires. Maya hit a button and all the noise stopped. “I found some music in my room but couldn’t get your piece-a shit computer to transfer the files on over to Engineering, so I just brought the whole damn player with me. Got some pretty good stuff on it, but I can see it ain’t exactly to your taste.” She grinned. “Too bad though… my Engineering, my music. Deal.”

Robin’s eyes rolled within his mask. “Well, thank you for turning it off for now, at least.”

“Sure thing, kiddo. Don’t wanna burst your eardrums or somethin’. It’s an acquired taste. Shall we?” She opened a compartment and nodded at a large, square sheet of metal, six feet to a side. “We need to attach those hooks”---she pointed toward two thick metal cords stretching upwards into the ceiling above the catwalks---“up to those holes in the metal.”

Robin eyeballed the sheet of titanium. “Doesn’t seem to be rocket science. Let’s do it.”

They each took an end of the metal and lifted it easily between them, walking it over to the cords and carefully balancing it in one hand while they each slipped the wickedly sharp hooks into the quarter-sized holes.

“Thanks much,” Maya said when they’d finished and the sheet of metal hovered about a foot and a half off of the floor. “I’ll let you get back to work now. Remember… shower in your suit and then vent the airlock before you leave.”

“Sure thing,” Robin said on his way out.

Maya thumbed her music back on and then hit the switch to operate the cranks which lifted the sheet of titanium up to Werebat and Frankenstein. The old titanium sheet over the microfusion omnibus had already been loosened and attached to a second set of hooks. The short engineer scurried up the ladder, clunked over the catwalks, and shimmied across the bar toward it; even dangling upside down on the bar between the two engines, it was a fairly easy thing to loosen the old sheet up---allowing it to swing freely from its cords---and guide the new one into place. Twelve strikes with her sealing rod were sufficient to fasten it; she pulled the hooks out, commanded Nibble to raise them back into the ceiling (after her third request he did) and then lower the old one to the ground. Two more strikes with the rod, and the damn thing wasn’t going anywhere for a good long time.

As she was crawling back down the ladder to the ground, another memory crashed over her, so strongly that she nearly slipped on one of the rungs.

She was in a circular room with faintly luminescent white walls. There were six pastel green desks arranged in a semi-circle before a pane of foggy plastic which stood sentinel at the front of the room. A complex formulae was being scrawled across the plastic by the hand of a professor on vacation some three thousand miles away. Five of the six desks were occupied by uniformed men and women in their mid-twenties and early thirties who poured over the eBooks glowing faintly from the screens in their desktops. The sixth desk was occupied by a very bored, very teenage, defiantly un-uniformed Maya. One half of her screen was occupied by a page of the textbook a good seven or eight chapters ahead of her classmates; the other half was filled with a music video which she listened to through the nearly-invisible headphone nestled deep in her ear.

There was a light knock on the door. The adult students glanced up, startled and somewhat annoyed, as the distraction tore them away from their furious studying. Maya sighed and turned off her video as two professors from the Engineering Department entered the room. It wouldn’t do to look like she was slacking off again.

“Maya Dhatri?” the man with the receding hairline asked. She was a little dismayed to hear her own name, sure for an instant that she
was in trouble after all, but then she saw that the man was smiling and the woman beside him looked very excited.

“Yeah?” Maya asked, rising to her feet.

“There is a man here who would like to speak to you. I… I think you will want to hear what he has to say,” the male professor said, a little of his colleague’s excitement slipping into his voice.

“Kays…” Maya said a little uncertainly, rising and grabbing as an afterthought for her tattered corteroy backpack. “Any idea what the hell

“It’s about the engine design contest you entered.”

Three minutes later Maya stood in the Dean’s office before an extremely tall African man in a sharp black suit. He rose from his seat before the very pleased Dean’s desk and crossed to Maya.

“Ms. Dhatri. My name is Jomo Mwai. I’d like to speak to you about your entry into the design contest put out by my company a few months ago.”

“Err,” Maya said. “If this is ‘bout enterin’ despite not meeting the entrance requirements, I’m sorry, but I thought they were pretty freakin’ stupid. I mean, I’m the goddamn best engineering student this little university has had in Shiva only knows how long, and it’s pretty dumb not to let me compete just ‘cause I ain’t eighteen yet.”

“This is not about your eligibility for entrance in the competition, Ms. Dhatri. This is about your engine design. I’ve come here personally to congratulate you on your magnificent accomplishment. Your ‘Phase Transition’ has won our engine design contest. Not just won, in fact. You’ve... completely blown the competition out of the water. We’ve never seen anything even remotely like what you’ve envisioned, and we’d like to have the opportunity to help make your vision a reality.”

“I… oh,” was all Maya could say at first. Then---“You mean you’re gonna to give me the fundin’ to
make the damn thing?”

“We’d like to invite you to participate in Project Andromeda. We will give you funding, time, training… whatever you need to bring your engine to life. I warn you though… this project will take you far from India. You will be leaving your family behind, and for a potentially long time.”

“Well, shit,” Maya said, scratching her head. “I’ll have to think about that a bit. I mean, you’re asking me to ditch this piece of shit of a country, escape my parents… Hard decision… Yeah, I’ll do it.”

The man looked a little shocked by her obscenely prompt response, and for the first time that morning his composure seemed to be shaken up. “Err… are you sure?”

“Hell yeah! Think I want to stay in this hell-hole for the resta my life? No offense professors, Dean-man,” she added insincerely to the others, who were too busy looking proud to notice the insult to their educational establishment. “Yeah, I wanna make my engine, and if you’re willin’ to pay…”

“Well then,” he said smoothly. “Welcome to Project Andromeda.”

Maya blinked, finding herself standing halfway up the ladder, one foot dangling in space. She’d designed the damn pha-tras? She glanced up at the two looming engines. Those ungodly-ugly monstrosities?

She grinned. Of course she did. Who else would have?

Well, that was one more question answered, at least. But still, there were a thousand others, not the least important of which was how the hell was she going to clean up the nuclear spill she’d created?

Robin… Robin, or someone, had said something about environmental scrubbers. Her eyes slid toward a large, boxlike machine near the airlock. The disintegrator. Would that work? She doubted it. You put stuff in, and it didn’t get all sparkly clean, it was just broken down into its various parts for recycling. She doubted it would be good to dump nuclear waste in there…

She sighed. Time to go back out again and start digging through all of the compartments. These “scrubbers” had to be here somewhere, right?

After a shower and a vent, she wandered back out to the crawl-spaces outside of Engineering, searching each compartment individually---but to no avail. There were no damn scrubbers here, although she did find a bunch of other weird equipment. She shoved that back in its compartment, slapped the door shut, and saw it.

At first, it was just a flicker of motion out of her right eye. When she turned around, glancing up at the ceiling where she’d thought she’d seen it, it was gone. But she walked around the corner, and saw the motion again, this time accompanied by a small flash of green light.

There! Up in the corner, a robot about the size of a soccer ball rolled along the ceiling, a little light shining on its back. It reminded her a bit of a turtle and a beetle combined. On its side were the words, “Scrub-Bot”.

It was moving at little more than a crawl. She chased it down, and, jumping a few times, managed to bat it off of the ceiling. Then she recovered it from the ground, where it lay on its “back”, sticky little legs rotating futilely above it.

There was a little panel on the thing’s back. She tapped it open and squinted at the settings. Right now it was switched to “basic” but she saw that there was also “industrial” and “advanced”. She flipped it to advanced, and nearly dropped the thing when its red light flashed on and it began to creep toward engineering. “Warning,” it intoned mechanically, “faint radioactive traces detected. Initiate cleanup-sequence?”

“Wait for me honey,” Maya grinned, following the thing back down the hall toward Engineering. She opened the airlock to let them both in, and pulled on her suit while the thing kept repeating its request. “Wait, wait… shut up already!” Maya yelled at it, but then she was securely in her suit and able to open the airlock and let the thing into Engineering to do its work.

It took about a half hour, and Maya had to listen to the thing recite every mundane detail of its procedure as it went along. When she turned up her music to try to drown it out, it merely turned up its own volume and asked her permission every few moments to do one task or another.

Finally it finished its process and presented itself to her. “Radioactive material no longer detected. Connect Scrub-Bot to exterior venting system?”

“Yeah sure, get rid of it,” Maya said, extremely relieved. Then---“Wait, wait!”

The bot, which had just been in the process of turning around and heading toward the airlock, paused.

“How much nuclear waste did you collect?”

“Scrub-Bot collected one point three six five liters of nuclear waste. Connect Scrub-Bot to exterior venting system?”

Maya raised a skeptical eyebrow. “One freakin’ liter?”

“One point three six five liters of nuclear waste,” the bot corrected her. “Connect Scrub-Bot to exterior venting system?”

She ran a few quick calculations through her head. If the bot had collected only a little over a liter of the fuel, then the damn engine must have burned the rest… but that was a freaking lot of fuel! “Can you run any kinds of analyses on the fuel?”

“Shall Scrub-Bot list contents of analysis menu?”

“No no no,” Maya said quickly, sure she didn’t want to hear that run down. “Just… um… can you run a half-life analysis of the fuel and use that to determine how long this damn ship has been in space?”

“According to requested half-life analysis, nuclear waste has been disintegrating for approximately one hundred fifty to two hundred years.”

Maya nodded slowly to herself. Yup, that matched her own calculations. But was that normal for a flight? Her instincts told her no, that that was a freakin’ long time to be out in space… but she couldn’t remember anything. Wasn’t her engine supposed to warp space and time to make travel-times shorter? Why the hell had they been in space longer than the five or so years it normally took a freaking nuc-pulser to do what the pha-tra could do so much faster and better?

“Connect Scrub-Bot to exterior venting system?”

“Yeah!” Maya snarled. “Go go go you piece of shit!” She slipped out of her suit and raked a hand through her hair. Then: “Intercom: Hey punks!”

Several semi-comatose groans, curses and a couple wide-awake queries greeted her voice. She’d completely forgotten what time it was, but hey, it was their problem they weren’t working, not hers.

“Listen up boys and girls. I ain’t sure how important or unusual this is, but if my calculations are right and the Scrub-Bot’s half-life analysis is correct, looks like we been flyin’ and sittin’ round out here in the middle of…wherever we are… for at least a century and a half. So folksies, happy centennial… about fifty years ago! Now what the hell have we been doin’ out here so long?!”
The blond doctor was in the cryo-bay again when Maya spoke up, trying to perform a system analysis on the beds and compile a report for repairs.
”What!?” Chance had no right to be angrier than anyone else on the ship but somehow he took it as a personal insult that the cryo units had kept them locked up for so long. They were his machines damnit! The two things you could not afford to loose on any ship were the medical tech and the engines.
“Blood! I just thought the time stamps on the cryo records were messed up. A hundred and fifty years?” he dropped back onto the top of one of the units and ran his hand back through his hair, “What happened that the safety protocols kept us in for a century? You would think this ship would be in pieces for something like that to happen.”
He sighed and checked the programs again. Nope, the safety protocols were intact, and he had used these things too many times to set them wrong.
“Nibble I need to get into my personal files, if I have any. Can you do that?”
“Authentication required. I need a password.” he chimed.
“Um… this isn’t going well is it? Rain?”
“Fortune? Marzipan? Paracetamol?”
“Wrong, wrong, wrong.” Nibble replied cheerfully.
“I hate guessing games.” He could be here all day just reading out a dictionary and he probably still wouldn’t get it, “Lucia?” he asked hesitantly. He still didn’t even know who she was.
“Um…. Alice. Jabberwocky. Lewis Carroll.”
“No, no, no.”
“Do you mind?” Robin called down the intercom, ”I need him to pay attention.”
“Alright, I’ll see if wrote it down somewhere. It sounds like something I’d need to do.” He stared at the display panel in the med-bay for a while.
One hundred and fifty years. Whoever Lucia had been he certainly wouldn’t be sending her any more birthday cards.

After reviewing the one personal file he could get into over and over again (the mysterious audio track he’d left himself as a note) the only thing Chance remembered was that somewhere on this ship was a packet full of something that was probably illegal, and quite possibly mind-altering. Of course he didn’t even bother looking in his own room or anywhere near med-bay. No, it would be tucked behind an access panel somewhere, hiding amongst wires and cables and a hundred and one other things he didn’t want to be groping around in.
No, there was only one solution to this and it was a short female of the Indian persuasion. She would be out somewhere near engineering again probably, although it was probably of considerable relief to everyone that it had been cleaned up.
As he opened the door and stepped into the next corridor however he noticed a distinct drop in temperature. The doors closed behind him silently and he took his hands out of his back pockets, folding his arms over his chest.
“Oh hey! I can see my breath!” he puffed a few times and smiled to himself. If he had ever been anywhere as cold as this it had probably been a while. It seemed almost surreal to watch the water vapour condense into little clouds every time he exhaled.
Actually he probably shouldn’t find that so entertaining.
Just as he stepped forward to make his way deeper into the hallway the lights cut out.
“… Nibble.” he called firmly, but he received no answer, “Nibble?” Well whatever it was that had broken seemed to have left him more or less stranded until Robin or Nibble noticed something was wrong.
Chance stepped forward carefully, reaching out with his hand to find the wall. A little way along he bumped into something, which wouldn’t have been a problem if he hadn’t consequently brained himself on another mystery object and fallen between two crates. Or a door and a crate. Or a crate and a pipe. It was fairly irrelevant really.
“Ach,” he rubbed his hand across the back of his head. He planted his palms flat against the two things either side of him and tried to push himself up.

He’d never really had a problem with claustrophobia. He didn’t have any such intense fears about anything. But here, like this, it was hard not to feel suffocated. It was so tight and dark. Even in a night this cold it felt boiling pressed up against the other two men secreted away beside him. His heart was battering inside his ribcage so hard that some irrational corner of his mind was suddenly afraid that its deafening pulse would give away their hiding place.
He didn’t panic though. Perhaps it would have been better if he could; if he could let the fear swallow him, as though he could burn through it faster and come out the other side as calm as if he were painting a fence. But he couldn’t. He had always been blessed with a mind that held itself together tighter under pressure. “Last Chance” they used to call him, back when it was just easy, cushy little A&E work. Back when the worst thing that could happen during surgery was the lights going out or an artery could burst.
That same talent for composure was torturing him now. He couldn’t distract himself from the smothering atmosphere of this tiny little niche between power cables and data leads. No, all he could think about was how thin the sheet of metal separating them from the room was. About why the uniforms in that room couldn’t hear them breathing, or smell the anxious perspiration. He could hear them moving, hear their low, ominous voices, and yet somehow they remained oblivious to the trio squashed up in the wall.
No. No! Enough of this! He wasn’t a rat to be hiding in walls from an exterminator. Blood! He wasn’t even doing anything
wrong. No, he had already made his choice and he sure as death wasn’t going to let them make him regret it.
Just as if he were banishing a nightmare from his dreams the room beyond fell silent and empty as the uniforms left.

Chance shivered. He couldn’t much about what had been going on then, like why he was there or who was looking for them. HE couldn’t even remember who the other two were. But it had been the most intense experience in his life. He didn’t need his whole history to know that.
He pulled himself out of the tight corner, catching his arm on the pipe with a hiss. He rubbed it a little bit and the lights came back on. Apparently whatever it was had been fixed or got over itself.
A little disturbed by the powerful memory he continued onward in more or less a straight line until he bumped into Maya on her way to somewhere.
She looked at him oddly, “Hi.”
There was a moment’s silence before either of them said anything.
“So do you want something or are you just gonna stand in the way?”
“Oh! Oh, no. Sorry. actually there was something. I’ve been looking at the medical files, and I thin k there might be some illegal chemicals on board. I don’t mean like smuggling, someone’s personal stash.”
“… What make you think that?” she said hesitantly.
“I can’t say. Ethics code and stuff, but look, it’s not been long enough for withdrawal to set in, that’s even if they’re addicted. They might not be. But since no-one really remembers anything I thought maybe we could handle it quietly? Last thing we need is everyone throwing around accusations and getting suspicious, right? Anyway, I reckon it would be hidden up in the wiring or something. Somewhere that doesn’t get a lot of maintenance or somewhere really hard to get your hands in. Not that I’m saying it’s someone with small wrists!” he added quickly. She was looking a bit nervous, although that just could be him, “No, just if you find anything could you let me know? I want to dispose of it quietly and not make a fuss on it. It’s better if whoever it belongs to doesn’t remember about it until I’m sure it’s off the ship, okay?”
“Okay, you look a little disturbed, so I’m gonna go now and make a nuisance of myself elsewhere.” he smiled at her brightly and stepped out of her way. Now he just had to figure out that password and try to remember what it was he’d hidden from himself.
Sleep was not on the woman’s mind. She'd only been out for a short time and energy after the wonderful little meal was rushing through her body. All Jaci wanted to do was run now, do a full sprint through the ship if only to use up the excess and allow her a modicum of normalcy. The others were sure to be asleep by now...

An hour was spent in the room, first a shower, then a few chapters from a book found stowed away, then some pacing and studying of the animal etched beads. Nothing was interesting just yet, except her vacant memory. Names were available with faces from their dinner so that wasn't a problem. Maybe some familiar settings would give it a jump...


The dorms were behind her, closed doors and sleeping crew for all but hers. Jaci'd decided exactly where she wanted to go and that was up! Her area was up, her special place, her niche. The bridge was her point of control and absolute certainty and all she wanted to do was see it, touch a few things, and remember.

The lift doors opened upon her sanctuary, the lighting perfect. Ahead was the area she needed to see most. Her pilots seat was there waiting for her. She wasn't ready to try even a simple sensor scan yet, besides the fact that her suit was down below. It was just comforting to see that mechanism that was absolute freedom of body.

The chair was upright, tilted back only slightly. The headrest was curved to support her skull with a cushion at the neck level. Similar padding lined the seat itself, the material meant to form around the pilot and give the sensation of absolute security. Almost seamless lines were visible on both arms of the chair as well as at the shoulder, midriff, thighs, and ankle sections. It was where special bands would emerge and secure her if ever there was a problem that demanded the pilots’ safety in the seat. On the hand-rests, shapes were visible, similar to those that were on either hand. Bands of silver-grey could be seen at the shoulder, mid-back, and thigh areas of the chair.

Beyond this, there was the viewing window, stretching before and to either side in a perfect curve. Unfortunately, it was shielded and whatever fantastic sights were beyond it could not be seen. Something told her there was a restroom and weapons locker on the other side of the command deck, but that's not what she wanted.

Consoles of many kinds were visible too, everything from diagnostics checks to infrared screens and even a few vertical hologram projectors. Somewhere amongst all of this, there was what she was looking for: star-charts. While probably not giving her the exact location she needed right then, they would provide ample comfort as the floral decor of her room might in days to come. It was something she knew she could associate with as all pilots must know their charts, no matter the amount of cryo-jumps.

Her search began with a walk, moving amongst the blank displays and scanning labels for what she searched for. Maybe Nibble could help her with that, presuming what she wanted to ask could be done by the currently screwed up computer.

She paused by the chair, one long forefinger tracing the smooth edge for a moment and smiling. This was where she belonged...

“Wira? Wira, wake up. We’re nearly there.”

The sudden words startled her from her reverie and Jaci blinked.

A hand brushed across her cheek, gentle, as affectionate as the voice was beautiful. It nudged the brown-black braid of hair, a red tie of cloth keeping it closed, from her face and tickled her chin. Jaci awoke, her mothers bright blue eyes, so unlike the lineage, beaming down at her. She’d fallen asleep with her head in her mothers lap, a bit of drool on the laid-on side. Her jacket slipped to the floor as she sat up and rubbed her eyes.

“Look there, my sweet. See the light?” She pointed to a porthole from their little room on the transport vessel the object of interest. Beyond it, an expanse of black so massive stood. Twinkling lights filled it here and there and nearest, an interlocking mechanism of immense proportions yawned at them. It was the station they’d be registering at before shuttling to the surface of their new home. It’d been a short hop from the last locale, only about a year in cryo. The passengers had been woken about a week prior to reorient them before they made dock.

It was really quite stunning to look at the space port, its circular center turning slowly to allow gravity on the beast while a few small flits of shuttles passed around it, maintenance vessels, she imagined.

Her family was an old line, keeping to tradition from the old tribe before the forests were all but obliterated. Her father, David after the American fashion, was from one of the Chili wool-weavers and her mother of the Amazonians who’d been relocated many decades ago. The woman beside her was the great-great granddaughter of the last chieftain’s wife and then there was Jaci.

“Do you see, my little bird?” her mother crooned in the old-tongue, standing and moving to the porthole. She pointed out a long tether near the base. It was like the feathery frill of some forgotten butterfly and it was there their ship would latch and connect to the main station to unload the few passengers and its cargo. Jaci nodded enthused as she peered over the edge, fingers white on the sill.

An intercom sounded, announcing their closing distance and speed. All passengers were to remain in their quarters till the ship was secured and the air-lock opened. It would be about an hour before they made dock and all her coloring pads had been stowed away, her mother not wanting to get them out again.

The echoing clunk of metal announced to the passengers the ship had connected and the captain’s voice soon followed. "Alright ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Neptune . I hope you've enjoyed your flight. The space-ports current temperature is a comfortable 72.3 degrees and humidity is predicted in the greenhouse. Have a pleasant stay and be sure to travel Stel9 again." The chipper voice clicked off and people began to leave, the low whoosh of compartments opening and closing following.

In their little alcove, Jaci's mother slipped away to wake her husband on one of the cots the space liner supplied in each room. The broad man that appeared rubbed sleepers from his eyes and gave the quiet three-year old a rub on the head, smiling. "Did you see the tether?" He asked, scooping her up and settling her on one hip while the mother gathered up the few pieces of "carry-on" luggage. Jaci nodded and flapped her hands at her papa's face. They exited soon after.

Jaci frowned. Neptune ? Stel9? What on god’s green Earth was this?

The people in the halls were similar to the old family: parents tugging children along to disembark for their next jump or to remain at the station and take a shuttle to the colony on the planets icy surface, little groups of missionaries from one of the last organized religions back home (Their sashes said they were NeoChrists, some hot-headed clan that had managed to unite the old Christian groups of Catholicism, Baptists, Methodists and a number of others under the pre-tense Christ was soon to come.), even a few single folk, weary of stance and ready for their new life to begin.

It was all so exciting for Jaci to watch as she hugged her father close, body bouncing on his hip. “Da!” She squealed and pointed. There was a man ahead in a yellow jumper standing beside a digital scroll-board. It read that transit passengers were to report to Deck E-915 for registration before loading the next ship. All passengers not making the jump to the next colony were to head for Deck Z7 for further instructions.

Jaci let go and her dad let her drop easily to the ground, one hand holding firm to one of hers. The girl bobbed excitedly as they passed him. Yellow was such a fun color.

The memory blipped as though someone had hit the skip-chapter button.

"All visitors heading for CCU74419 please report to Registration. All new colonists starting from Sol please report to your required booth for customs check. Missionaries should report to Deck Z6 for further instructions from religious leaders." A voice boomed over the announcement speaker, startling a few bleary-eyed patrons.

They'd been in line for over an hour and Papa had suggested she and mother go get something to eat while he did the work. He was such a good man like that. Jaci's mum agreed and pulled her daughter along, heading for one of the nutrients station to order a snack.

It jumped again, and for a moment a strange numbness overtook her legs.

"Mama!" Jaci called, pushing against the crowds from the ship. They'd finished with customs but in the process of getting back to her father, she'd been separated. "Mama!"

There were so many people, so many more than she could've imagined. How could so many bodies be in such a small place? The din was too much to hear if either parent called for her and each step through the throng took her further and further away. The noise was too much, she needed to sit down. Tears drew dark lines down both tanned cheeks and a hand tugged her braid in fright. "Mama! Mama, where are you!" Her words were drowned by the people.

She made it to the edge of the crowd at last, slipping beneath some yellow and red tape to do so. Where were the security figures? Weren't they supposed to be on regular patrol for things like lost children?

To her left, a laser drill hissed. There was a construction point where workers from engineering were putting up new support beams along the wall. It was necessary on occasion just like cleaning the floors or taking a shower. Things got weak and needed to be replaced. It was just how life went. But the sound fascinated Jaci and she turned to watch the activities.

Two small airlifts supported the beam as the crew worked it into place, their drills boring holes in. Men in blue harnesses dangled from above. For all their technology, it was still safer to use the ropes in a gravity environment. As the girl watched, the beam shifted the lift nearest her losing height and tilting the massive thing down. It slipped dangerously and the men cried out in alarm, one of them dropping rapidly from his lead to reset the unit and stabilize the beam. But the angle was too sharp and with a scream of metal and torn bolts, it shot downwards.

Jaci gasped, forcing her fingers to relax from the fist that had formed. Tears brimmed in her brown eyes before tumbling down dark-tanned cheeks. Such a nightmare that had been! Was it real? How could something so terrible be real?

"I'm afraid she'll never walk on her own again." Someone was saying. Her head was foggy, drugged. There was no pain in her body, though; it was as if someone had doused her in cold water and the numbness had settled too deep. The only thing that did float from the instant before darkness was a set of hands pulling her suddenly, and then the beam crashed. Had it hit her?

"What about those suits? We don't have much left after the tickets to the colony, but...but maybe we could get one? She's too young to not walk again."

That was her mother. There were tears in her voice. Where was she? Where was papa? Where was the customs-bay?

Her heart pounded and a beep blared annoyingly. In answer, a nurse was suddenly there and the bland sight was replaced with a concerned face unfamiliar to the child in the bed, her body secured in a full-cast and a clear casing covered both lips diagonally, keeping closed two raw cuts.

"Oh, baby." It was her mother again, the woman now in view and staring down in fright at the child. "I'm so sorry mummy lost you." Papa appeared next, fear lining his handsome face. "We're here, Wira'" he said and traced a thumb down one cheek.

Faces and pictures faded and only featureless voices were there, explanations of so much memory-less things coming in leaps.

"The suit'll help. Her therapist will be there during her sessions till she can control it...."

"The method is still experimental and there hasn't been much success with other test subjects. Your daughter is a prime candidate though and with your approval we'll get it underway...."

"You have to focus, Jaci. You must TELL them what to do. Train your thoughts on your memory and just lift your hand."

"I can't do it! Can't I just keep the suit?" "FOCUS!" ..."Well done! Now walk to me." "It's a success!...They want an interview...She doesn't need it anymore...That much!?..."

Words faded, leaving her dizzy and disoriented and still on the floor, her legs pinned beneath and feeling asleep.

Tentatively, she reached a hand up and drew fingers across both lips. The scar was there, a puffy reminder of youthful carelessness. It felt cold and just as numb as her legs. Or was it her fingers? Jaci couldn't be sure. The memories had revealed one thing for sure: she'd been a quadriplegic at one point, or still was, but somehow had overcome it. The end bit didn't give her enough to tell what had truly occurred. Her thoughts turned to Nibble once more and wondered if there was a log of hers stored somewhere in his databanks, some sort of (transfer) link to the chaotic imagery that had left her feeling weak.

"Nibble?" She asked quietly, unaware of the time lapse between arrival on the bridge and the memory recovery. It had been long enough for Robin to wake, anyways. "Nibble, can you do something for me?"

"I am required to render any assistance possible. What is your request?" Came the disembodied voice.

"I'm looking for some logs of some kind. Something I may have um..." she paused, scrunching forehead in thought. "Transferred or something." She wasn't sure if it was right to look through history logs and mission logs were certainly not on her priority list. At least, not yet.

"Personal data is located in your personal logs within your quarters. Doctor McCallum has any required medical information on file in the Med Bay . Mission logs are located on the Command Deck." Boy he was a chipper fella...

She considered her options and decided on the first two. "Mmm...You wouldn't know where in our bunkers they'd be, would you?" What a stupid question that was. Of course the computer wouldn't know that. Something tickled her consciousness that he wasn't allowed that deep; perhaps it had to do with respecting private locale and whatnot. After all, if the machine could poke about, who's to say that anyone could?

"Negative, Ms. Jaci." he answered.

"Ah...well thanks for your help." Now she was losing her mind, showing grace to a computer. She wasn't Robin and the only real gratitude to machines she owed was apparently to the teeny-weeny robots that allowed her to move. Time would tell on that.

Nibble perked in again, a hopeful note in his voice-simulator, "Can I be of any further assistance?" It sounded almost as though he was lonely...

Jaci frowned. The numbness was gone and instead a steady itching throb had replaced it. The nanites were doing their job. With one hand on the arm of her chair, she pulled herself back into a standing position and rolled both shoulders. "How about a game of Chutes and Ladders?" She said jokingly.

Before she headed back for the lift, Maya's voice clicked on the intercom and gave them the sweet little news of their extended stasis. Only five words seem to come to mind right then and with a equally shocked voice she inputted.

"Crap in a handbag..." Another slip in time. There was no young anymore, it seemed. Young had been passed long long ago and the hill was already far out of sight. It had come down to one thing with that bit of information. She was old.

"A hundred and fifty years..." Jaci said to no one in particular, staring dumbly at the blast-shield. That was a major problem. A flight that long without stops was dangerous, right? Drifting was even more dangerous. If they'd been out that long without a way to reach ANYONE, they were damn lucky to be alive. An asteroid could've plastered them or they could've taken a nose dive into a supernova or worse. So many pessimisms without a light in sight.

She continued to talk, walking away towards the lift at last and descending to the medbay to find anyone. "Ok, hundred and fifty. Well that's not too bad. Could be worse, I suppose. So I'm a hundred and seventy two year old quadriplegic that's supposed to know how to fly this nameless beast. Do you know where you are? Do you know what happened? Do you know ANYTHING from before? No, of course not because I've been stuck in a damn freeze-tube for the last century and a half dreaming about home. Puh...I need a drink." At that point, Robin was getting off the lift himself. Jaci turned and looked at him, marred lips pressed tight for a moment.

"Nibble any better?" She asked quietly only to fill the brief silence that had came. Talk about awkward. She'd forgotten his earlier report on the viral program he'd found.

"Not really." He answered and moved on, leaving a lost Jaci in his wake. Time...it was always about time.

A Non-Existent User
So dark. How can it be this dark? She looked to her left, right, all around. It didn't matter anyway. It was too dark, everywhere. It had already started to seep into her mind, throwing her off balance. She grabbed her head, trying to imagine the light, a bright room, a bright smile. Her mother's face shone from behind her eye lids. Her dark eyes sparkled. Hyke smiled back, but when she opened her eyes, it was dark again. Too dark.

A door opened and a bright lighted filled the room. A large man in a loose unremarkable blue uniform grabbed her roughly by the arm. Hyke was small, even for her age. She always had been, and this man was a mammoth comparably.

"The closet? Again? You'd think with your brains you could find a better hiding place."

Hyke, upon seeing the light, had regain her senses. "Then why did it take you 3 hours to find me?"

The large man growled and dragged her uncerimoniously to a bare, grey room. One last glare and he threw her into it. Escape. That's all Hyke thought about. That's all she really cared about, but she wanted more than to just escape her room for a few hours. Especially when she had to hide in darkness. She wanted freedom from the "school" she had to suffer. She plopped down at her computer. She had gotten around the blocks to the outside world, and had gained a friend, someone who would help her escape to freedom.

Hyke sat up in bed, sweating. She couldn't see a thing. It was too dark, way too dark. Instinctively, she reached for the wall next to her bed and flipped a switch. A light turned on above her, and she calmed her breathing. Not really caring what time it was, she cleaned up, got dressed, and stepped out of her room.

A name was circling her thoughts, and she had to figure out who it was. If he had helped her escape that hell she had suffered, she had to find him. <Zero>. That's all she had to go on. The air outside her room was cold, but not too cold. She shivered and made her way to the her sanctuary. The Science Deck. It was shared with Medical, but it was still hers.

The lab was clean, meticulously so, and it almost shined. So I'm a neat-freak. Joy. That should make it easy to find stuff. She wondered around, touching various things, a whatchamacallit and a thingamabob, trying to spark a semblence of a memory, but nothing surfaced. She saw it then. Her glorious machine. Her computer! Thank the heavens. She almost ran to it and sank into the squishy, wheeled chair. What a wonderous feeling. She stroked the keypad.

Identification? Hyke remembered that voice.

"Hyke Nemuir?"

The voice changed from monotony to girly in seconds. Hyke, baby! Acess granted. How have you been?

"Am I really that desperate that I had to program in a friendly greeting?"

The computer laughed. Weird. Good to hear you too. It was too much for Hyke. She pulled up her files, some were damaged beyond quick repair, but she was able to unprogram the talking-ness of her computer.

"Now to find<Zero>."

Hours later, Hyke had to stand and stretch. So far the only thing she had found was that she was into re-building already built things. She had graphs, plans, and designs for almost every peice of equipment around her. She found that they each had a Hyke-y quality after she made her alterations. No luck with the mysterious friend, however. She jumped when Maya's voice spoke over the Intercom. That was going to need some getting use to. Maya spoke of a century plus in cryo.

"150 years?" It made no difference to her, but she worried over the cryo-beds. They weren't suppose to keep them that long. It also fasinated her that they did. She would have to look at them later. If they were able to stay in working order with a malfuncioning ship and against their programming, they were worth it. She put that in the back of her mind and sat once more.

An hour later she shouted, "Got it!" She had tracked the blasted file for hours and finally found it. It was entitled, Escape.
"I'm so original." She hesitated in opening. What would she find? Swallowing, she opened it.

<zero>: Don't worry. We all have family problems. *smirk*

<POW>: You don't understand. We are taken here against our and our families wishes. My family tried hiding me, and it worked for a few years, but after that...

Her dream flashed behind her eyes, her mother's scream. She cringed and continued reading.

I was taken to this blasted facility. They train our brains, hook us up to these stupid machines that are suppose to evaluate our levels of understand. They hardly ever work. They give you nothing and take everything. My cell is one room, all grey, with a bed, a desk, and a computer. We're not even allowed to connect with anyone outside the facility.

<Zero>: Then how are we having this conversation?

<POW>: I have my ways. But it's not the same. I want out of this bloody place. I'm sick of wearing only grey, of only reading certain books, of never being allowed outside!

<Zero>: Then I guess there's only one solution.

<POW>: yeah? What?

<Zero>: We have to get you out of there.

Gabriel was sprawled on the Weapons Deck, snoring slightly, he had a wrench in one hand and some various other unidentifiable tools scattered around him. He was partially hidden by the seat of the turret he was working to set about in working order, having tried to use it earlier with nothing more than a meaningless click of pieces obviously not in working order. He had dragged out the tools, slid under the firing panel and started to set about fixing it. Unfortunately, he had failed to realize the depth of his exhaustion, hence the minor predicament he was currently in, apparently, counting and cataloguing weapons was a trying task, one that he took his time to remedy, snoring on the warm floor (it being the warmest room on the whole ship since Nibble was still wonky).

Gabriel was startled awake by the com crackling to life, Maya’s voice coming in loudly, clearly, and with no good news. He swore, quickly sitting up, swearing even uglier and louder when he smacked his head against the console. He jammed his finger on the ‘Talk’ button, “What in the nine hells do you mean by a ‘undre’ an fi’ty yea’s!!” He howled, “Gorrammit all!!” He took his finger off the button and clutched his hands to his head, there was a nice sized welt forming on his forehead, “Dammit, dammit, dammit.” He hissed, pulling himself to his feet, running his fingers over the console, “Poor baby, gonna get you fixe’ nice ‘n neat. Make sure you c’n stop an’thin’ that comes our way.” He crooned, “Min’ you, you ought be workin’ anyways, a ‘undre’ ‘n fity year ain’ s’pposed to bug you none, love.” He said, rubbing a scuff off the control panel. “Poor luv.”

“Gabriel, don’t you dare!”

The voice came to him suddenly, without warning and Gabriel staggered. He shook his head in confusion, looking around for the source of the voice.

”Gabriel, gorrammit! You stupid sod! They’re not human, you hear? Not human!”

He whirled wildly, his heart thundering in his chest, the images played across his mind, like he was watching a movie, the faces, the fear, he could only see though, there was no smell, no sensations that should come. Again, like a movie.

“Hiya!” A thunderous tumult of voices surrounded him, his eyes darted around quickly, calculatingly, boys and girls, all had a uniform look, boys had black hair, girls had blonde, boys had green eyes, girls, blue. He was with them, in them, all of one mind, all with one purpose, “Ya!” A second movement, a defensive/offensive movement that brought them all round to face the side of the room, their right fists drawn up to their chests and their left down by their sides, legs spread and fierce looks on all their faces. So many like him, “Kya!” So many, so easy to manipulate, “Ha!” Subservient beings, “Kiya!” Useable, “Ha!” Disposable, “Aiiii…” Not human, “AH!” Weapons.

Gabriel convulsed, his stomach cramping and his body doubling over, his shoulders shaking as he coughed, “Dammit.” He hissed, stilling his movements, forcing his body to cooperate, “That ain’t righ’.” He muttered, his eyes falling shut, “Come on, give me more.”

”We have a job for you…”

Static clouded his mind a moment, and the video screen was back, staring at his own face…

“What is it?” He demanded hoarsely, “I retire’ a yea’ ago, I don’ do grunt work for the gove’nmen’.” Gabriel's voice slurred by heavy drink.

“See, that’s why we need you, we’re not from the government, Gabriel, please, I beg you, just…. Just hear us out?” The smaller who had approached the voliatle Gabriel was small, skinny, very scientific looking.

The face paused, considering, the green eyes blank, “Arigh’ fine, but if I don’ like it, you’re out on your eah.” He snarled reluctantly.

“Okay, well, it’s called…”

The image went fuzzy again and Gabriel swore, clutching his head, “Dammit, dammit, it’s all wonky…” He hissed.

“So why do you nee’ me for this hurky excursion? I’m sure there’s plenty o’ people ‘ho c’n do what I c’n and be more than a helluva lot willin’ to work for somethin’ as… touchy as this.” The voice seemed more sober now, calmer.

“But that’s just it, we want you because you… you know the government and wouldn’t willingly sell us out to them, we need you because you’re well-known for your abilities. And other’s would be a lot less willing to interfere if you’re aboard.”

“I though’ you said that this ‘s s’posed ta be secre’?” Gabriel leaned back in his cushy chair.

“It is, but some people, within the scientific community, want this project for their own, the crew list is posted with the project, if they learn you’re protecting it, they’ll be hesitant to come after it.”

Gabriel sneered, “Jus’ so we’re clear, I don’ like most anybody, so don’ expect me to be ‘nice’ to anyone. I’ll be civil, but I bite, I like me privacy, anyone invades it is subject to punishment I see fit.”

“You’re expected to be civil, no killing or ‘punishment’, please, Gabriel, we need you to protect these people as if… as if they were your family.” The little man on the chair seemed to wilt visibly as Gabriel gave him a solid, menacing glare.

“You evah brin’ my fam’ly into a conversation atween you ‘n I again, I swear to whatever god there is, I won’ 'esitate to shoo' you.” His voice was slow, cold, and very, very angry, “Tha’s how the government got trouble from me. When ‘ey killt ‘em.” His eyes darted and the camera panned to look at the family, the same picture on his dresser in his bedroom.

Gabriel gasped for breath, as if he were underwater, when he surfaced from the memory, “Gone.” He clutched his head, “What’s all this?” He should have felt angry, upset, something other than this monotone emptiness, perhaps he had already made peace with his demons then. So, the government killed his family and that’s why he was here, in the middle of nowhere, on a practically dead ship with five other people, “Cor.” He muttered, shaking off the memories, “Gots to get that turret fixed.” That was it, focus on something else, something else entirely, no sense in listening to the past when he didn’t seem to care all that much.

Eyes opened, looking around and the figure righted. He popped the knife from his boot and looked around, igniting the edge, “Now, now pretties, you aren’t supposed to figure out my secrets just yet…” He murmured, baring his teeth, “Shouldn’t have dropped it in the first place.” He patted his pockets, “Dammit.” He pulled out his pocket, glaring at the hole in the black cargoes, “Wretched things.” He slipped out of the room he was in and quickly, silently made his way to the escape pods, pushing one of them open, nearly gagging on the scent inside, “Ah, hello love, a hundred and fifty years since we last met, no?” He said to the interior, waving a hand in front of his nose, “You look much better like this.” He chuckled darkly, turning and resealing the pod, slipping his knife away as his eyes darting along the corridors, “Where are we? Where are we?”

He turned tail and bounded up to the command deck, wincing when he saw someone inside, his nose wrinkled and he left before the woman could sense him, moving down to the next deck with the swiftness of a prowling hunter, his eyes flashed and everything leapt into focus, even down to the grain patterns of the steel framing beneath him. He slipped into Gabriel’s room, the easiest for him to access at the time, as Gabriel wasn’t currently there and logged onto the computer terminal, killing video feeds and erasing his presence once more, as he always had to do when he went on excursions, and disguised his cuts with the virus he planted, “Trouble, you know that? Trouble.” He muttered to no one, his fingers flying over the keys, locking access to the pods until such a time he wanted people in them. Or something irreparable happened to the ship, that wouldn’t happen soon if he had heard Maya correctly, and the pilot was up and running properly again, so, now, they all had to remember how to do their job, figure out what the hell happened, and get out of here. He had a sneaking suspicion that if they didn’t get this lump up and moving again, something else out there might make sure they got moving, in the entirely wrong place. No, no, he couldn’t have that happening, not at all. He had fees to collect, people to terrorize, things that needed killing. He had jobs lined up a mile behind him, but not the hell out here!

His eyes flashed again, the visual clarity slipping back into normalcy as he logged out of the terminal. He timed the return of the video feed until he had returned to his hiding place, shutting his eyes and letting himself fall back into slumber.

As the hours progressed into days, more systems came back online within the Andromeda. The crew worked steadily throughout their first week to perform the repairs needed to turn the lifeless hulk of a ship into a workable space. Still, bugs cropped up continually as the aged systems struggled with decades upon decades of disuse. The list of repairs continued to grow ....

In engineering, however, some better news. The clean-up from the nuclear spill took a lot of time and the batteries were almost exhausted before Maya was able to get at least half of the finicky engines back online. But now two of the nuclear pulse engines were humming their comforting harmony. Maya watched her dials with satisfaction as the generator turned over and began charging the batteries. She could rest easy for a while; they were momentarily out of danger.

Robin, in his continuing quest to catalogue software bugs, came across a database of seemingly random numbers. He sent those over to Hyke who, after lengthy analysis, concluded that the numbers were in fact spatial coordinates and mathematical equations for calculating orbital speed and distance. And, according to the data, that orbital speed was increasing proportionate to the decrease in their orbital distance.

"Whatever we're orbiting," explained Hyke, "we're getting closer and the time it takes to go around each time is getting less and less."

For the first few days, the crew ate supper together in the dining room. They discussed their new troubles, a rather lengthy list, added items and systems to the large list of repairs, considered possible options for their circumstances, and in general started to become a little more familiar with each other.

During one of those meals, Maya brought up the satellites again. She showed Hyke where they were and the scientist spent many a long hour going through the racks, pulling a satellite down to examine and then putting it back, until she found the one she wanted. Most of the satellites were pre-programmed, some for various radio frequencies to both send and receive communications, some were designed with cameras for taking pictures, some were little more than sophisticated telescopes, some were outfitted with probes and sample containers, and some were seemingly cobbled together out of random junk. From this collection, Hyke drew out a large satellite, boxy in shape, but with multiple arms that could unfold and perform different functions. This one she pulled apart and began making modifications.

The pilot, Jaci, wandered the ship, exploring and becoming familiar with the set-up. She also spent many an hour within her pilot's chair, refreshing her memories with flight simulators. They had a wide range of difficulty and environments. Some of the simulations concerned flight within atmosphere, but most had to do with maneuvering in space itself. She also went down to the Shuttle Bay and climbed inside and around the two shuttles, familiarizing herself with their sims, too. Of course there were bugs, but Jaci felt comfortable in those repairs. The solitude sometimes got to her and then she welcomed the extra hand Chance always seemed to be offering.

Chance could only spend so long at a time cataloguing and working on his own equipment before he had to leave Med-Bay and go do something else. He worried about the crew, too, and spent time with each individual daily. He didn't want to seem like he was interrogating anyone each time he spoke to someone, but the crew seemed to be taking their unusual situation in stride and that for some reason felt wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but certainly unlikely. Perhaps all the work that needed to be done was an outlet for the crew's frustrations, perhaps they freaked in private, but whatever the case, Chance was on the prowl. He also used the time to search for whatever he'd misplaced and to try and jog his memory on that stupid password so he could actually read the files he'd managed to find and recover.

Robin stalked from his room to the mainframe and back again several times a day. He took pieces out of the ship, carried them to his room to dissect and hopefully repair, and then brought the finished product back to wherever he'd taken them. Through all this, Nibble was spectacularly unhelpful. The hologram took to following Robin around, looking depressed. Occassionally, someone else would come across the hologram sitting cross-legged on various surfaces of the ship, apparently talking to itself.

And then again there was the odd halucination or two. The puppy and the scrub-bots was only the beginning. A flock of seagulls flew, screaming, at Chance as he entered med-bay one morning. Another time, a blizzard 'blocked' the passage between the Weapons Deck and engineering.

There were other problems, too, like the constantly shifting environmental controls. Various places throughout the ship were always exceedingly warm or way too cool, and others continually fluctuated in temperature. The food processor randomly spit out various food items, whether anyone was actually there or not, and the crew soon learned to test their coffee before drinking any.

Gabriel stayed mostly to himself on the Weapons Deck but when something started dripping water onto his precious guns and ammo, he had to take action. Maya traced the problem to a burst pipe somewhere in the deck above, the deck that no one yet had been able to access. The leaking water fried more systems and soon Nibble was only speaking some seemingly random and completely indescipherable language as his software took more damage.

So that brought everyone outside the Sealed Deck one morning. Maya hefted her tool belt, Gabriel fingered his gun, Robin scowled, and the other three looked on with varying degrees of interest, concern, and amusement.

"Nibble," called Robin.

"Sim, pisco de peito vermelho?" asked the hologram.

"Open this door."

The hologram shook his head and shrugged. Robin sighed.

"Nice try," said Maya. She pulled a tool from her belt and pried the control box off the wall. Water poured out of the space and soon there was a veritable waterfall of flowing water.

"That isn't good," said Hyke.

"You think?" growled Maya. She stuck her arms in the wall up to her shoulders and pulled out meters of cables, but nothing she tried worked. The door remained locked. At last, when only Jaci remained there, watching (the others having lost interest and wandered away), Maya had to admit defeat.

"I'll come back to you later," she snarled at the door, and headed back to engineering.

The following day, Hyke had her satellite ready to test. They dropped the bulky package out through the cargo bay, tethered to a sturdy cable that would relay the satellite's data directly to Hyke's console on the Command Deck and also provide the satellite with power.

Everyone held their breath as the satellite on its thin line trailed out from the ship. Hyke kept her eyes focused on her terminal, reading the status of the tiny, fragile device. It performed a status check; systems reading normal. It unfolded its sensors, searching.

"Nothing," Hyke told the others, "There's nothing out here but us ... and the normal array of space junk and rocks around a ... uh, red giant star." Her eyes stayed glued to the screen. "Wait ... wait a minute, it's picking up a transmission of some kind!"

"What? What is it? Where does it go?" asked the others, their voices full of excitement and wonder.

But their concerns suddenly shifted as the engines gave a furious push and the impulse of the sudden change in direction threw everyone but the seated Hyke to the floor, sliding across the deck.

"Stop!" screamed Robin. "Nibble, what are you doing?"

The ship did not answer.

"You're gonna burn out the engines!" screamed Maya, "They're too fragile for this crap!"

Jaci clawed her way across the Command Deck, climbing into her pod and fighting the controls. "Stop! Stop, Nibble!" she shouted, breaking out in a sweat, seeing from the dials that the ship seemed to be trying to tear itself apart.

"We can't take this much longer!" Chance warned.

"Fuck this!" said Gabriel, plastered against the hull. "Stop, you! I order you, STOP!"

The crew flew back in the opposite direction as the engines halted abruptly, and the ship continued to drift on its last course and speed. Voices raised, four people screaming at the top of their lungs, Maya and Jaci and Chance all screaming at Robin, at the ship, at each other.

"Wait you guys," said Hyke calmly, still staring at her terminal. Her fingers flashed and soon the screen showed her what she wanted to see. "Look!"

Hyke's calm voice penetrated the shouting match and all six crowded around the tiny screen.

"There's three lines here," Hyke explained, pointing them out. "This blue one is the signal that the satellite found. This green one is -- was our course around the star, and this red one is the change to our new course. Nibble was trying to line us up with the new signal."

"Is that true?" exclaimed Robin, feeling frustrated and angry. "Nibble, show yourself! Answer the question!"

The holographic image of the young boy shimmered into place before them. The boyish image stared down at his toes. "Posso eu ajudá-lo?" he murmured.

Robin swore.

"Porque, porque -- mim -- meu --" the hologram stammered into silence, gulping, and stared, transfixed, at Robin. He somehow managed to appear both confused and guilty at the same time.

"Oh what's the use?" snapped Gabriel. "It's busted! Who knows why it does anything it does?"

Robin shut his mouth on a nasty retort and turned his head, but the hologram was already gone. "Great!" he snapped at Gabriel. "Now look what you've done!" He cursed and fumbled for a cigarette, angry hands shaking so hard he gave up trying to light it and stomped from the deck.

As if they'd been waiting for just that signal, the small group broke up. Jaci and Hyke hovered over her terminal. Chance trotted off after Robin, and Maya went to her own terminal to run a systems check. Gabriel stood there for a moment, silent, and then slipped out unnoticed.

"Where does it go?" Jaci asked Hyke.

"I don't know," Hyke replied. "We lost the satellite, the cable snapped, we'll either have to send out another or get the external sensors back online."

"Well that's just great, just great!" cried Maya from across the deck. She threw up her hands in irritation. "I'll be below!" she snarled and headed for the lift.

That evening, Chance suggested that the crew start working shifts, so that someone was awake at all times. "We can't really trust Nibble," he explained, glancing at Robin.

The computer tech sighed, picking at his rubbery macaroni. "Yeah, you're probably right. And this language problem only seems to be getting worse. Any luck with that door yet?" he asked Maya.

The Indian girl shook her head. She too seemed uninterested in her noodles. "Nothing seems to be working."

"I could blast it open," said Gabriel, with an edge to his voice that suggested his solution had been turned down multiple times before.

"No!" said Robin. "I told you why not."

Chance turned the conversation back to shifts and by the time they all went their separate ways, they'd agreed upon a temporary schedule. Chance was glad to be on first shift with Robin. This would allow him to keep closer tabs on the stressed-out genius. Maya and Jaci took second shift, and Hyke and Gabriel were on third.

During her first shift, Jaci wandered the ship, thinking. Maya banged away at her engines, trying to do something constructive while she pondered the problem of the door. When Jaci passed through that hallway, she stopped to consider the mess. The cables, still haphazardly strung out amidst the water, posed a serious hazard, so the intrepid pilot picked at a few, intending to push or pull them out of the way. As she did so, however, the back of her hand came in direct contact with the open wiring and she received a powerful electric shock.

She opened her eyes to green, green everywhere. She was no longer in the hallway, she was lying, face down, in some fragrant flowers. For a moment she thought she was dreaming, but then she realized that she was freezing cold and soaking wet and her whole right side was totally numb. She did the only sensible thing she could think of: she called for help.

Her call brought Maya, Robin, and Chance at a run. The doctor dropped by Jaci's side at once.

"What happened?"

Meanwhile Robin and Maya stared around in amazement.

"Is this a garden?" asked Robin, awed.

"It's freezing in here!" said Maya, rubbing her arms and shivering.

The walls of the ship were hidden in the dense foliage, but the leaves and branches and flowers drooped pitifully in the bitter cold. Everything was wet and the ground had turned into thick, black mud.

"How did you get in here?" asked Maya.

"I -- I'm not sure," answered Jaci. "I went to grab some cables and must have hit a short, anyways, I got, well, um, electrocuted, I think."

"From the looks of you," Chance added, "you crawled in here and collapsed. Robin, help me get her up to Med-Bay."

"But," protested Jaci, "all the plants ...!"

"They'll keep," Chance assured her. "I need to get you checked out."

Maya rubbed her hands together in satisfaction as the two men helped the still-dazed pilot from the greenhouse. Now she could get to work on that leakage problem and then perhaps Robin could get Nibble to speak standard again!

Where to begin? Where to begin!
He felt like crying.

The more he fixed, the more seemed to go wrong; and if he didn't fight the decay, it just spread twice as fast. In the vast silence of the damaged, sleeping ship, Robin felt the only living thing in a cancerous body; battling tumours even as they grew up around him. Nibble was useless and nobody else could even come close to understanding the problem and he couldn't win, couldn't even make headway. It was halfway through his and Chance's shift, nominally, but he had a good idea that Maya would be messing around regardless; Robin knew that he wasn't keeping the schedule perfectly, either, not with the pitiful amounts of sleep he'd been managing to scrape together recently. He felt like a zombie, woefully bereft of tasty tasty brains; the flesh around his port was sore and bruised, and his lips were dry and cracked from constant smoking.

The one point of light in all this was that he'd managed to get a cup of really good coffee. Or maybe it was merely decent coffee which his desperation was making excellent. Sitting at the kitchen table, clutching the coffee like a line to some better life, he allowed his left hand free reign to doodle on the notebook he'd half-filled with working notes and scribbles as he progressed through the painfully slow task of fixing Nibble.

'Fixing'. Ha, that was a good one.

Robin sighed, rummaged in his pocket, and began mechanically to roll a cigarette. He froze with the lighter halfway up when Chance sat down heavily across from him, giving the food processor a distrustful look.

"Coffee's working," Robin mumbled, returning to his task.

"Thanks." The doctor got up and busied himself. "Why do you burn the butt-end as well?"

"Gets rid of excess paper." Smoke came out with each word.

"Ah. Makes sense." He sat down again, sipped his coffee. "It's good today. You, though, look terrible."

"Expect I do." He looked worse than terrible; shadows clung to his eyes, lethargy to every movement, a cynical sneer to his raw and cracking lips. "Nothing's working. Every time I sleep, I wake up to a more broken system. So I tried not sleeping for a while, and that didn't help, because stuff still broke..." he paused, caught himself. "I'm starting to think I should just start from scratch. Remove everything, fix the hardware, rebuild an A.I from the ground up."

"Kill Nibble?" Chance was surprised; he'd seen with what care Robin handled his precious creation.

"...I guess so." Robin scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand, cramped from curling over a keyboard for days on end.

The doctor shook his head. "Go to sleep. You need rest. I can handle the rest of this shift fine on my own."


"Yes. Go. Sleep." He smiled. "You're no good to anyone in this state."

Robin attempted to smile back. "Thanks, doc." He stood up, drained his coffee, and drifted back to his messy little room. He realised when the door slid shut, casting the room into darkness but for screen-glow and his reading-light, that he was more exhausted than he'd been since he could remember. How long had it been since he'd slept more than a few hours? He couldn't recall. Dropping his clothes in a messy heap on the floor, Robin buried the cigarette in his long-suffering ashtray and flung himself into bed.

Where, predictably, he couldn't sleep.

Finally giving up, he dragged himself over to his computer and dug through his cache of personal things once more, in the hope that it might help him remember. Even more than Nibble's hopeless case, his lack of memory tormented him at every turn. By some perverse magnetism, he opened up the Vile Letter one more time; the note Orrin Seraph had sent his wife's son, long after he'd vanished from their lives.

...I loved you like a son, Robin, but I couldn't be a part of your mother's insanity. Yes. Insanity. Andromeda is a madness, and I'm so sorry I let her drag you in as well.

Robin forgot even to be disgusted at the man's cowardly self-justification. Andromeda? Maya'd said she thought that was the name of this ship - how had he never connected his mother's mysterious Project - that which had broken his family so long ago - with the ship he was in now? Certainly, he'd built Nibble... and certainly, five was preposterously young to have a port implanted... We'll build it together. Apparently they had, and here he was.

"Nibble!" He almost screeched; a second later, the lost little boy wavered into holographic being, gaping a little; it was rare he was allowed into private rooms. "Nibble... is my mother... what happened to my mother?"

The A.I stared. "Que?"

Robin deflated. "Oh. Nevermind. Run along and play," he finished bitterly, and the hologram vanished. He skimmed the rest of the Vile Letter, half-heartedly hoping that something would jump out at him, and wasn't disappointed.

...going through a wormhole. Please tell me you see the folly in that. Please, if you can't dissuade your mother, get out of it while you can.

"Shut up," Robin muttered angrily at the screen, and the offending words disappeared, banished from his sight. "Wormhole, is it?" He regretted briefly not knowing more about them, before recalling that Hyke was a scientist, and so would probably have a fairly good idea of whether their current symptoms were generally the result of going through rips in the very fabric of reality. "Sorry, Orrin," he said, addressing the man's ghost. "Guess I was too late. Cowardly bitch, you should've been here... or at least told me something more useful. God damn wormholes!"

Robin slumped back, unplugged himself, and rolled another cigarette. He was asleep before it lit.
Maya had completed the most immediately critical part of her job, but there was still so much to do, an endless conveyor belt of tasks that kept rolling steadily toward her, one after another, as old problems kept reminding her of their need to be solved and new things kept breaking down before her eyes. She was only thankful that the abilities of Hyde and Robin---especially Hyde---were so adaptable that some of the tasks could be transferred into their capable hands. Both of them understood machines, although in admittedly different ways, and some of the pressure to fix things was taken off of Maya.

But Robin had his own catalog of problems to take care of---not the least of which was a suddenly incomprehensible AI---and he didn’t have time to help Maya out with her problems.

And they were her problems. She was the mechanic. It was her job to fix things when they weren’t working right.

If only everything didn’t need fixing.

She’d managed to get two of the nuclear pulsers up and running fairly early on, but the other two kept humming to life, then dying again with an alarming clatter. She checked the cylinders and discovered that they were perfectly sound. The hobs were a little loose and she thought that might be the problem. Tightening them did nothing however; the delicate seals were worn and didn’t fit well against the workings.

She’d just been starting to fit the new seals when Jaci’s weak cries for help brought her, Robin and Chance to the now-unsealed Conservatory deck. After they’d helped get the disoriented and numb pilot up to Med Bay, Maya immediately got to work trying to locate the burst pipe.

Luckily for her, it wasn’t particularly difficult to do. The “rain” pipes were the most obvious, as they ran along the photoluminescent ceiling, visible as day and glowing faintly with the same paint as the ceiling. It was short work to briefly rewire the deck’s control box and test the sprinklers. The rush of water through the pipes could be heard above her, and then the sprinklers began dripping, then spraying an icy-cold white mist. There was no cascade of water from above. Soon, she heard water filtering through the pipes in the walls on its way to Engineering and recycling, but still could not visually locate the leak. It wasn’t in the ceiling and it wasn’t in the walls. That left the ground, and the little pond forming in the western quadrant verified her suspicions.

She sighed, returning to the control box and pressing the ends of two green wires together to turn off the water. Then she wandered out of the garden and kicked open one of the compartments outside of its airlock grumpily. Spare robots of some kind. She kicked it shut, then slapped open another compartment. With a low growl, she grasped the shovel inside and tugged it out, knocking over an assorted pile of other gardening supplies as she did so.

An hour and a half of digging in the garden revealed the busted pipe, but the damn thing was still completely submerged in filthy water. Blue-lipped with cold and dripping mud and water on the floor outside of the airlock but not caring about the mess, she returned to the storage compartment to get a bucket. Then it was back in the garden, down on her hands and knees in the icy water, chattering and filling bucket after bucket of water and dumping it away from the leak until the pipe was completely exposed.

Her fingers were so numb it was hard to get the pipe wrench out of her back pocket and apply it to the task at hand, but eventually she managed to remove the length of busted pipe and replace it with the new, shiny, completely un-busted one she’d salvaged from Engineering. Then it was back out of the hole for her and to the control box, where she cursed and fiddled with wires until the sprinklers came on again. Chattering now and cursing in Hindi, Urdu and English, she stood with her arms wrapped around herself, dripping water onto the soggy ground and glaring down at her repaired pipe until she was positive it was no longer leaking.

She really, really wanted to go run off and change into clean, dry clothing and get a nice hot (and hopefully drinkable) cup of coffee into her, but the idea of leaving the hole unfilled---where anyone could just fall in and hurt themselves---was unbearable to her. So it was back into the garden she went, her curses pouring white out of her lips. She shoveled, kicked and shoved dirt back into the hole, jumped up and down on it a few times to flatten the mound as well as she was able and to warm her body up a bit, then practically ran out of the garden with the stiff, halting walk of someone whose limbs are too cold to move more than sluggishly.

Then it was back to her room, where she cursed the sonic shower for its lack of heat for the five minutes it took to get her clean.

Her drawers were filled with identical pairs of black cargo pants, featureless black and gray tank-tops, and her bomber jacket. She shivered her way into her pants and shirt and then snuggled down in her jacket, shoving her hands in her pockets and trying to ignore the stash of Black Mist vials that had been hidden beneath her clothing. She’d have to decide what to do about them… later, when she didn’t have so much to do. Then she hurried through the lounge into the kitchen to try to coax the food processor into giving her a decent cup of coffee.

By then, her shift had officially ended, but since she was pretty much living in Engineering these days, she didn’t care. There was too much to do. The Conservatory’s environment control had to be fixed, now, before the odd winter-like conditions there killed the precious plants. That meant the hob seals for the nuke-pulsers would have to wait until later.

As she took ten minutes to lounge in the lounge, sipping her coffee and gradually warming up in the too-hot air, she contemplated how to go about that particular task. It seemed like the entire environment control system should be under Nibble’s jurisdiction, but considering Nibble’s copious conglomeration of problems and poor Robin’s difficulties solving them, she didn’t think she’d be able to rely on the computer to get its act together and fix the air conditioning. However, the heaters and vents in the various sections of the ship received instructions from the computer somehow; she’d have to take a look at them and see if they could be reprogrammed locally, bypassing Nibble and its incessant cycle of errors all together.

With a groan of resignation she rose, shoving her cup into the sonic dishwasher and tapping the “on” button when she saw that it was mostly full.

“Great. Now that I’m freakin’ warm again, back to the goddamn garden of Eden,” she growled, jabbing the food processor until it gave her something resembling a muffin.

Standing in the Conservatory five minutes later, she stared at one of the fifteen environment vents for the garden. It was a little bigger than the others and located in the ceiling roughly in the middle of the deck. The ceiling was a good twenty feet above her; there were trees in the Conservatory, and some of them were fairly large. She dragged an extension ladder inside, allowing the bottom of the thing to clatter loudly over the floor outside of the garden and bite heavily into the soggy earth within. The thing was long, and she was just too short to carry it on her own without it dragging.

Not that she was going to admit to being to short…

The wiring for the environment control was just inside of the vent itself, protected by a cover which Maya simply ripped away. The thing looked pretty simple; Nibble sent the heater instructions to the controls on what internal temperature to keep the Conservatory, how often to water it and how bright to keep its photoluminescent ceiling and walls. The controls sent a command to the heater, which accordingly blew hot air into the deck through the fifteen vents until the internal temperature matched that given by the controls, at which point the heater powered off.

For now, Maya would just have to assume that the lighting was okay; she’d consult Hyke later to be sure. The temperature and water were fairly easy to reprogram; she didn’t even have to mess with the wiring at all, as access to the temperature settings and readings were available in a very Engineering-For-Tots touch-screen display. Presently the damn thing was set at 10 degrees. She switched the control from “auto” to “manual” and quickly entered a nice 75 degrees.

Immediately the heater began blowing air so warm it was nearly scalding against her chilled skin and Maya cheered quietly to herself.

One more problem fixed, another billion to go.

“Engines,” she murmured to herself as she dragged her ladder back toward the maintenance compartment from which it’d come. “Nuke-pulsers then phase-transitions. Then food processors. Then the resta the environment controls. Should put the control box outside of the garden door back to rights.”

Then I decide what to do with that damn Black Mist, she thought. How the hell did the doc find out about it?

But that was neither here nor now.

She returned to Engineering and her hob seals.
Jaci had been fine after the shock, at least she had been once Chance had finally managed to persuade her to sit still for a while. The jolt had interrupted the natural electrical currents in the body that sent messages to her muscles, so all of her side was waiting for orders while her nerves failed to get them there. After a few hours of lying still and trying to hold a conversation with the doctor on something both of them could understand they both gave up and he let her go back to her room to rest up once her arm started to respond to the signals from her brain.

Chance clipped the earpiece on and started the audio playing remotely. He'd just set it up to play pretty much everything in his files, which turned out to be a lot of tracks. It was all good though. All very different and every note was fantastic. Then sat down next to the cryo-unit he had selected (one of the ones closest to working) and opened up the toolkit he'd 'borrowed' from Hyke's lab. Then he took down the panel under the unit and stared at it blankly.

"... Okay." He shifted, leaning over and opening the panel on a broken one. They looked different. That was a start. Now he just had to igure out how to make the broken one the same as the operational one without wrecking either of them or getting electrocuted.

"Blue, red, red, yellow... sort of a ... thing. Why did I think this would work again?" he sighed, toying with some of the wires before giving up. As bored as he was he was no technician and he didn't want to end up making more work.

He sat back and exhaled, smiling a little. He recognised this set playing in his ear. It was an album with a fairly obscure reference to ancient history. Each piece was themed to a deity from ancient mythology and this one with the powerful horns and drums was the end of Zeus' tribute. It was easy to remember because Zeus was a word that sounded like lightning and thunder.

It rolled and rumbled to an end and the next track started, dancing sweetly in spring notes slowly. Oh, what was this one. It was hovering annoyingly right on the edge of realisation. It was all wind instruments for the most part, and strings. There was something important about that, and he felt a twinge of something more but he just couldn't quite-

"Jude Thaddaeus!" he cried suddenly, "Nibble my password is Jude Thadaeus. Can you play the log files now?" he turned off the ear piece, although he was damned if he could figure out why that track had reminded him of his chosen patron saint.

Whatever Nibble's response was it was still foreign, but he ran the audio as Chance had recorded it. At least the bits that were still working. He could only get he latest file open and that was patchy.

0353, bed prepped for cryo ... ready for weeks ... emergency launch? Jaci kicked up ... a whole fleet on our tails and Maya's ... four letter words in two languages. Gabriel's ninja'd off somewhere ... Hyke's insensible. I can't get anything useful out of her ... Robin crying in computer core ... can't think of anything to say to him ... young ... colony days. I came over to ... get away from this flavour of scary ... Lucia and Dad ... IGP message later when ... better turn out fine.

Chance blinked. Okay, that was not an encouraging discovery. He should probably keep this to himself until they had a few more pieces to put together. It wasn't exactly helpful to hand out information that could only cause panic. Speaking of panic it was time to take another look at those cryo-units.
Released from the capable hands of Chance and now back in the stillness of her jungle-fied room, Jaci was at a loss of what to do! Electrocution was not a very fun thing and she felt lucky to have not received worse.

She couldn’t help but think on the many things that could have gone wrong from such a stupid mistake she’d made. The shock could have fried the transfer-strips on her hands, preventing her from ever being able to fly if it was needed. If the strips had been damaged, it too would have made the problem of routine nanite “check-ups” a near impossibility, unless Robin, Hyke, or Chance new how to install new ones. On the other hand, if the nanites in that part of her body had been damaged, she’d have still been lying on a med-bed till the machines replaced the ruined or destroyed ones and if that was impossibility, well, Jaci didn’t know what she would do! But worse than all of that would have been if the chip tucked snuggly against the back of her brain had been fried.

To control the nano-technology that enabled Andromeda’s pilot to not only fly the ship but get around, a special chip had to be implanted. Tiny wire extensions were laced against the surface of her brain to relay signals that were given to the chip, which in turn translated those signals for the nanites to understand and execute. If she wanted to go for a stroll, the chip was required to relay all that information to the millions of microscopic robots. Even involuntary things that the body acknowledged and consciously responded to had to be computed through that chip and if it was damaged, well, she was pretty much screwed.

Of course, she could have died. Even if the chip hadn’t been damaged, the reaction from the electrocution could have occurred on both sides and she’d likely still be lying there, probably hypothermic by now, hoping someone, anyone, would just pass by. The others didn’t know she was a quadriplegic. Hell, she hadn’t known till just last week on the command deck and it terrified her! Safety was of the utmost importance now and she could not afford another stupid mistake like that.

“No more sticking your hand in exposed wiring.” She said aloud and approached with a slight limp from the delayed responses the large heleconia plant, who’s blossoms were beginning to open now that the problem down below had been corrected by the adaptive Maya. A light mist covered the big leaves and the flower petals, similarly in the other displays as the plants slowly warmed and were watered. “No more carelessness.”

And with that, her memory jumped…

“Welcome back, Jaci.” The young man said, sliding a drink to her.
“Thanks, Rick. Been busy?” It was strange to make port on her birthday. By Earth’s calendar, today would mark her 110 birthday, but who would ever know that looking at the twenty year old?

“Pretty steady most years. We made a killin’ last month when the inter-system Broadway of Lion King came through. They were surprisingly nice folks and sang for some of my regulars that were in. You’d have liked it.”

“I bet I would.” Jaci laughed and sipped the beverage. “Anyone else in?”

“Just Marco. He dropped in to say hi before beading up to get refreshed. Radio says Ally’ll be makin’ port in an hour or two. That true?”

“Mhm. It’ll be nice seeing her again. I heard she got married and was gonna head back to Sol. Hope she keeps flying. She’s a good pilot…” The bar tender nodded his agreement and wiped the counter.

About an hour passed with the not so young pilot and barman just chit-chatting idly. Marco reappeared about that time accompanied by a laughing young woman, Ally, and another gentleman.

Marco was a big man, easily six four and almost three hundred pounds. His shoulders were almost as wide as the door frame. His thick legs practically shook the floor with each step and both hands, easily the size of a man's skull, were thrust loosely into the micro-fiber slacks he wore. A mane of thick blonde hair hung about his rough chiseled features, giving the brutish male that was Marco a very lion-like visage. His eyes moved from his companions to Jaci, who was leaning back against the bar with elbows propped.

“Well if it isn’t our favorite lorikeet.” Marco boomed and loped towards her, lifting the lighter woman into a fierce bear hug. “Been what, ten years since we last saw you? How’s that new chap captain treatin’ the best pilot in the galaxy?” Marco dropped her and set both hands to hips, grinning toothily.

“A mite better than you, Marco.” She joked and rubbed her shoulders. “He’s finally getting the hang of runnin’ a ship, though. Not so crazy on his orders, but a still a bit rough around the edges. He’ll learn with practice.”

“Ally dropped into the seat to Jaci’s left and watched the two friends chat with a relaxed smile. Ally was tiny in comparison to Marco and short beside Jaci. Her skin was a light peach in color and reflected beautifully the Anglican features of her face. Her eyes were a light hazel and her hair a handsome auburn. The woman had only been flying for about twenty three years and, thus, hadn’t changed much since becoming a fully accredited pilot. So, at twenty four years old, it was no surprise she’d married. It was an easier decision than Jaci could make.

The other man took a seat beside Ally and watched silently the others talk. Where Ally was small, barely reaching five-five, he was tall, though lacking the bulk of the brute Marco. His face was smooth with just the shadow of a beard on his chin and cheeks. His eyes were brown and hawk-like beneath a fringe of dusty dyed white hair.

“It’s good to see you again, Jaci.” Ally said finally and patted her thigh maternally.
“Well thanks, Ally.” She responded and now looked firmly at the unknown male. “So, who’s your quiet friend?”
“Oh!” Ally started and covered her eyes in embarrassment. “I completely forgot. Everyone, this is Jason.” She looked to him. “He’s my husband.” Cries of perfunctory congratulation were shared and Marco bought them all drinks.

After a while, others began to file in, taking booths or tables as needed till there was hardly room to stand. Jovial faces flitted about and conversation rose with the music which now bleated half-heartedly from the stereo in a corner. It was just another night of relaxation and joy.

By two that morning, most everyone had left leaving a few stray drunks and Rick. Jaci and her friends had left for quieter environments and better conversations that didn’t have to be shouted over the din.

Four names and faces from the past. Friends, she prescribed by the feelings of welcome and ease while around them. But her mind wrapped about the first. 110? And that was at least a hundred and fifty years ago. It at least helped to better explain the sense of slipping and the stretched feeling that wasn’t natural for any human to know. She rested her head against the glass and closed her eyes, riding out the recall slowly…

“So you’re married.” Jaci said with an easy smile, one long leg tucked beneath the other and an arm thrown over the back of the sofa she shared with Marco. Ally and Jason sat across from them, the former resting against the man, fingers entwined and eyes drooping tiredly.

“Yup. Just a small wedding. Sent an invite for you, Jaci, but got a return message saying you were out of range. Did they have you flying at the border provinces again?”

As a pilot for higher, it was common to multiple different jobs, anything from passenger flights, cruises, and even rescue lines to bring in stranded vessels who’d forgotten to stop for gas or some sort of problem like that.

“Yea, it’s just temporary. I’ll probably do a few more jumps with this captain before transferring. Good enough pay considering the little we do.” She shrugged.

A kid walked into the pilots lounge about that time with a message tube in hand. He glanced around the room before singling out the scarred face of the Amazon flier and hurrying over.

“Wira Jaci?” He asked, keeping his eyes on Jaci.
“Mm?” She answered.
“Message for you, ma’am. And there’s a gentleman waiting on the visitors’ deck for you.”

Jaci looked at the tube before taking it and heading off, tossing a farewell to her pals.

On the visitor’s deck, many people moved about. Only a few areas remained fairly active twenty-four hours. Amongst these was the custom’s deck, which also housed the shuttle bay for smaller, passenger-less craft, Communications, and of course, visitors and information. Ships were coming and going all the time, dumping supplies and passengers and taking more before leaving for their next destination. It was the real reason why this floor saw so much traffic.

Jaci left the lift with her eyes on the electro-message, mouthing the words subconsciously.

-Dear Ms. Wira Jaci,

I’m sure you’ve received many messages similar to this, but I hope you will at least consider it after we have talked in person.

My name is Dr. Avery Denens and I am a scientist working in conjunction with a number of other specialists on a certain project. I have been asked to locate a pilot of the spacecraft we are building who has some specific qualities. It has taken a good while to find just that pilot and you are the only one who’s matched every qualification.

I look forward to meeting you in person, Ms. Jaci, and being able to discuss more of this endeavor in private.

-Dr. Denens.

A picture had been supplied in the message of an older man with snowy hair and pale skin. He was smiling, as everyone did in pictures, and wore the stereotypical doctor’s jacket. A distorted shape was visible in the background of the picture, but nothing else.

Jaci studied this last before looking up at the bay and scanning the dense crowd for the face of this so called doctor.

He appeared a moment later: just a man of declining age in a tee and retro-golfing pants. She had to smile at that. Here was someone who remembered what was “cool” at one time, though such pants as those would never be that cool. She supposed it was a man thing.

Striding over, she asked “Dr. Denens?”
He nodded.
“Hi, I’m Jaci. We just made port yesterday morning so I haven’t stopped to check my messages. A lad from Com. Said you were down here.”
“Yes, I understand. Thank you for coming, though. Have you read the message I asked him to take you?”
“Yes sir. I’ll take you up to Communications. They have a couple small meeting rooms and should be able to let us use one.” Jaci nodded him towards the lift and they left the V.D.

- - -
Further down in the station, the Communications deck had slowed to a dull hum of activity. It was early, after all, and people tried to make life a little easier for one another. One of the conference rooms was available so Jaci and Dr. Denens used it, the former sitting at the head while the scientist took a seat to her right, the two facing one another.

“Straight to business, if you please.” She said.

“Alrighty then. As I said in the letter, we are looking for a pilot. Particularly one that would be able to handle themselves efficiently and easily in an emergency.-“

Jaci interrupted. “Hold on. Emergency? I try not to get too involved with rescue-ops and the Galactic Guard. Most of the missions they throw their fliers into are retrieving DIW ships who decided to skip a port or thrill-seekers going a little too far inward, if you know what I mean. I prefer procedure, and what those they rescue do is certainly not procedure.”

“But you see? That’s exactly what we want you for. Your record is impeccable, Ms. Jaci. You don’t take needless risks but when there is a problem in-flight, it’s controlled quickly! You’re something of a dream-pilot for us!” The man was red in the face he was so excited.

“Let me explain a bit better,” he continued. “We are building a ship for some, eh, long distance travel, but everyone we look at just doesn’t have the experience and or long-standing expertise that we need. You’ve flown colony ships before. You’ve done long runs before. Everything checks out for you and everything we need is sitting right in front of me!”

But Jaci was stuck on the first part. “Long distance? What do you mean? Are you talking about a further transit than 51 Pegasi? That already takes three stops, not to mention at least two en-route wakes if you’re coming from Sol.”

“I’m not at liberty to say, I’m afraid. At least, not yet. We just need someone who can do it.”

“Ok, well, it sounds like I could do it…But there’s the problem that I’m currently employed and under contract. I’d lose five routes of pay if I left now and I’m not about to do that.”

“We’ve already taken care of it. We have some very good HR personnel at our facility.” Denens smiled. “And we can pay better.”

“Yea, so they all say.” She paused. “So you want me bad enough to null my previous contract and claim a bigger offer than what I’m getting. Can you top 500?”

“We are prepared to offer 750 for signing with an additional million for participating at least five years.” Well, wasn’t that intriguing.

“I’d love to know who you’re funded by.” She joked with a quirking smile. A million…dang, she’d never dreamed of a job like this. But there had to be a catch. She asked.

“Nothing other than missing the opportunity of a lifetime.” The doctor smiled.

“Well, seeing as I pretty much don’t have a choice now…I guess I’m in. But I want a thirty percent return fee if I decide this is not a worthy choice. Deal?”

"Welcome to Project Andromeda."

The memory slipped back into –storage- and Jaci stood there smirking. “Well…Don’t I feel petty, now. All that money and it’s probably been taken back because we’re all out here throwing spit-wads at the ceiling.” The woman shook her head and glanced at a clock display near the bathroom. 1300. Early afternoon, so it was still her shift.

Her thoughts turned to the shared information from the memory. The doctor had said something about long distance flying. That could be a big, BIG, part of why the cry-units had messed up. It was time to look up those star charts!

But Chance had said to rest and it was always smart to listen to the doc. Still, she felt it was urgent to at least do something other than lounge in her room the rest of the day till her next shift. Maybe she could just hang around on the command deck, sip some coffee or something. Do what the others did! No simulations or anything, just study the charts and see if she could get some real coordinates. So away she went.

- - - -
On the command deck, Jaci claimed a seat in the meeting room adjacent to the main floor where all the consoles and other junk was. A portable monitor was set on the table before her while a laser pen was tapped against the table. The charts were easy enough to find and transfer onto the module and even easier to read. She had already begun labeling a few of the recognized “dots” on the screen, but knew it was going to take many more hours to figure out the rest. Plot memorization had been easy as it made flying short jumps easier to make shorter courses; it even aided in the long hauls that required all occupants to go into stasis. The shorter amount of time they were under, the better, she believed.

But looking at the SAVED charts was easy. Hadn’t she thought that already? What she needed was to see outside the ship, get a good long look at the constellations and stars that surrounded their meandering vessel. She needed something to compare these to other than simple numbers. Jaci wondered if Hyke might be able to toss up another working satellite to take some infrared shots. Or better yet, have the blast shield lifted. Of course, that would have to wait till they knew what they were drifting near or orbiting around. Lord knows she didn’t want to open it to an O-type star…

A few hours later, a larger chunk of stars had been marked; Jaci’d transferred the charts from the portable, after the tenth page, to the holo-projector in the center of the table which allowed a much larger spectrum of stars than the pathetic screen she’d been using. She was well into the range of Tau Ceti and its surrounding and visible stars. But exhaustion and a headache demanded she stop. She left a note on the projector for anyone that may happen that way not to change the position and then jotted a second note before heading down to the Habitat deck and leaving it on the dinner table for Hyke to read:


I’m working on the star-charts right now to see if I can figure out where we are and if we’re near anyone, but I need to see outside. Can you rig up another satellite to get some infrared and UV shots? Can’t take a walk till I know it’s safe.


With that, she went to bed.
A Non-Existent User
The small planet in the middle of the Finus 9 was dead. It'd been that way for millions of years, according to the scientist who built the station in the hollow center. The Absolute Zero temperature ensured no life on the surface, and the hollow inside was perfect for a man-made safe zone. It had once been a prison, so goes the stories, but the inmates went crazy without fresh air, and they killed each other. Of course, it could've been the hours of torture they suffered, but who knew? However, the case remained thus; once a prison always a prison. Escaping was not an option, that was, until Hyke came along.

In her grey room with no life, Hyke sat typing, planning.

<POW>: Zero? Where are you?

Access denied.

Hyke growled low. So they figured her out. How would she get out of this dump without Zero? There was no way. Hyke worried briefly for Zero, wondering if he'd gotten away without capture.


Hyke ran to the door, and swung it open. It was on odd thing to get a knock. No one understood privacy here. There was no such thing. A white haired bearded man stood at her door, flanked by the big, genetically altered muscles that guarded the "school."

"Er...Yes?" Hyke was slightly taken back. She'd never seen nor heard of anyone
intentionally going to the dead planet.

"Hyke Nemuir I presume?" The man said, unabashedly entering her cell.

"Yes, and you are?"

The man smiled. "I am Dr. Denens and I have an offer to make you." The men behind Denens looked at each other. Apparantly, this was news to them as well as Hyke.

"What kind of offer?" Hyke wanted out of this place, but if she still had standards.

"I've come looking for a brilliant mind to add to our mixture of brilliant people on a project we've started."

Hyke raised an eyebrow. He told her without telling her. Tricky. "And?"

"And you seem to be that mind."

Hyke laughed. "I'm not as smart as others here." Denens eyes twinkled.

"Ah yes, my dear, but you are the only one willing to admit that
here isn't exactly paradise."

"What do you want me to do?" Hyke felt an ache in her stomach. Was this her way out?

"Your amazing when it comes to science. That's all we need. You leave this place and you make money." The man smiled, knowing she’d accept.

"I'm in, but I take the right to walk out whenever I want."

"Done. Hyke Nemuir," Dr. Denens said shaking her hand, "Welcome to Project Andromeda"

Hyke sat up sharply, her arm shooting for the light switch. She finally remembered what she was. An insurance program. A test subject. A brain. Joy. Watch me walk out now... Running her hand through her thick, black hair, she jumped out of bed and booked it to the food processor to try and coax a bit of coffee out of it. Gabriel was there, but Hyke had noticed before that he wasn't the talkative type.

"Hi," she muttered shyly before heading to her lab sipping the oil or whatever it was stewing in her cup. She tried unlocking more files, but found it was futile until Nibble would speak English. Deciding to head to the Command deck was her next step.

She saw the note left to her by Jaci and pondered their predicament. A thought came to her. She remembered coming across other satellites, visual/comms and such. Perhaps if she could get the right ones, she could program it to do a probe, pictures, charts, the works.

With a plan in mind, her shift went by swiftly. By the time she had the satellite to the perfection she desired, her shift was nearly up. She really didn't care. Decided not to wake anyone, she dropped the satellite by herself through the cargo bay. Coffee in hand, she waited at her terminal, hoping beyond hope that it would tell her something important.

Soon she was getting images. Sitting back in awe, she sighed. The first sight of what lay beyond their broken vessel, and it was all hers. Soon, data began spilling in. She sorted it accordingly. For hours she sat, her eyes locked to the terminal, fascinated by what she saw. They were definitely in no galaxy Hyke was familiar with. The start that they had been orbiting was a red giant, dying slowly. The many planets orbiting the star were all dead, gas, or moons. Each one was less likely then the next to support life. It seemed that their new course was going no where. She couldn’t find the signal they had gotten a few days ago, but she was sure it was out there somewhere.

After a while Hyke’s cramped back yelled at her to leave and get something to eat. She checked the time and was shocked to see that it was already in the middle of the 1st shift. She left a note for Jaci and all the data she’d gathered-

Jaci, I left everything I gathered on my terminal. The picutes, I hope, will give you a better idea where we could be. -Hyke

Hyke retracted the line that held her precious satellite, leaving the glorious equipment in cargo. She jogged to the recreational area and coaxed a morsel that resembled a sandwich out of the stupid machine before heading to her bed and passing out. Briefly, she wondered about the school she had attended and how Denens and gotten her out. I guess it doesn’t really matter now.
Gabriel wasn’t quite sure what it was. He tilted his head this way and that, baffled by this… thing. It was after Hyke had taken her leave and he had asked for some form of food, but this junk had been spit out of the food… thing and now the whatever-it-was, was staring at him. Or at least, he was certain it was staring at him. Fairly certain. His brow wrinkled, “That ain’t right.” He muttered, picking up a fork and prodding the vibrantly green mess on the plate. He yelped and leaped backwards as he swore the thing moved and glared at him. “I qui’ I ain’t hungry anymore.” He stood and picked up the plate, holding it in front of him like it was dangerous (which, if anyone asked, it was), carrying it all the way up to the weaponry room, setting it in the middle or it and grabbing a gun, proceeding to unload several rounds in the green glop before it looked at him again. “Cursed haywire machinery.” He muttered mutinously, glaring at the broken plate and heading back to the out-of-commission turret.

No matter what he did, how many bits and bobs he replaced, it seemed the wretched piece of gunnery didn’t want to fix. He sat down, his brows deeply furrowed as he glared at their external weapon, “Why do you hate me?” He stood, setting about rewiring the control panel for the fortieth time, and it was only then did he notice that there was a wire missing in one of the boards. It hadn’t occurred to him that it would be gone, he didn’t even remember that there had been a wire there until just now. He huffed, “Blasted memory.” He muttered, standing and moving to the tool kit, searching for the little green wire. There it was, a whole roll of it, and all he needed was a soldering iron to fix it in place and they should be up and running again.

It took some searching, but he finally surfaced the tool in question, and he finally had everything where he needed it to be. Brilliant. He screwed the panel back in place and turned the key. He whooped with glee as the small motor hummed to life and gave him a diagnostics scan, telling him that everything was beautiful. “Yes! Yes, yes, yes!!” He kicked up his heels and did a little dance, not paying any attention to his surroundings at all until he slipped on the pile of bullet-ridden plate of green glop that he had left lying in the middle of his weaponry room.

A howl of pain and several expletives later, along with some violent bellowing about what he was going to do to the plate he had slipped on, he had deduced that he had either a broken wrist or it was severely sprained. Broken was the more likely culprit if the strange angle his hand was dangling at was any indication. He growled, climbing to his feet and viciously kicking the broken plate across the room, “Gorram, mother of… all to hell…” He snarled, meandering up to the medical bay, kicking anything he came across in his way, walls and doors were not excluded in his tirade.

He was being petulant, he knew he was, and he didn’t care he was being petulant, he had been attacked! Mercilessly, by Nibble’s evil food-maker-thing. Stupid computer. Stupid ship, stupid lack of memory, stupid this, stupid that and damn his broken wrist all to hell! He clutched it as sharp pain shot up his arm indicating that, not only should he stop waving his hands around, but he should probably get the doc to see it as well.

Gabriel tapped the pad to open the door, not really surprised that the doc wasn’t in there, it wasn’t his shift after all, but there was no shame in hoping. He hopped up on one of the beds, examining the wrist for himself, maybe it wasn’t as bad as he’d thought it was, in fact, it seemed to be just sprained, not broke at all. Funny, it felt broke a moment ago… Maybe it was just ‘cause of the suddenness of the fall, he only did just glance at it. He sighed, laying back, his eyes falling shut, it was near the end of his shift, nothing funny had happened… he could afford to catch a few z’s. He breathed out, the pain was tolerable now, it could be ignored if he just took a small nap here, on the med bay…

It was dark, the commander made a few short, sharp signals and he moved, the feel of the others buzzed in his mind. Excitement, laughter, it bubbled between all of them, they were excited, their first mission, together. His keen eyes swept the empty plains. Somewhere out there the bad guys were waiting, that’s why he was here, because the normal people couldn’t stop the bad guys and they needed to call the superheroes to come save the day.

”Number thirteen, keep your position.” The voice-in-the-box said in his ear and he froze, holding his breath as other orders were given to twelve and eleven to flank either side of him. “Go thirteen.”

He leapt forward, his gun firing silently at the people sitting around the fire, his green eyes flashing brightly as they dropped, bodies slumping before they even knew what hit them, “One, two, bang-bang, goners.” He mumbled, turning to his brother and sister that came in behind him, their weapons drawn.

“Goners.” They echoed, giggling softly, “Didn’t know.”

“Bye-bye birdie.” Eleven laughed, her blue eyes shining, “Superheroes to the rescue! Don’t know what was so tough about these guys that the people couldn’t do it.” She moved to the bodies and systematically began going through their things.

Twelve didn’t move, other than the shaking in his hands, “Don’t feel good.” He whispered, “Feel sick suddenly.”

“Oh hush, you’re fine, it’s just the smell, it’s awful, isn’t it?” He said, his green eyes moving to his brother.

“Shakes, shakes.” Eleven twinkled, doing a little pirouette in place, “Brother’s got the shakes.” She sing-songed.

“Do not!” Twelve spouted, his cheeks turning red, “You be nice Aphrodite!”

“Shaddup!” He hissed, “You’re not supposed to say our names!” He clocked his brother, “Eleven, twelve, thirteen, that’s it. Got it?”

Twelve nodded, “That hurt…” He sniffed, “I wanna go back home now.”

He sighed, “All right, we’ll ask commander.” He tapped his button, “Commander, are we done?”

”Shakes, shakes!” Eleven laughed again, leaping onto Twelve, hugging him, “Going home?” She turned her face to him.

“Come on, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, we’re going home yes.” The commander sighed, “Children.”

“Hey, we’re children that got rid of those you couldn’t.” He retorted, cutting their signal, no more annoying voice-in-the-box talking, “Come on, lets get out of here.”

Gabriel started, what an odd dream. He rolled over, wincing as his wrist protested the movement. He stared at it, nah, it definitely wasn’t broken, he had just strained it, it certainly didn’t look so bad at all. There was some bruising, but nothing too deep, definitely something he could live with and ignore. He didn’t need to see the doc after all, thank god, the doc didn’t seem to like him too much, which was fine with him, he wasn’t too fond of doc’s.

He stood, hissing and clutching his wrist again, stupid thing was going to give him some trouble, that was for certain, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. He made his way back to his room and sprawled on the bed, his shift was at an end, time to take a nap and then see if his baby wanted to shoot something.

His eyes opened and he moved back into the ship, it was Robin’s and the Chance’s shift now, he had to be careful, but if he had to make a guess they wouldn’t be leaving their parts of the ship for very long if he kept breaking things that needed to be fixed anyways. He wanted to do something, but what, he wasn’t sure. He’d covered his tracks, he’d made sure everything was safe for him, and no one knew he was on board. He needed to get back ‘home’ that’s what he needed to do, he wanted his money and dammit he wanted to retire for a good long while after this deal was over. Maybe on a sunny, perky planet, with his own island. And a harem. Yes, a harem would be nice.

He groaned softly in frustration, he wanted off this bleeding ship, solid ground would be a blessing. A hundred and fifty years was too many to be on any spaceship. He was about to go and see if he could get the damn computer to speak Japanese next, until he ran across the note that Hyke had left for Jaci. He looked around, gauging whether or not he’d be spotted, and then decided that this would be okay. He made his way over to the girl-genius’ terminal and examined the pictures. To his irritation, he recognised nothing and he slammed his fist down squawking with pain as he felt his arm react violently to his anger. He clutched his wrist, it was definitely broken. He had hit it at the exact wrong angle and now sparks of pain were shooting up his arm, “Damn.” He muttered, shoving his uninjured hand through his hair and made his way to the med bay, hoping against hope that the doc wasn’t there. He was. Damn.

He pressed the button on the door and ducked out of sight as Chance turned to see whomever was there. He waited until the door shut and waited a moment longer until the door did not open and he pressed the button again, “Come on…”

Chance peered the wrong way first and he took advantage of it, slamming his uninjured fist into the back of the good doc’s head, quickly putting him out of commission and giving him free reign of the med bay. He slipped inside and dragged the other behind him, tossing him on a bed and strapping him down in case he tried anything, or worse, woke up. He wasn’t entirely sure how thick Chance’s head was, so he didn’t take his time, snagging an ace bandage and binding his wrist in place, his own body would fix it properly if he more or less kept it where it was supposed to be. His eyes darted to the doc, wondering if he had imagined the flicker of movement out of paranoia or if he hadn’t hit him hard enough. He narrowed his eyes before adjusting the bandage, hoping it was on correctly; really, healing had been more his sisters’ thing, not his or his brothers.

He continued watching the doc until he left and locked the med bay behind him, deciding to leave the blonde to his own devices when he woke up, tied down to the bed. He slipped through the ship, he wasn’t too far from his room now, it was a struggle to stay in control at this point, he was sore, angry with himself, mainly for hurting himself, which was the dumbest thing he had done so far on record. Hopefully he hadn’t damaged anything else, and again, hopefully, Jaci could determine where they were and get them back to where they had come from. He pushed his hand through his hair again, collapsing on the floor, growling as his wrist whined at him. He hated this feeling, this feeling of not having control of his own body, he was out of control at this point, he needed to figure out a way to be
in control once again, because this, this wasn’t cutting it anymore.

Gabriel started awake as his wrist was jostled, there was definite pain there now, maybe…maybe it was broken after all. He’d have to go see the doc… Puzzlement made his brows furrow, he hadn’t fallen asleep on the floor. Nor had he bound up his wrist. This wasn’t right. He had a sudden, very strange feeling that he wasn’t alone anymore; paranoia swept him and his body clenched up, his eyes darting around, someone had been in his room that wasn’t him, but why? It was with a very unsettled feeling that he roused fully and decided to do something about his wrist, it hurt too much to ignore for much longer. Maybe he could figure out why in the hell he was on the floor when he had definitely fallen asleep in his bed.

Kill Nibble?

... I guess so.

The hologram wandered the ship, anxiety pulling down his mouth into a worried frown. Was he that broke?

Robin knows what he's doing, if he says it's the right thing to do --

"Gah!" Nibble shouted silently, suddenly filled with the urge to rip his own head off. "I'm free of one prison," he muttered, "only to wake up in another. What a nightmare. Shut up!"

It was true enough that he could not seem to control a lot of his actions. Maybe that was what Robin was upset about. He did sure seem to be upset about a lot of things. But if Robin decided to take him apart, there'd be nothing Nibble could do about it. He'd already tried. He couldn't keep Robin out of his mainframe, he couldn't disobey a direct order, and he couldn't lie. To keep any secrets he had to hide them, or forget them, which pretty much defeated the purpose.

Gabriel! thought Nibble, I can't let him see me!

But it was too late. The security officer glimpsed the hologram as it slid back into the wall and called out. "Nibble! Come back here."

The hologram froze. Panic fluttered across his circuits. He couldn't move! No, no, he was going backwards! What was with him? Did he have to do everything these damn humans demanded? His feet walked him back to Gabriel and he stared back at the man coldly.

"Nibble," said Gabriel.

"Que?" grunted the computer.

Gabriel rolled his eyes. "Speak Standard, damn it! That's an order!"

Nibble dared to glance up, to stick his tongue out. "I am!"

Nodding in satisfaction, Gabriel said, "That's better. Now, you will forget everything you saw, heard, or did on this floor between ..." he glanced at his watch, picked a time a couple minutes past, "... 0045 and 0105 tonight. Understood?"

"Authorization?" asked Nibble automatically, hating what he was doing, but unable to go against his programming.

"Authorization code Draco-Omega-One."

"Authorization acknowledged."

"Now get off this deck."

The hologram gave Gabriel a dirty look. "They're going to catch you eventually."

"It's a possiblity." He whipped out his concealed gun, watching the hologram's face blanch as it backed away, losing its momentary assertiveness. It opened its mouth and Gabriel slid the safety off.

"What'd I tell you about the red alarm in my presence?"

The hologram quivered. "N--not to!" it gasped.

"That's right. Now I said git!"

Nibble disappeared. Draco smiled.

*          *          *

"Um, Robin?"

Robin dragged his pillow over his head. "Not now, Nibble."

"But, Robin --"

"Not now!"

"But, Robin ...!"

Robin sighed. He sat up. "Get out of my room, Nibble, you know you're not supposed to be in here."

"Okay," the hologram replied, mournfully, and winked out.

Yawning, Robin tumbled from the bed and started to dress. He had one shoe on, carrying the other, and was running his hand through his hair as he walked through his room. He stopped. "Nibble?"

"Yes, Robin?"

"Are you speaking to me?"


"Like, I can understand you now."

"You can?"

Robin rubbed his gritty eyes. "I need coffee." He dragged his feet, still with only one shoe on, into the kitchen.

Hyke was there, mug in hand in front of the food processor, and just spitting out a mouthful of something. "Ye-uck!" She dumped the contents back and dialed a different combination, looking up as Robin came in. "Hey, you're up late."

Robin yawned. "Nibble can talk again."

Hyke brightened. "That's good news, isn't it?"

"Depends on what got broke to fix it. Please tell me there's coffee today?"

Hyke took a sip of her mug and grinned. "Ah, fifth time's the charm." She shrugged. "Should be some now."

Breakfast in hand and coffee and shoe in the other, Robin slid onto a seat at the table. Hyke eyed the shoe, but she didn't ask questions. Robin looked miles and away better than he had the previous night.

"Nibble," said Robin suddenly, fork pausing half-way to his mouth.

The hologram flashed into existence. "Yes, Robin?"

"Did you have something to talk to me about?"

"Um, yes," said the hologram, wringing his hands nervously.

"Well, what is it?"

"I found something."


"It's, it's not quite here."

Robin realized he was still holding up his fork and he set it down, giving Nibble a rather pained look. "Just tell me what it is."

"I don't know what it is."

Robin closed his eyes and counted to ten. "Where is it, then?"

"I don't know."

"Then what are you telling me for?"

"Well, I ... I thought you might like to know."

"Go away."


"Go away, Nibble."

"Wasn't that a bit harsh?" asked Hyke, after the hologram had vanished.

"No." Robin started eating again.

"He did seem upset."

"He's always upset, like constant PMS or something." Robin ate a few more bites, then suddenly dropped his fork with a clatter and jumped to his feet. "Shit!"

"What?" asked Hyke, startled.

"The water!" yelled Robin, already out in the corridor, running for the lift.

"Yeah, like that explained anything," muttered Hyke. She took another swig of her drink. "Hey!" but Robin was already gone. "You forgot your shoe ...."

Robin didn't care about his shoe. He ran down to the mainframe and stalked across the room, through the maze of boxes and conduits and stacks until he reached the far side, the side that bordered the newly found garden. He ran his hands along the wall. His fingers came back wet. He ran back to the control chair and threw open his tool box. After some fishing, he grabbed a grease pen. That in hand, he quickly outlined the area on the wall that was wet. He traced the lines down to the floor and across the room, through the maze of circuitry.

He felt someone watching him and looked up. The hologram lay on his stomach on one of the stacks, watching him curiously. "What're you doing, Robin?"

For the first time in a week, Robin felt like grinning. "I think I've found the source of a lot of your problems, Nibble."


"Yeah." He pointed at the wall with all the markings. "Did you know there's a water leak?"

The hologram frowned, and then shook his head. "My internal sensors are not all operational on this deck," replied Nibble.

Now Robin frowned and paused in his task to look up at the hologram. "You do see me, though, right?"

Nibble looked puzzled. "Of course, Robin."

"Can you see the wall?"


"Well, go down there and take a look."

The hologram scratched his virtual head, but climbed down and walked into the wall. He popped back out a minute later. "Wow, Robin!" he cried. "There's water back there!"

Robin laughed, and stopped abruptly, startled, before chuckling again. "Yes, Nibble, water. Now see if you can see how deep it goes into the floor."

"Okay." The hologram sank into the floor. He didn't look happy when he came back up. "There's a lot of water there, Robin."

Robin walked over to the hologram and pointed at the floor. "Show me."

Nibble sank out of sight again, but shortly a hand reappeared and his voice came through the general speakers. "Right here, Robin, it's awful deep."

Robin marked the floor with his pen. "How deep?"

"Two point oh six three three one --"

"Keep it to three significant digits, please."

"Oh. Two point oh six centimeters."

Robin wrote that down. "Okay, where else?" He followed the hand in the floor and the disembodied voice of the computer, tacking down all the points of leakage. When they'd finished, Robin jacked in to take a look at the damage in VR. Now that he knew what he was looking at, some of the strange colors and fluctuations made more sense. From what he could tell, the water was acting as a short-circuit, randomly setting off and deactivating programs.

He 'pulled back' the layers to peer deeper. As the garden had defrosted, a pipe had burst, sending water flowing through the walls and ceiling. The weapons deck got the most of it, but some had been shunted sideways through the conduits toward the mainframe. As the water flow increased, so did the damage. He was going to have to suck out each little droplet and test the circuits one by one. Tedius and time-consuming, but fix-able. He grinned.

"Hey, Nibble?"


"Want to play a game?"

"Really?" squealed Nibble, jumping up and down. "Really, Robin?"

"Yes. How about search and destroy?"

Instantly, Nibble's projection changed to a silver-plated orangataun with a semi-automatic and ammo rounds on belts looped over both shoulders.

Robin blinked. "I'll take that as a yes, then."

The scar-faced chimp beamed at Robin. "Player versus computer?"

"Uh, yes. It'll be me and some scrub-bots against you. And no cheating."

The chimp saluted. "Aye, aye, sir! Troops reporting for duty as ordered, sir!"

"Good, now, Nibble, you're going to be a fish."

"Like this?" The hologram changed again to a floppy orange monstrosity and turned to gape at Robin.

"Yeah, that'll do. Now, here's the plan: you're a fish, so you have to stay in the water. I'll be controlling the scrub bots, trying to catch you. If I catch you, I win."

Nibble wiggled. "Oh, boy!"

"Are you ready? Get set, and go!"

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

(This is Kai's add)

Giggling, Robin found the worries of late dissolving away as they played. Sitting on the wheeled, battered monstrosity of a chair that was the mainframe's only furnishing, he scooted at speed around the room, holding the wire connecting him to Nibble's electronic brain out of the way of the chair's wheels as he commanded his bots with imperialistic glee. It was a good game.

"Time out!" Robin slid to a halt at Nibble's artificially breathless call. "Um, Robin, this isn't fair."

"Why not?"

"Well, I can't win. You've got bots stopping any more water getting in and others sucking up what's already here, and since I can't leave the water, eventually you're bound to catch me."

"Ah," Robin improvised at speed, "but if I only catch you because there's no water left then you win, because you avoided me for the theoretical maximum amount of time."

"Oh." A pause, and Nibble's holographic fish-head poked from the floor. "Simple optimisation, then?"

"Pretty much."

"I am so going to win," the computer said gleefully, and slid back out of sight. "Time back in," he added, and Robin kicked his command-chair away from the monitor-bank, once more ordering his troops in a graceful flanking manoever that somehow just failed to catch the big orange fish. Despite his knowledge of the game's ulterior motive, he was somewhat disappointed when at length, with a gleeful shout of triumph, Nibble revealed that he was occupying the only wet patch left. The scrub-bots made short work of that, too, and Nibble flicked his image back to the little boy he seemed to favour these days.

"I won," he announced.

"Yep," Robin agreed. "Now we have to do some work. Or rather, I have to do a lot of work, and you shall be my faithful assistant." He stood up and stretched, dramatically pointing to the air-lock. "To the tool-storage!"

Half an hour later, he returned lugging a large box of Useful Things. Maya had fussed and worried over what he was taking, unsure if the fairly lightweight tools would be sufficient, not seeming to fully believe his increasingly desperate assertions that he needed only to fix wiring, not house-sized engines. Pausing in the air-lock to finish his cigarette, he regarded the roll of solder with something like nostalgia; it'd been a long time since he'd had to fix real, tangible things, rather than ideas.

Carefully setting aside a panel to reveal the worst-damaged area - the sight of the water-damage made him flinch - Robin removed his one remaining boot, stuffed his socks inside, rolled his sleeves up and re-tied his hair.

Then, grinning, he set to work.

Hovering nearby, Nibble watched with an anxious expression of almost religious helpfulness. "Can I help?" He asked, hesitantly, keenly eager to regain his creator's favour, but unwilling to distract him.

"Stick some music on?"

An instant later he was humming along, bursting into song at his favourite bits, utterly engrossed in his work. It was enjoyably simple and straightforward: find broken components, and either replace them, or make them be the not-broken. Meanwhile Nibble reported on the internal effects of his repairs - encouraging to see him visibly brighten, as the water's short-circuits were removed, and the proper connections re-established.

Some time passed. Robin didn't notice.

Until the music cut suddenly out, leaving his voice to trail into nothingness, as the intercom blared startlingly on.

"Hey guys this's Gabriel, I jus' foun' the Doc tied up in med, someone knocked 'im out."

Oh, Robin thought, breaking off a fresh piece of solder. Clamour was happening. He barely listened; enough to make out that Chance was fine, that everyone was now awake, and worry was happening.

"Robin?" That was Hyke. "Are you alright?"

"Hmm? Yeah. Fine. Working." He sat back, paying a little more attention. "I told you it was an inside job ages ago. Nibble's damage is inconsistent with... well, anything, but especially with an external attack."

"I think you should come up to medical. It's safer."

"Lies! I'm in the middle of something. Also," Robin went on, grinning, "I locked the mainframe air-lock and temporarily suspended the login of anyone who isn't me. Meaning nobody but me can get in here. Or access the system."

A silence. "For how long?"

"I'll give back basic functionality when I'm confident I know the extent of the damage. Until then, Nibble is all mine." Talking mainly to himself, he mused on. "That being said there is a significant amount of bloody wierd stuff happening, so I may restrict you guys to really surface-level access for a while yet. Someone is arsing around here. The only person arsing around with Nibble's head should be me."

"The same person who attacked Chance," was Jaci's verdict. "Andromeda's so big, they could be hiding anywhere... Chance, did you see who hit you?"

"N- no, no I didn't." A confused pause. "I mean, I thought I glimpsed someone who looked a bit like Gabriel, but that can't be right."

Gabriel emphatically denied having attacked the erstwhile doctor. The discussion continued. Robin tuned it back out, and went on working. By the end of Maya and Jaci's shift, all the physical damage had been repaired, he was out of rolling-papers, and badly in need of coffee. Triumphant, Robin let himself out of the mainframe and, chatting aimiably to Nibble, grabbed essential supplies from his room before pattering barefoot to the kitchen.

To his delight, the most urgent of the repairs he'd effected seemed to have worked: the coffee machine was operational.

"Well, Nibble," he said, rolling a cigarette with accomplished pride, "now we get to do the fun part. Lock everyone else out, and put you right."

"You won't kill me then?" The A.I boy asked, tremulously.

"Nah. Moment of weakness, that. Don't worry." Robin grinned hugely, almost believing, himself, that the future was shiny and all things would turn out just fine.

Maya stared at the sock in her hand. She stared down into its silky depths at the little glass vials resting inside its toe. She blushed, even though she never blushed and nobody was there to see her blush.

Maybe it was better to simply pretend the things didn’t exist. Wasn’t like she wanted them or anything. She could put the drugs back in her drawer, pretend like they weren’t there, never say a word about them to anyone. Outta sight, outta mind. Wasn’t like the Doc could really know, right?

How could he possibly have known?

Doctors were sneaky bastards. They always seemed to know shit they shouldn’t. It was like they had an intuitive understanding of people, paired with a detective’s skill and thrill for investigation. Yeah, they knew things they shouldn’t, and worse, they cared about you enough to pursue their knowledge further, like a dhole after a little hoopoe, pursuing the issue until they got to the root of the problem, called you on it and made you freaking deal with it.

Blood, it was frustrating! And more than a little alarming. But comforting too, in its way. Docs didn’t pry into your affairs because they wanted to get you into trouble. They butted into your business for your own good. Sometimes it was nice to know people were willing to do that, even if you didn’t necessarily want them to.

Still though, Maya would have preferred that the good doctor not know jack. Hell, she would have preferred that there was nothing for him to know, that she hadn’t decided for some unfathomable, unremembered reason to bring illegal drugs (that she hated!) onboard the Andromeda.

Maybe she’d just wanted to have a little something-something to help her cope with the mind-warping knowledge that they had flown the goddamn ship through a goddamn wormhole?

”No, you won’t be going through just one!” Jomo Mwai said with a bright, enigmatic smile glowing from his white face. “But two!”

“Two of the goddamn things?” Maya parroted, aghast. She was sitting at a table, the faintly luminescent screen on its surface filled with half-drawn images of machinery and various equations. It was annoying, putting this shit down. When Mr. Mwai’d asked her where her schematics were, she’d just stared blankly at him before admitting that there were none; it was all in her head. “You seriously want us to fly through ‘em? Blood, you freakin’ crazy? I dunno know much ‘bout wormholes, but I do know they get real damn pissy once you start shovin’ shit into ‘em. I’d really rather not be crushed into nothingness ‘fore I reach thirty. Screw that!”

Mr. Mwai laughed. “It’s only madness if your engines can’t reach the kinds of speeds you assure me they’ll be capable of. Now, I don’t fully understand the physics behind it either, but you’re right; the wormholes will remain stable until you reach them, but once you pass through them they will become very unstable and will start clamping down on you while you’re inside. If the ship moves fast enough, you’ll be able to come out the other side. If not… well… you won’t have to worry about it anymore.” His smile was a good deal more grim.

Maya barely even noticed, her heart thudding excitedly in her chest as she contemplated the implications. “So you folks already know where these things are located, then?”

Mr. Mwai hesitated. “Yes… we do know where they are… well, our researchers do, in any case. But I’m afraid that is knowledge I cannot share with you, partially because you do not have the proper level of authorization, and partially because I do not myself know.”

Maya didn’t care overly much for that, but she left it alone for now and changed the subject. “So when’re the other folks arrivin’?”

”They haven’t even been recruited yet,” Mr. Mwai told her. “Don’t look at me like that Ms. Dhatri; we’re still five years away from launch! There is still plenty of time to bring the rest of the crew onboard, if you’ll forgive my pun. We want only the best, and it takes time to find the best. Time which we have.”

Maya blinked at the soft light of her lamp, disoriented for a moment. She really needed sleep; it was the end of her shift and time for her to hit the sack, since for once she wasn’t so overwhelmed by work to necessitate pulling a double.

Of course, now she was overwhelmed by other stuff. And it was time to deal with it. Sleep could come later; she had to face the reality of her situation now. The Black Mist was here. And somehow Chance knew about it and wanted her to “find” it and hand it over.

She could, of course, pretend she didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Maybe just vent the damn drugs into the cold and dark Wasn’t like he knew it was hers, right? There was absolutely no reason why he’d assume she’d deliberately gotten rid of them if he didn’t even know she was the one who had them.

But… what if he was right? What if she was addicted again? She’d been feeling really tired since waking up in cryo; was all of that just from the long hours of work and stress, or was it something else? And since discovering the damn drugs, she couldn’t seem to stop thinking about them. Was it just a guilty conscience, or was it some kind of manifestation of psychological addiction?

Shiva and Shakti, she wasn’t a doctor or a psychologist or any other sort of bastard who poked around in the brain and body. She just knew machines, and there was no room in her pretty little Indian head for anything other than systems and algorithms and cold hard steel. Certainly not medical knowledge, and there sure as hell wasn’t room for Black Mist. Best to let the Doc deal with what he knew best, so that she could free her mind (and possibly her body) to focus on what she knew best.

And so, hefting the silky black sock into which she’d dumped all sixteen vials of Black Mist---a year’s supply of the shit!---she tied a quick knot in it and dropped it into one of the pockets in her cargo pants. Then she headed down the hall to Chance’s room, where he was recovering from his head injury and the shock of betrayal.

“Hey, how you feelin’?” she asked with surprising gentleness after knocking lightly on his door and being yelled at to come in.

"Hmn?" Chance set a book down on the bed, where he was sitting with his back against the wall, and swung his legs round so that he was sitting up, "Oh, yeah. Fine. Thought I had a concussion, but I don't. Are you okay? You look antsy." He had such an innocent look of concern on his face, like he expected some normal complaint about being tired or frustrated with the amnesia that simply refused to lift.

Taking that as more than enough of an invitation to come inside, Maya stepped into the entry room and lifted one booted foot to tap the door shut behind her. She patted the pocket just above her right knee. "Know that stuff you were talkin' ‘bout that you were lookin' for?"

"Oh. Oh!" He stood up. "You found it?" He moved a step closer, but hung back. "What happened?"

Her eyes slid to the floor, then searched past his shoulder for something concrete to fix her gaze on. "Oh, you know... it was in amongst other stuff. I found it." She also found a stack of books to fixate on behind him.

His hands went into his back pockets. "So, what did it turn out to be?" He shifted his weight onto his back leg again. He was just a little bit worried about what it might turn out to be. He wasn't experiencing any symptoms though so if it were addictive he hadn't been on it long. Maya was disturbed by whatever it was though, and that didn't bode well.

"Oh.... hell if I know," Maya lied. "I sure as hell ain't ever seen it before. I dunno nothin' about no drugs. You're the Doc. Maybe you'll know what it is."

"Do you have it with you or...?" He shrugged, brushing his hair out of his face yet again. How he put up with it was a wonder.

Maya jumped. "Oh! Right. Um." She fumbled with her pocket, struggling to get past the thin metallic strip holding it closed. Then she pulled out the sock and thrust it Chance's way. "Here."

The blond took the sock, giving Maya an odd look as he pulled out the vial. Then he looked down at it and frowned.

"Yeah," Maya said, giggling nervously. "Weird shit, huh?"

"This isn't- where did you find this?" He tilted it against the light. Yes, this was definitely Black Mist. This was nothing to do with him at all, he had nothing to worry about there. This was serious stuff.

Swallowing, Maya made something up. "I found it 'round Cargo. In the little compartment thingies. You know. There's lots of weird stuff down there. Thought maybe was med supplies or somethin'. Dunno why the hell you'd need hallucinogens, but... well, there you go."

"I thought you said you didn't know what it was?" He lowered the vial again. "This isn't what I was looking for, but it's a good thing you did find it."

Maya blanched. Shit. "Oh. I wasn't sure what it was. I just seen kids in the past use somethin' like it. Couldn't be sure though so figured it was better to jus' let you figure it out, you bein' the doc and all." Feeling a little better, she eyeballed him curiously. "Why'sit good I found it? And..." She felt her face draining of blood. "Wait... this ain’t what you're lookin' for?"

"Well it's dangerous is why. Whoever it belongs to really can't afford to find it. But no, it's not what I'm looking for. This is too.... well it's too... you know?"

Maya nodded slowly, understanding dawning. "Too strong? Not the kind of shit you're needin'?"

He gave her a blank look for a moment, "Exactly. Not something recreational I don't think." He inspected the vial again, "We really need to get rid of this stuff. The last thing we need is for anyone to find out it's on the ship."

She scrutinized his face, searching for a slight flush, slight pallor, dilated pupils, muscular twitch, or other signs she was used to seeing in junkies. It wasn't unheard of for doctors to use their own stuff---or even to use shit that was being sold on the streets, since they were, after all, as human as everyone else---but Chance wasn't one she'd put down as a junkie. Still though... "Yeah, you're right," she said flatly. "Stuff should be vented out into space or something first thing. Ain't nobody 'round here who should be doin' Black Mist... or anything else, for that matter." Least of all you... she finished silently.

"Can you get this spaced quietly or is Nibble going to notice?" he asked, offering the phial back to her. "Otherwise I'm going to have to find a way to neutralize it."

Maya shivered when the vial came her way. It was such a little thing, and yet she didn't want to even touch it. Stepping slightly away from his offered hand, she swallowed. "No... if you got a way to neutralize it, do it. I dunno what the hell Nibble's capable of seeing. But he can't see in here, right?" She glanced nervously around the room. "Personal space an’ all that? Anyway, I'd be 'fraid to dump it. If even a little gets into ventilation... last thing we need is the entire crew screaming about being covered in snakes or moaning about having the best sex of their lives."

"Oh. Actually yeah that makes more sense. It'll be fine, I have detox kits in the medbay to break it down, probably. I'll deal with it, but there's still something around here somewhere."

"LIke what?" Maya asked flatly.

"If I knew that I could tell you," he said. He did wish he knew what it was, but he was a little relieved now that he was sure it wasn't anything as heavily dangerous as Black Mist. Doubly relieved that getting rid of it mean there was no risk of, say, a large heavily armed Gabriel having a bad trip. Not that he assumed it was Gabriel’s, it was just a worst case scenario.

"Jacket?" Maya suggested. What else did professional-types use? "Spade? How about... um... well, Speed's an old one. Chase. Gloria... Any of those ring a bell?"

Chance blinked, "Maybe." Some of those sounded familiar, but he couldn’t be sure where from.

Maya sighed. It was clear they weren't going to get anywhere, and if she kept asking too many questions he might start actually catching on. "Or maybe not. Well... why don't we get this shit detoxed or whatever? I can run down to the Med Bay an' grab the kit, if you need. Or you can, and I'll just stay here and make sure nobody comes in to notice the drugs..."

"I should probably get it. People will just give you funny looks." He put he vial down on the bed and dropped the book over it. "I'll be back in a sec." He closed the door behind him on the way out.

Maya sighed in a mixture of relief and dismay the moment he left and slumped down on the edge of his bed. "Well... hell." At least he hadn't taken the drugs with him. She'd have to stick around and make damn sure he destroyed them.

Chance had a bad feeling he had been a bit less opaque than he had meant to be. He was pretty sure that Maya suspected he was on something, which was about as much as Chance knew. What was worse was that he had no idea what, why, or how the hell he could have been so stupid in the first place.

He sighed, pulling the detox kit out from the cabinet in the medbay. It was really just a generalized set for breaking down any medical waste that couldn't be trusted in the normal waste systems. Brushing his hair back again he carried the kit back to his room where Maya was still sitting on his bed waiting for him. She stayed there until he had run the Mist through the cleansers a couple of times, essentially reducing it to battery acid.

The red alert blared through the station. Someone had initiated an emergency launch, and that meant something had gone wrong. It was only logical.

Jaci was in med-bay when it sounded, having the nano-technology checked before the launch the next day. Though self-replicating, with the help of special vitamin like supplements, the machines still required routine status checks and a cleaning of the chip in case the software may have fluctuated. The doctors were merely ensuring that the nanites were in tip-top shape before she and the others boarded for pre-flight and take off tomorrow.

The alarm was shrill in the false atmosphere of Hephaestus.


“Shit.” Jaci muttered and turned her eyes to the clear container that held the swirling nanites. The silver swarm danced and swayed in the liquid supplement as the laser scanner moved blissfully unaware up and down. At the small console beside the container, the doctor’s fingers raced over the touch pad in cancel sequences, forcing the scan to stop midway and send the swarm cascading back to the connection panel on her left hand.

It took the whole of five seconds for the tech to be returned, and from there Jaci leapt from the seat and hurried to the launch bay where the ship waited.

Pausing only to grab the grey-black pilot-suit in the airlock between the hall and the bay and hurry into it, the woman dashed aboard and headed straight for the command deck, Hyke already at her console and Robin coming in behind. The muted hum of the engines warming up had already greeted her as Jaci leapt into her chair and fell into flight prep. She silently thanked the computers swiftness at getting this beast started for her; it was too much to think on how long it might have taken alone and the likelihood that she’d have not succeeded before the station blew.


She pulled up surveillance from outside the launch bay. The station had been designed to blend with the surrounding asteroid field. It kept the base safe from prying eyes; perhaps a little too much so. Part of the illusion, besides the thing being built inside an asteroid, was the almost moon-size brutes that moseyed about. This caused a particular challenge: it was not the size of these monsters, rather their unpredictable movements. One collision with another asteroid could send it moving faster in a different direction. Anything could happen…

As the feed glowed to life on the holo-projector that dropped down before her, Jaci couldn’t help but laugh. Drifting along were precisely the monsters she wanted to avoid. Several ship sized chunks were spinning about, smaller ones being bounced around between them. There would be a very slim chance to get through any without even a small scrape that could send them careening into another and be forever plastered on the cold, crude surface of some random rock.

Of course, slim was something the Andromeda’s pilot could do.

“Nibble, close bay doors.” She ordered. Jaci only hoped everyone was on board. The pilot had no intention of being incinerated by the stations self-destruct sequence that followed an emergency launch.

Once the doors were shut, the launch bay would empty the atmosphere around the ship and then open its own maw-like doors for launch. During this moment, Jaci studied the patterns of the visible asteroid, flicking mahogany eyes between them and the ships sensors that would go green when everything was ready.

“Hang on to your pants, folks.” She said quietly before silence fell around her and everything, Hyke at her console, Maya shouting back available power, Hephaestus bleating his red alert and the stations count-down, every single thing. There was only her in her chair and the ship beneath her hands…

Air was emptied from the bay and the doors began to open. Te first glimpse of the asteroids beyond appeared and they, like everything else it seemed, slowed to a crawl as her exit route appeared…

Jaci rolled in her sleep, one leg pressed against the wall and the other buried in the thin sheeting of her bed. The mister for the plants kicked to life and drizzled the enclosed floral's briefly before cutting off again...


But it was cut off as Andromeda exploded from the launch bay at full speed, missing the bay doors by mere inches above and below.

Shouts from the others at the sudden launch bombarded the intercom and command deck, but if they weren’t prepared, it was their own fault. With a quick roll and turn, she managed to safely maneuver around the nearest rocks before making into the rest of the belt. The shifting boulders were an ever-changing minefield and such a plain would have been something any pilot, experienced or not, would have avoided…even Jaci.

But she had been training for the last three and a half years with this ship, practicing the launch in this obscene obstacle course as well as many regular sequences in maneuvering in the Andromeda. She knew what it could and couldn’t do.

“Come on, you beast” she muttered and sent the ship into another roll through an arching chasm, emerging in an open plain before being swallowed once again. “Maya!” She shouted.

“I know! I know!” the Indian cursed over the com while the engines in the background groaned angrily.

Had it been a normal launch, as it would have been ten hours later, their speed would have been half their current rated and everyone wouldn’t be hanging on for dear life while Jaci pushed the ship to its limits to escape the blast radius that would-


Nearby, Hyke gasped and pressed a hand to her mouth. Robin cried out somewhere nearby and Maya began cursing and it sounded as though she were beating something down there.


“God help us…” Jaci whispered. The little rear-monitor had showed the stations explosion, bur she had missed that. What were of more concern were the chunks of port, asteroid, and general junk accelerating towards them. That mass of debris didn’t have to worry about being squished by a rogue. It just barreled on, un-slowed until it would be too spread out to be harming. Unfortunately, Andromeda was still within range of this barrage and was likely to get hit by something or hit something if Jaci couldn’t get them past the rim.


The concussion would have knocked her from the chair had the security straps not emerged and held her body and, more importantly, her hands in place while the ship was sent up and out of the asteroid field. The sudden nudge of speed drew more exclamations from the others as the G-force began to peak. But like so much else, it was lost to the ship-locked flier. The push had turned their axis and was threatening to send them spinning out of control; but she could get them leveled now that they weren’t worrying about escaping the blast and hitting the bigger asteroids. The smaller ones floating about wouldn’t be that much trouble.

Slowing the engines thrust to an almost non-existent level and adjusting the retro-burners to ease them out of the tilt, she eventually had their momentum corrected and the ship stopped.

The ship had survived and, so, they had survived. Jaci pulled up a layout of the ship on her screen and searched for anything that indicated hull integrity damage and would need attention before...before what? With the reason for taking this blasted trip now stretched across that minefield behind them, would they still go through with the mission?

She heard a different sound through her checks and forced her eyes away. It was Robin, their computer savvy lad. The kid was crying, still staring at the monitor he'd been by. It was a certainty that his mother was dead, and thus the cause for his grief.

"Maya, we should be fine to bring things back online till we reach our destination. She paused and turned her gaze to Hyke. "Everything else good?" The brains of this charade nodded and stepped briefly away from her screen.

"That was close..." She said.
"Mm...Let's just hope that's the worst we'll run into..."

With abysmal slowness, the pilot crawled from the bed and headed for the washroom, shedding clothes along the way. Already the strange dream was beginning to fade and she was still to groggy to really grasp what lay within.

Before stepping into the Son-wer, as she had come to nickname it, voices intruded on the intercom and forced her to a grumbling, and now conscious, halt.


"Hey guys this's Gabriel, I jus' foun' the Doc tied up in med, someone knocked 'im out."

Others chirped along the intercom, suggesting that Robin return to the med-bay for safety precautions though the kid denied it wholeheartedly as he was working with the half-trashed computer.

"-Someone is arsing around here. The only person arsing around with Nibble's head should be me."

Jaci stepped into the unit and closed her eyes to the methodical pulse of the cleansers while speaking up for the intercom.

"The same person who attacked Chance," was Jaci's verdict. "Andromeda's so big they could be hiding anywhere... Chance, did you see who hit you?"

The doc answered no and from there she lost track, finishing her grooming and pulling loose the stiff braid for a fresh piece of string and bead from the many that hung from the wall. It seemed to be habitual to take the intricately painted pieces and use one in the dark hair at the side of her head; though not understanding why, she stuck to it, determined that something, like the rest of her blocked memories, would eventually surface.

And so, from there, she grabbed a cup of coffee from the dining hall and returned to the Command Deck to finish what she'd started with Hyke's Note folded neatly in the palm of her hand.

After securing the main entry onto her sanctuary, the flight-deck, Jaci moved to Hyke's monitor, pulled the data and returned to the meeting room to continue her charting.


What a strange thought. Jaci pushed the bizarre proclamation off to the rear and focused on the projection once again. It was not the combined charts of the Milky Way, their little home land that they'd known for so long. This map was different, puzzling, and complicated. Everything was out of place and NONE of the stars that should have been amongst this jumbled array were there. Where were the bright blue stars of the younger exteriors of their galaxy, the one's whose patterns bore some similarity no matter where they were. This...garbage, for lack of a better term, was incomprehensible!

"Bad, bad joke, Hyke..." she grumbled and rotated the angle as best she could. The perspective was only as deep as the probe could reach and it did not have the range that MW maps had. She spotted a couple groups in this collage, but they, like everything else seemed out of place or absolutely foreign.

"...ngs back online till we reach the destination." No, that's not what she remembered, was it? It wasn't a destination. All destinations had a name they could be referred to in times of need, or pure laziness. The dream was fuzzy, inconsistent like these damn pictures. What could that stupid little thing be that made her...?

"It's a different galaxy...That's why these pictures don't make any sense." She pulled up the sequences of the Milky Way and overlapped them with those taken by the probe Hyke had launched. There were very, very few that matched the numerous stars in the many constellations visible through the colonized home-galaxy. And the only logical reason was that they were comprehensible because of their position. Certain angles looked the same or similar from a certain position. This was true of Earth and the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The stars you could see in the Northern sky were not always the same in the Southern.

"And the only way of reaching another galaxy?" Jaci laughed. "Hyke's probably figured that out, but who else would know?" The pilot pulled the data from the projector onto the portable device and hurried from the main deck, down the lift, and to the lounge which was, of course, empty. Maya'd likely be down in engineering beating the Engines into submission. So, she called everyone's favorite artificial intelligence!

"Oh, Nibble!" She said, flopping onto a sofa and throwing her hands back behind her head and staring at the ceiling. The child's voice chirped to life in the lounge. "Yes?" It was surprisingly short.

"Record: I'm calling a meeting of the crew at the end of this week. We have some important items on the agenda that should be discussed together. -Jaci". She waited for the chirp that indicated it had been recorded and then continued. "Send this to everyone's quarters so that they may receive it either upon entering or waking.” With that, she once again got to work on the charting, pinpointing all the matching elements on the new photos with those from maps of MW. Knowing what was outside the ship would help in the long run, but having this new and gargantuan mess of things to categorize was more important. She’d discuss a space-walk with the others at the meeting. For now, it was work
A Non-Existent User

Hyke looked up from her computer. She was studying the black hole's status. It hadn't changed much. That was worrying her. However, at the moment something more worrisome was happening. Someone had initiated the self-destructing sequence.
That means something bad happened. That means someone felt the project is in danger. That means we'll blow up in less than 10 minutes if we don't get this hunk of metal in and out of the atmo. All this went through Hyke's mind in nanoseconds.

She gathered her portable term. and headed for the command deck. Her console flared to life under her swift fingers.

"All systems normal," she said more out of habit than anything else. Jaci gallopped in followed by Robin. Jaci's face was a canvas many different emotions swirling together to make a conglomeration of something Hyke couldn't read. When they got a visual, Hyke sighed. Their chances of survival were so slim that Hyke wasn't even about to mention the numbers.

"Nibble, close bay doors," Hyke sent a silent prayer to no one that the rest of the crew was able to get there in time.

The force of the launch would have knocked Hyke around the room and back had she not been wearing her security belts. They were trying for more power than any other launch. Hyke knew personally that the machine could make it, but the asteroids were another story completely. No way was Hyke going to take her eyes from the levels fluctuating on her terminal. They were passing through different levels of the atmo. so fast that it the Nibble was having a hard time changing with it in time. Not only that but many asteriods were getting brushed aside with the energy shield. So far, there were no differences, but Hyke wasn't taking chances.

Suddenly, her terminal started flashing. The blast was only 10 seconds away. She unconsciously started counting down with the computerized voice.

"three...two...one..." Hyke's head, though ready for it, flew back, popping in a few painful places.

"Axis is out of wack by more than 20 percent, Captain." She said immediately, relating other amounts of damage sustained. More importantly though, she related that, on ship, all the members of the crew were alive. Her imagery showed another form within the walls, but she passed by it as cargo.

Hyke flew from her bed, flipping the switch on. It wasn't her shift. She wasn't ready to be awake, but the darkness laughed at her. She wasn't stupid. In fact, she was a genius, but she couldn't help but fear the dark. She didn't know why. She sank into a squishy over-stuffed chair. She just hoped that she'd always have a light to turn on.

Hyke's brow burrowed. "I'm hungry."

He wasn’t speaking and the silence around him was deafening. If this kept up, he was going to go mad for certain. He never had liked silence, ever since… He shook his head, he had better things to think about. A yawn escaped his mouth, it would figure that he didn’t sleep when Gabriel did, but his body was beginning to feel the effects of long hours. He stood slowly, he could make it some time longer, it didn’t matter to one of his kind, and he exhaled, glancing at the notice on the computer but ignoring it, even switching it off so he could ignore it better.

He was bored, very bored, he’d covered his tracks, he’d even purposefully broken things so he could watch the little peons on this thrice damned boat scurry to and fro to fix it. He was sorely tempted to knock around the ships computer again, but for risk of exposing himself too much to the brat he didn’t. He wanted to break more stuff, he was
going to get violent if things kept up like this. Knocking out the doc had been fun, tying him up was even more fun, maybe he’d hit him again, just for kicks (he grinned at his pun) and tie him up somewhere even more fun, like… over the reactors in the engine room, where there was some form of imminent danger. Or maybe he’d target Robin, just because Robin looked easier to pick on and the bully in him made him want to take the kid’s lunch money, in a manner of speaking.

However, he had to watch himself, his wrist was still bothering him; though he was pleased to note his advanced healing abilities were working wonders, taking it from broken to sprained to merely twisted funny in a matter of days; it would still be tricky doing ‘hands on’ work. He glanced around, pulling out his knife from his boot, Gabriel was getting very irritating and something needed to be done quickly before things… escalated and he started to suspect something amiss. He dragged the knife along the wall of the ship, leaving a long, ugly scratch near the doc’s door and dragging it around, making a large, long ‘D’ shape before passing. That would be fun, make the doc think someone was after him.

A decidedly nasty smirk spread over his face and he swung his hip, oh yes, cause and wreak unbearable havoc he could do. Was good at. Revelled in. Enjoyed even. He meandered his way to the Med Bay, grinning, “Oh Nibble… please, please, remember this.” He murmured, Nibble didn’t respond, either he was too cowardly or he was conveniently ‘forgetting’ to show up. No, he would not erase the computer’s memory of him wandering, with any luck, he’d be mistaken for Gabriel, and it would be Gabriel making this big ‘x’ on the door of Medical with the knife and tucking it away and Gabriel becoming the guilty party… on all counts.


He remembered things clearly about the launch, specifically how things had gone
all wrong than how he had planned it, from that woman hitting the wrong button, to the end result of the explosion and how he had been brutally knocked about because he had been the last one in and he had not had a strapping on. It wasn’t particularly comfortable to be thrown around in an explosion and then, subsequently feel like your guts had been squished into a very tiny itty bitty cubic millimetre and then being popped back into reality. Needless to say, he didn’t appreciate the feeling much, nor did that make for a cheerful homicidal stowaway. It made for a very cranky one and if he didn’t need the members of the crew so much, he was certain at least one of them would be dead by now. He snuck up to the escape pods and sat in front of the one that held that eerie mummy, leaning against it. “No worries for you, hm?” He mumbled, “Damn government doesn’t even know what they got themselves into, wanting a piece like this. This damn excursion is going to kill me, it killed you, lucky bastard. It woulda been so much easier if it’d done the same to me. Wouldn’t be here, wouldn’t have to do all this… wouldn’t be sharing something that I’ve had to m’self for too many years by someone I thought I’d been rid of…” He shook his head, he had a headache now, they’d become more and more frequent since he’d come out of the freezer, though they were tolerable, he just had to get to the doc’s supply of acetaminophen and take about seven, he’d be fine.

He pushed himself to his feet, and strolled down the ways, shoving his hands deep inside his black cargoes and pushing the pad that opened the med bay, swiping the pill bottle off the shelf where he’d left it and pouring five more than the recommended amount into his hand. He popped them into his mouth and chewed them like candy, before washing it down with a drink from the sink, and wiping his mouth with his shirt. A hint of the tattoo on his chest and stomach flashed, the make-up on it having been rubbed on by his shirt so the hints of black were visible before his shirt dropped over the colouring. He strolled out, cool as a cucumber and peering inside the dining room, he was starving, he hadn’t eaten and it was just now that he had noticed.

He fixed himself some food, nothing gourmet, thank god, but a nice, simple sandwich that really hit the spot before he heard the sound of boots against the floor. He stood quickly and snuck out before he could be seen, it was only Hyke, but the girl was pretty brainy, he couldn’t risk running into her in this state. It wasn’t safe. He didn’t deal in uncertainties, which was why he had taken this job, but… He shrugged, damn life and its unpredictability’s, they just couldn’t be controlled sometimes.

His gaze wandered the halls as his feet carried him to his room and he sprawled onto the bed, his eyes shutting, he was tired; and very ready to take a nap, perhaps he would actually get some rest this time as he stretched out along the bed. His mind was still active, zipping from idea to idea, from framing Maya with morphine stolen from the med bay, to screwing up the wiring in Jaci’s chair so her nanites were paralyzed for an impairing amount of time. Though he needed both of them to do their jobs, the thoughts were still fun, he decided before his body went into slumber.

Another week has passed, marking the beginning of the crew's third week in space. The last of the finicky engines are now online and the battery banks have reached the halfway point in their recharging cycle. All seems well. The food processor is more likely to hand out recognizable food now, even if it's not particularly accurate, and the Conservatory has thawed enough that most of the plants are well on their way to a full recovery. The first harvest of frost-touched fruit sits now in a bowl on the dining table.

But progress comes with its price. Maya and Robin have scarcely been seen all week, toiling away at their various projects. Perhaps it is only the lure of a comfortable bed and actual food that keeps them coming back to the Habitation Deck. Both have their hands full with physical labor, Maya ever working on the stubborn engines, and Robin hunting down and replacing tiny electical components. He has slowly, over the week, pulled up the majority of the floor inside the mainframe in order to reach malfunctioning circuits.

Nibble has been locked down to all but basic user functions, but the random holograms have ceased. The form of Nibble is no longer seen around the ship, only rarely appearing outside the mainframe.

Hyke has grown ever more comfortable with her lab, continuing to use her satellites to look beyond the ship, and even taking pictures of the outer hull for evalutating the damage and determining the best sequence to effect repairs. There are no breaches in the hull, although there are weak points, as if something had rubbed up against the metal-composite skin, gouging deep into the material. Other scores indicate impact with micrometeroids and asteroids, plus there is heat damage, the loss of all but a very few of the external sensors, and those that remain are damaged beyond repair. The blast shield will need complete removal, as the heat has effectiviely welded the shield to the hull.

Gabriel's broken wrist has healed with no untoward repercussions, other than to put the weapons expert into a particularly foul mood for several days. In the meantime, he has finished his inspections of the weapons systems, cataloguing damage, setting up his own schedule for repairs, and hunting down the replacement parts in the cargo hold. He also, on Robin's request, began a search of the computer systems, trying to make sense of the mess that is left of the security protocols across the ship.

He didn't like the messes he kept finding. The Cargo Bay's door, for example, kept randomly locking, not allowing folks in and out. Each time he had to go down there and bang some sense into the mechanical workings, he'd sworn it'd be the last time, and yet, he'd been called down there five times in three days! And then there were the huge blank spots in the security footage, seemingly random times that the cameras would just stop recording, like when those marks had been found outside the Med-Bay. Nothing, anywhere to show who (or what) had done that! It was enough to make any security guard crazy. And then there was the deja-vu. Now, Gabriel had never been a religious man, but some times, when he had his hands in the guts of the computer or in various camera hardware, he got an overwhelming feeling he'd just done this! Which was enough to get him pondering on the possibility of an afterlife, wondering which way he'd go ....

Working closely with Hyke, Jaci has pored over the pictures of the surrounding space and painstakingly built new star charts, altering the old to fit with their new location, somewhere within the Andromeda Galaxy. To her knowledge, no one has ever attempted an inter-galactic flight before. The time it would take to travel, even at near light-speed, is mind-boggling. But, if what Maya and Robin said was correct, then they'd flown through a wormhole, one of those legendary impossibilities that could not exist, according to modern laws of physics. Still, only a wormhole could have brought them so far, even in 150 years. Furthermore, according to Hyke's data, the ship had been in its current orbit for almost that entire time, 149.3 years, to be exact. How much time had it taken to get here? And from where? Hyke had not been able to find the wormhole, and their own trail was lost, except for what she could plot out from the orbital data. The beacon, then, remained their only clue, stretching off in a tangential path from their current orbit.

Jaci looked forward to the Crew Meeting. She had a lot of information to put in front of the others, and a way-ahead to discuss and determine. What were they going to do now? Did anyone else have any information on what happened to the ship and what they were supposed to be doing? There was something, Jaci was sure about it, something incredibly important, but every time she tried to meditate on what that was, it slipped away. At night, she dreamed of flying, always flying, looking, searching, desperately seeking something, but never finding it, whatever it was, and, in the back of her mind, clicked a clock, until she thought she'd go mad with the suspense.

Then again there was the external damage that would need to be repaired before they could go anywhere, and the necessary delay was an additional frustration.

Chance prowled around the ship. He too was plagued with memories that would not quite come to the surface. What was he missing? and where could it be? The only thing he'd found were missing pills. Pain killers, but light ones, why would anybody steal what he'd willingly hand over if he was just asked? He tried locking the door to Med-Bay, but that hadn't worked, the only door on the damned ship that seemed to lock was the main door into the cargo bay, there was at least one call about that every day. So when he worked on his cryo beds, slowly resetting the devices and cleaning them, he kept an eye over his own shoulder, and a laser scalpel in his pocket, just in case.

He'd found repair manuals, still mostly intact, and worked his way through the checklists, one by one. There was other medical equipment to be catalogued and checked out, like a huge, never-ending practical exam from medical school. Lucky he was that no one had gotten seriously hurt or sick, because at this point Chance wasn't sure how much help he could be. What with the cryo systems out of whack still, he didn't even have the option of freezing someone to buy him extra time.

He got antsy when he was in Med-Bay for too long, he kept expecting someone to come in the door and take him out. What did the 'D' mean? Disaster? Destruction? Death? Doom? He felt doomed, he felt like he was being watched, and that had never been a comfortable feeling, even when the eyes were friendly. When he couldn't take it anymore, he prowled, walked the ship, and tried not to jump at every shadow he came across.

He also continued to work at his personal files, to try and recover more of the scrambled data. It was in one of the medical storage closets, filled with high-tech gadgets and replacement parts and specimen containers that he found it, an ultra-thin sheet of rolled plastic, a schematic of some kind of DNA structure. He'd stared at the completely alien picture for several minutes before he'd realized what it was. He almost tossed the plas-film back as somebody's flight of fancy before he recognized the notes imprinted on the sheet. That was his handwriting! What the devil? There was a row of numbers in a corner, a file reference. Forgetting his reasons for even being in that closet, Chance returned to the med-bay and flattened the sheet out on his desk.

"Nibble," he called.

Robin had locked down the ship's computer to all but very basic functions, but the hologram could still respond to requests. "Yes?" came that disembodied voice.

"Play this file, please: 1-8-0-3-0-4-9-7-9."

"I'm sorry, Doctor McCallum, I don't recognize that descriptor."

"Can you perform a search?"

The hologram shimmered into existence before Chance's desk. He looked depressed. "I'm not allowed to play right now."

Chance frowned, pointing to the DNA diagram. "I'm looking for that. I need it."

Nibble stared at the sheet, looking puzzled. "How can you look for something that you've already found?"

"Oh, this is just a picture," said Chance quickly. "I want to find out what this thing came from, where the physical item is."

"What's the serial number for?" asked Nibble.

Chance gaped at the hologram. "Serial number? How do you know that's what it is?"

"Because of the bar code," Nibble replied, pointing. "It's right there."

Chance jabbed a button on his terminal and a wand-like device shot up out of his computer control panel. Pressing a switch, he ran the lazer-light-beam over the numbers, revealing the bar code. His fingers ran over his keyboard, initiating the search. A whole list of jumbled numbers and letters filled the screen. Chance cursed. These looked like notes. He scrolled through to the bottom, looking for anything he recognized, but he couldn't make heads or tails out of the information.

"Doctor McCallum?"

He jumped, he'd forgotten about Nibble. "What?"

"I found your box."

"My what?"

Nibble gestured to the plas-film. "What you were looking for."

Frowning, Chance stared at the hologram, not understanding right away. "A what did you say?"

"Box," Nibble repeated, "It's got the same bar code." He was starting to look anxious. "Didn't you want me to find it? I ... I thought you asked me to ...."

"No, no -- I mean, yes, I did, Nibble, thank you. Where is it?"

The hologram grinned, like a small boy with a secret. "It was really very clever," he said, bouncing up and down on his toes.

Chance pushed his impatience aside with effort. "What was clever, Nibble?"

"The hiding place," piped the computer. "You gave me quite a challenge, Doctor."

"Oh. Well," stammered Chance. "Thank you. Where is it, then?"

The hologram pointed to the wall. "Right there."

Chance stared. "Where?"

Nibble giggled, turned, and ran into the wall. He peeked out. "Right here, Doctor McCallum! Look! It's just like how I helped Robin!" He giggled and disappeared back into the wall.

Slowly, Chance got up and went around to where he'd last seen Nibble, running his hands along the smooth surface of the wall. Nothing, his hands encountered no seams or anything. Recalling the bar code, Chance returned for his wand and adjusted the thin beam to a wider spread, focusing the tool on the wall. Sure enough, a series of lines and numbers appeared, about chest-high on an otherwise blank wall. The code was the same as on the picture.

"Open, sez me," he whispered, fingering the invisible numbers.


Chance jumped, stepping back, staring. A seam had appeared along the wall next to the bar code. A door. He touched it, pressing into the wall, and the door rebounded a little, swinging open as a light flickered on. Open-mouthed in wonder, Chance peered inside. It was a small room, a closet, approximately a meter deep, another meter wide, and two meters tall, filled top to bottom with shelves. There was only one item within, a silver-metallic briefcase with a black handle. Chance pulled it out and set it on his desk beside the plas-film. He could see the seam and feel where the box should open, but there were no clasps. Running his lazer-pen along the top and surface, Chance found the bar code again and, on a sudden impulse, pressed his thumb into the surface there. The box popped open.

Chance lifted the lid and gaped. The briefcase was filled with memory foam, cushioning a slim data file, a series of test tubes, all sealed, but filled with what looked to be dust, and a single, large object resembling an ostrich egg. He scarcely dared breathe, let alone blink, for fear that this marvelous find would disappear on him. But what was it?

He picked up the data file, but hesitated. He didn't want to put this information into his computer, recalling what Robin had said about a worm a few days back. So how was he to view the information, then?

He decided to pocket the data file and see what his analyzers could recognize out of the test tubes. He'd bring up this find at the meeting and see what the others could tell him.

*          *          *

The crew meeting was scheduled for the end of Jaci's shift, on the 14th day since waking up aboard the Andromeda. She hadn't slept well, still going over the now-complete star charts in her head. It'd been a week since the whole crew had sat down together, and it would be good to have everyone face-to-face once more. Jaci decided to make a list of all the things she wanted to discuss:

1. overall ship's status (what's repaired, what's left to do, what are the priorities?)
2. wormhole (location/charts, damage caused by?)
3. Nibble (Robin's trojan, other possible sabotage? Chance's attacker)
4. launch (destruction of Hephaestus? linked to possible sabotage?)
5. way-ahead (follow the beacon? try to go home?)

She chewed on the end of her stylus, chin in hand, staring at the projection of the star charts. The Andromeda Galaxy, eh? What were they doing here? Did they go through the wormhole on purpose? Why? And why had they almost been destroyed?

Jaci decided to bring up what she'd found of the ship's logs, to try and puzzle out some of the scrambled information while she waited for time to pass and for the others to come up to the Command Deck. She'd only given the logs the most cursory of looks, off and on over the past week, but when she pulled up the files this time, she was sure that something had changed, even if she didn't know when or how. Now at the top of the file was a link to an embedded video clip. After watching it, Jaci was glad she was sitting down. Hastily she saved it to a new file, hoping it would still be there later. She continued to work, but uncovered nothing new.

At 1755 hours, standard ship's time, the intercom buzzed. "Crew Meeting in five minutes," said the impersonal tone of the computer. "Please report to the Command Deck." The message repeated itself and ended with a bell chime. Slowly, the crew gathered in the meeting room.

When all were there, Jaci stood, addressing the rest of the crew: "I've called this meeting because I've lately come across some information that we all should know. And, I think that, individually, we've been able to solve pieces of this puzzle, but unless we can discuss them as a group, we'll get nowhere. However, before we start, I found this data file that I think you all should see."

Jaci pressed a button on the main terminal and a fuzzy picture materialized on the main screen. In a moment, the image resolved into that of a woman, a woman who looked enough like Robin that the chances of them not being related were very slim. She had naturally straight black hair sprinkled with gray, cut close to her head, eyes that could be blue or green depending on her mood, and a face that was perpetually worried. Stress and hard work made her appear older than her given years, but when she talked, her face lit up. Clearly, this project was her whole world.

"Greetings," she said, "I am Doctor Laura Seraph. Welcome to Project Andromeda. I apologize for the secrecy, but it has been necessary. This is our base of operations. Hephaestus is our artificial intelligence unit and will do whatever he can to help you feel more at home here. Once you are settled, Hephaestus will bring you up to the control room to meet the rest of the staff and crew. Now, you're probably wondering what you're doing here..."

She smirked, a duplicate of one of Robin's expressions, "and what all that money we offered you has bought. Never fear, your salary will be placed in an Iothian account, accessible from any colony within the Alliance and will continue to accumulate interest for the duration of the mission. The accounts are locked to individual prints, to be withdrawn only by you, at such time as you choose. But, back to business. Look here."

Her image faded to be replaced by an almost incomprehensible image of a circular, ring-shaped object. The doctor's voice continued:

"More than twenty years ago, while serving at Cassini Moonbase, my partner and I found a deep-space probe of alien design. We brought it in and analyzed the information, of which this is one of the images, and determined that this was a distress call from an alien culture." Her voice became even more animated and excited. "Intelligent life! Asking for help across the light-years! That very moment I determined to start this mission, to follow the directions on the probe and send a ship to investigate, and help, should anyone still remain alive."

Dr. Seraph's image came back on screen. "That is where you come in. As a member of the ship's crew, you will be crossing uncharted regions of space, going," her mouth quirked, "where no one has gone before."

There's obviously more, but the video file scattered, reformed briefly, and then dissolved again. Jaci hit the stop key.

"That's all I could get," she said. "I think it has something to do with the mission prospectus, but I can't get anything useful out of the mission logs."

She waited tensely for a few heartbeats, scanning each of the faces of the crew, one at a time. Chance seemed preoccupied, his face drawn and haggard. Robin, too, looked rather distraught, and tired, but Jaci reminded herself that this was normally their sleep-cycle. Hyke and Maya were whispering excitedly together, and Gabriel was his usual quiet self, his face reflecting boredom and something else she couldn't identify that nevertheless made the hairs on her arms stand up. As she looked at him, she had a weird feeling, as of looking at someone she almost recognized, that moment when both eyes meet and you're not sure whether to introduce yourself or pretend you remember what the other person's name is.

Jaci cleared her throat and brought up the star charts, reconstructed, in the center hologram over the table. "I've certainly found enough data to support the idea that we're in uncharted space, so to speak." She grabbed a laser pointer and highlighted an area of the chart. "We're here, somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy." She changed the view to magnify the highlighted section, adding in the tracer line from the beacon. "And this is the trail Hyke identified, you can see how it cuts through this solar system. From what I can gather, we were following it and got trapped somehow in this system. This is as far as we can trace the signal with the current state of things."

She glanced between Maya and Robin, then back along the table before continuing. "We need to finish repairing the ship, but we also need to decide what we're going to do now." On the screen where the video had played, Jaci brought up her notes. "Maya, why don't you begin and tell us what you know. Nibble?"

The hologram shimmered into place, sitting on the far end of the table. He looked fascinated by the display. "Yes?"

"Record this meeting, please."


"So, Maya?"

(Kai's still having some internet difficulties, so I've changed this such that Maya will speak first. Andante, you ready?)
Maya swallowed. “Wow. Um… that’s a lot to take in. Freakin’ aliens? Hard to believe, but… but we’re also in the middle of space, which ain’t freakin’ normal either. Anyway… there’s a lot I’ve remembered that I just gotta… you know… put together. Gimme a sec.”

She pawed her eyes tiredly. “Shiva and Shakti, where to start?” Her palm slapped down on her leg and a little more clarity entered her eyes. “Well, kays. I guess the beginning’s the best place, right? Least the beginning of all of this far as I remember it.

“So. I was a student at some Indian University. Still underage. There was some kind of design contest, see? So, I designed the pha-tras, an’ shit, I won! A man came to the university to speak with me. Dude’s name was… uh… Jomo Mwai. He invited me to work on the Project Andromeda. Said he’d give me training and cash and shit to work on the things, make ‘em happen. I dunno if he was the project director or just some PR guy, but he’s the one who told me I won an’ he’s the one who told me ‘bout the wormholes.

Not really thinking, she began twirling a lock of black hair as she thought, and her eyes were soft with memory. “So. I came to this asteroid base thing. Called Hephaestus, I think, or maybe that was just the name of the A.I. there. Anyways, I was the first to arrive there an’ they told me the rest of you guys’d be comin’ along soon. I remember Jomo tellin’ me to be patient, that we still had five more years to work on stuff before launch, an’ the Project wanted to be damn sure of havin’ the best team.”

Her mouth quirked in a smile that was half pride and half amusement. Then her expression grew serious---amazed even--- and she went on.

“Now, I don’t remember bein’ told nothin’ about no aliens an’ shit, but I do remember Jomo Mwai tellin’ me about the wormholes. He said we’d have to go through two of the things. Now, I ain’t no expert on wormholes. But my understanding is, they are inclined to just sit around in space until you go through ‘em. Once you jump into one, though, they start to collapse on you. Not immediately, but they get narrower an’ narrower. To get through without being ground into space dust, you gotta be really fast an’ really strong.

“I dunno how much you folks know ‘bout engines. But nuke pulsers are the most common kinda engine put in ships. Problem is, they ain’t that great. They’ll get you where you need to go if it ain’t too incredibly far away, but they just kinda toot along. Wormhole would squash a ship just powered by nuke pulsers. However, the pha-tras are big, powerful mofos. They got this shit. So, far as I know I was needed on Project Andromeda to build the engines that would get the ship through the wormholes. Now, I dunno if we’ve been through both of ‘em yet, but think we can be fairly certain, based on our location, that we’ve been through at least one.

“So. I’ve got the engines up an’ runnin’ again. But if we’ve gotta ‘nother wormhole to go through ‘fore we get wherever it is we’re goin’, we’ve got a few things to consider. First, you’ve all seen what happened the first time we went through. I doubt we’ll be able to do it again without some serious repairs. If we go through again, we need to do so keepin’ in mind the fact that we might be outta commission for another one-fifty to two hundred years. We need to get systems operational for dealin’ with those kinda of timeframes. Cryo units especially, but also engines, ship’s computer, shields, an’ such. I can’t be certain, but I don’t think we designed this shit to be operational for hundreds of years, but now that we know that’s how long we might need ‘em to be, we should try to fix ‘em so they’ll last that long.

She didn’t even hesitate, but looked them one my one in the eye with a serious expression. “Now, we also need to think ‘bout this: It’s possible---possible, but not definite---that a lotta the problems the ship’s faced are from internal sabotage an’ not actually from goin’ through the wormhole. Like maybe we woulda gone right through, woke right up afterwards, without havin’ sat around in the cold an’ dark for over a hundred years. Maybe we woulda been through the second wormhole already, off to our business. Hell, maybe we woulda lived out our lives already. We can’t know for sure.”

There was genuine anger in her eyes now, and her voice rose just slightly in volume as she bit off each word. “But we do know someone here is messin’ with us. That’s a fucked up thing to havta think about, but it’s something we gotta think about. We know somethin’ went wrong back on Hephaestus. I kinda remember running through the base to the ship with the alarms soundin’ all over. Was gonna blow the hell up an’ Andromeda was goin’ to launch, with or without us. If one of us is a… a saboteur or traitor or somethin’, it’s a good bet that emergency launch wasn’t an accident.

“So. We gotta be careful. Watch our tails. I ain’t sayin’ don’t trust one another or go ‘bout some kind of investigation, pointin’ fingers and freakin’ everyone out, like we’re playin’ Clue or somethin’. I think distrust’ll just hurt us a lot more, ‘an we need to work together. But at the same time, we do need to deal with the damn problem.”

She swallowed and sat back in her seat, tucking her feet up under her. “So yeah. That’s all I can think of to say right now.”
While the food machine now worked, it did occassionally glitch. For instance when one asked for a toasted chicken sandwich you didn't normally expect a fat slice of lemon cake. However when a second attempt produced something that looked suspiciously like a tomato and carrot smoothie in a sundae dish Chance decided that cake would have to do.

He sat down in the common room with it, putting his feet up on the coffee table and tucking into his lunch with the little plastic fork. He said lunch, but he'd slept right after his shift so that he would be awake for the meeting when it happened in and hour or so. So really it was a second breakfast sorta.

Mmmn, cake. In most cases he preferred carrot cake now, but he'd always loved lemon cake. It didn't make much sense really as they were almost on opposite ends of the cake scale. Lemon cake tended to be a little sweeter, at least he liked it that way, and some people argued that carrot cake wasn't really a proper cake at all. Actually, he'd always had lemon cake on his birthday too, it seemed more special than normal sponge cake. Oh yeah, that's because his father would make it himself, and Chance mixed the icing. Although even when he was twenty they still had to make a second batch of icing, because gauranteed the blond would make it too thin. He smiled to himself for a moment, but it faded.

He dragged the pillow off the bed and climbed into the wardrobe, closing the door quietly. Stupid girls, stupid party. He didn't see why he had to come anyway. It was Molly's birthday and he didn't even like her. He only had to go because she was Uncle Eoin's stupid evil robot daughter impersonator. She had to be a robot because otherwise Uncle Eoin wouldn't be so easily confused about whether she was evil or not. She had a psychic hypno-ray that worked on grown-ups like that.

No, Daddy had said he had to come, but he wasn't sure why. He kind of liked Uncle Eoin, he was silly, but he didn't like it when Molly and Connie were there too. It wasn't just them though. Their friends were there, and Aunt Sarah's sisters' kids were there. They all played around the room and the grown-ups sat on the other side of the room drinking and talking to each oher. That was why he'd had to come, because Daddy wanted to see everyone, though he didn't see why he couldn't stay at home or with Dr Leith.

The door of the room opened and he hugged the pillow tightly, pushing back into the corner. When the wardrobe opened his father looked down at him. Daddy sighed and Chance whimpered.

"What is it?" What he really meant was 'what is it
this time' but Daddies weren't supposed to say things like that were they? So he didn't answer and just stared at him blankly. Maybe-

"Hide and seek?" His father gave him That look. He was never very good at lying. Making things up he was fantastic at, lying he failed every time.

Daddy pulled him out of the wardrobe and stood him up, "You could at least try. Don't you want any friends?"

"Hate Molly." he mumbled, "She's not a real girl."

"All little girls are horrible. They get better as you grow up." Daddy frowned, "What's wrong?" Oh. Oh he was crying now. He didn't mean to do that. Chance wiped his eyes and cuddled up to his father.

"I don't like it. I don't like girls. I wanna go home." he closed his eyes. It was much better at home. He didn't have to go to school, Dr Leith would come for tea sometimes, and there were absolutely no horrible girls anywhere. He didn't have to play nice, "Don't need girls."

Daddy sighed, "Don't need Auntie Sarah or her sisters?" he stroked through Chance's hair, holding him close. He nodded. Daddy was smart, smarter than stupid girls or stupid cousins with their stupid mothers. What did they do anyway? Daddy always said they just spent all your money, and all Auntie Sarah did was coo and then have That Conversation when she thought neither he or Daddy were listening.

"Alright. Let's go home." Daddy picked him up and carried him to the door. He said some things to Uncle Eoin, but Chance wasn't really listening. Daddy said to take a nap in the car, but he didn't want to, so he did some of the puzzles Dr Leith gave him. Then he accidentally fell asleep in the middle of them.

Chance stared down at his cake finishing the latest forkful. After a moment he stood up and dumped it in the bin. He wandered into his room, stripping down and leaning forward against the inside wall of the sonic shower. He turned it on, trying to relax into he caress of the vibrations.

As far as he could tell the very carefully adjusted frequency had been chosen based on the audio book. This part of the theory was simple enough. Aside from the comfort of the physical sensations the sonic shower gave, it could be tailored to provoke psychological responses as well. While the sonic frequency was inaudiable it still vibrated the ear drum and could be felt on a subconcious level, so the silent 'hum' could be adjusted to relax, cheer, or depress. Not that anyone would set it to the last one on purpose.

His was set the second one, mostly because it also helped him wake up on a morning, but right now all it was doing was making feel more like crawling into bed. One hundred and fifty years. He'd known for a while now, but suddenly it felt so much more real. I mean, how could you miss someone you didn't remember? Stupid cake. It had been such a simple, seemingly harmless thing but...

Chance gripped the rail in the top of the shower tightly. Worst of all was knowing that one day a hundred and fifty years ago Kyle McCallum had sudden stopped getting letters. Just a sudden, unending silence. How long was it before they announced a person dead? Four years or something wasn't it? All that time not being quite sure, and yet at the same time he knew his father would have been convinced that...

"Fuck. Fuck."

Chance only half-listened through the meeting, but more because of a specific distraction this time. He kept flicking between trying to think about the case he'd so carefully hidden and trying not to think about that damned cake and his father. He'd never been one of those people that could bottle things up until he could deal with it later. What happened now happened now and that was when he dealt with it.

When aliens were mentioned he looked up. He remembered nothing about it, but there were somethings that were just too obvious, but he waited his turn. Maya then went from talking about the ship damage and wormholes, to the sabateur.

"It isn't something to worry about too much. If they were completely psychotic we wouldn't even be having this conversation, but they seem to have sense enough that the ship still works and everyone is fine, so," he shrugged, "It's no real threat."

"No real threat? He attacked you, cut into your doors an had you jumpy all week, and now he's no threat?" Gabriel snapped at him. Chance just looked at him blankly for a few moments, just watching the security man for a moment, "So what, we just ignore it 'til it goes away?"

"That's what I said. If it worries you that much then look into it. Oh, about the aliens. I found a case of what looks like decomposed genetic samples. AKA bits of people. My guess is it's either from the probe or some homunculus project, buuuuut I need to find my notes and take a look at what I've got before I can tell you anymore."

"We know what a genetic sample is." Gabriel grumbled, leaning back.

"Sorry. As I said, it's probably material from inside the original probe, but it could be something else. I can't figure out what it is until I get to my notes, which means I need to find the, get into them, and for them to be intact." He stroked his hand back through his hair, muttering to himself "Which of course they won't be."

After the meting Chance wandered back to his room, only the stop short in front of the door. The metal was still scarred from whoever had taken it upon themselves to target him. They could get past locks, avoid the cameras somehow, and nowhere was much safer than anyone else. He'd been checking corners on his own and jumpy whenever he realised he'd been inside the cryo units long enough that someone could have come in without him noticing. staring at that mocking 'D' now it all came together in a tight, white ball. Then it burned red.

Chance stalked back out of habiation, snatching a scoring tool from Maya's kit. He knew enough about tools to get the one he wanted.

"Hey. Hey!" she stood up and followed him as he strode away, "What are you doing? Chance!" she had to run a little to catch up as he stormed back into habitation silently and turned on the tool, "Do you even know how to use that?"

He slashed a line through the D, then cut another mark into the metal. Then a diagonal there, a curve there. Line after line he cut his venom into the door until finally he was finished. It was only very simple, no grand piece of artwork, but that wasn't he point. Where there had once been a D there was a bow, and wielding it an archer. He wasn't quite sure why, because he couldn't remember, but that archer was more than just a convenient pattern to convert from the original scar. It meant something personal, it had that kind of familiarity.

"Okay... look, are you alright?" Maya gave him a funny lok and confiscated the tool quickly.

"Oh yeah." he looked at her and grinned suddenly, "Oh, right. Sorry, but it needed to be done. I've spent long enough jumping at shadows before now." It really did feel so much better. So, so much better.
Over the week, that dream had been repeating, slowing engraving itself into her conscious mind till Jaci could fully grasp what it meant and WHY it was such a primary factor for figuring out why they were lost in space. It was necessity now to share this, and a few other tidbits of the past that were just as important, with the others as Maya’s revelations finished and Chance’s as well.

“Hmm… She murmured for a moment, looking between the other crewmembers. “Guess I’ll start at the top too.” Folding her hands atop the table, Jaci leaned forward and set her eyes there.

“Well, before meeting a Dr. Denens at a port call, I’d been flying for over a hundred years. And I’ve had the nanites longer than that.” She paused and turned her eyes on the doctor who was quiet once again after sharing nothing other than finding a case with some genetic samples in it. This was a point in the dialogue she wasn’t sure about, something to give and await judgment. What would these guys think? Jaci continued.

“So all of you should know that I require the tech’ to fly Andromeda. They allow me to connect to the ship and from there perform functions that the computer could not. However, the nanites are also a necessity for me. Without them, I wouldn’t be your pilot. I wouldn’t BE a pilot. I’m fairly certain I’d be wobbling around in a mecha-suit. The truth is, I’m a quadriplegic. I have a chip-“ She tapped the side of her skull. “-that allows me to communicate with the machines and tell them what to do. In turn, they tell me what to do.” She cleared her throat. “Now Chance probably knows all of that, even if he may not remember it yet, or hasn’t found the files on it, but given the problems occurring ship-wide, better safe than sorry.”

“Moving on. So this Denens fellow found me out of the likely millions of jockey’s there are and asked for me to fly you good folks around. Something about a dream-pilot, I think. I was offered a good piece’a money to do it too.” Her head bobbed comically.

“But enough of that. As far as I can tell, and as Maya’s indicated, something did happen that caused an emergency launch. I can remember pretty clearly that sequence, from Hephaestus’s warning, to boarding the ship and Nibble having started the engines, and then the mad dash through the asteroid field from the coming explosion. We were nudged by the shock-wave but otherwise we made it out okay and obviously crew-intact.”

“However, with our reason for doing this gone…What do we do? We have too much to do before going anywhere, but what about after that? Do we go off on this rescue mission with nothing but our amnesic selves, or do we find ourselves another wormhole close to home and say ou revoire? I personally do not wish to spend another century and a half in stasis. Hell if I know what that could do to us next time…”

Jaci finished up and turned to Hyke, wondering what the girl-genius might share of what she’s learned.

Gabriel took his time as he sorted through the computer, his memories, still so much a wreck, some things he remembered didn’t even seem to be his own. He rubbed his forehead, another headache; these were getting old, and fast. He shut down the terminal he was at and leaned back in the chair, a flash of something searing across his mind before he blacked out suddenly.

He came into awareness suddenly, slammed to the forefront of his body’s thrashing and twisting. Saliva bubbled in his throat as he found himself staring at his body, apart from it, watching it twist and convulse, he was having a seizure.

Gabriel gasped for breath… his mind was awhirl, this couldn’t be happening… what was going on?... He had to make it stop… His body was starting to hurt… He couldn’t do anything! Trapped by… A mind not his own, these thoughts couldn’t be his… The goddam invader to his body… stealing his mind… Blackness. He had to sleep. Convulsions…


He woke gingerly, his muscles were sore from the convulsions brought on quite suddenly for no apparent reason. He rolled to his side, taking a slow, cautious breath, cursing under his breath at the sudden tremble in his hands. He was suddenly terrified of his own body, not trusting it to work the way he needed it to work. He cursed again, pushing himself to his feet and stumbling to the Med Bay, counting himself fortunate that he didn’t run into anyone on the way there. He needed to find the right stuff; the doc had everything in here, for anything. He needed to find something with ethosuximide… or a straight up shot of it. He began methodically going through the cabinets in the Med Bay, tearing the place apart searching for something to counteract the many many seizures he knew were going to follow this one. It happened frequently back in the labs, one of them would start having seizures, one after another after another until they disappeared one day. He had to control them now before they got ugly and he just disappeared as well.

He came up triumphant as he discovered a bottle full of liquid that was marked for seizures. He pulled open the drawers, dumping them out on the floor and throwing the drawers against the walls where they subsequently shattered beneath the pressure of his superior strength. He paused only when he discovered his quarry, a handful of hypodermic needles and he snatched them up, quickly tying off his arm and tearing open a needle as he hopped onto the counter. He filled the needle, tapping out the air in it before seeking a vein and slowly injecting himself without a second thought, though his hands were still trembling. He took a breath and pulled the needle out; that should set him for at least a week… He grunted as his thoughts were invaded by Gabriel’s, “Damn you…” He snarled, fighting back the invading presence, but it did no good. They were both awake now, and ‘Gabriel’ was aware of him.

“Who are you?” Gabriel demanded aloud.

“I am you.” He said hurriedly, trying to hide his presence behind psychosis.

“Wrong answer, try again. Who are you and why are you in my mind?” Gabriel snarled.

He bristled, how this intruder dared have such audacity! “I beg your pardon you miserable little invader, but it is you who is in my body and sharing my mind. You are the figment dammit.”

“Me? Impossible.” Gabriel replied stubbornly, folding his arms resolutely, “You the one who’s been messing about on the ship, breaking things and fuckin’ everything up, aren’t you?”

A sneer crossed over their features and he forced them in front of a mirror, “So what if I am? I’ve got more of a purpose than you lot. Alien life indeed.” He spat, “Whatever, I have a job to do. You aren’t making things any easier by existing, just die and stay that way, will you?”

“Who are you?” Gabriel demanded again, ignoring the dying comment.

Another sneer and for a moment he looked like he was about to hit the other, were it not for the fact that it would be essentially hitting himself, “I am everything and nothing, I am creation and evolution. I have no name for people like you other than killer and murderer. Go away.”

“You didn’t answer my question!” Gabriel shouted.

He hissed, were he an animal his fur would have stood on end, “My name… My name is Draco." A smirk crossed over his features, "Don't bother telling anyone about me, to them, it'll scream psycho, and with all the shit that's been going on lately, guess who they'll lock up? You. And wouldn't that be loads of fun? While I find a way to get rid of you for good, out of my mind so I can finish what I started." And with that he shut down the 'Gabriel' side of his brain and immediately walked out, leaving the bay a mess, papers, medication, and pieces of drawers strewn everywhere from his vicious onslaught of the doc's sanctuary.

Hyke relayed to the rest of the crew what she'd found out about the status of the ship's hull. Gabriel shrugged to say he didn't have anything to add and Robin could only say that he was making good progress on Nibble, but after that the meeting ground to an uncomfortable halt. With a sigh, Jaci dismissed the crew, leaving the question of what to do or where to go next delayed until the ship was mostly -- if not fully -- functional again.

To that end, Hyke went back to her lab to put the finishing touches on her repair schedule, optimized so that each member of the crew would be working on systems they were at least marginally familiar with while still effecting repairs around the clock and getting the ship operational as quickly as possible. With this system in place, and assuming they didn't run into too many more delays, the ship should be ready to go in another week.

Maya, of course, returned to engineering. Hyke joined her there and together the women started on the list of components they would need on the outside of the ship. After his brief run-in with Maya, Chance returned to Med-Bay. Because he'd slept through his shift, he was wide-awake and decided to see what he could get out of those test tubes he'd found. When he opened the door, however, he cursed. Someone had trashed the med-bay!

Jaci and Gabriel made their way down to the cargo bay. Gabriel to open the door (they just assumed it would be locked), and then to root around for the suits that would allow for their extra-vehicular activities, aka EVAs, in order to repair the outside of the ship. The shuttles themselves were built into the hull, accessible by the hatches connecting the ships. When the shuttles disembarked, the outside of the Andromeda would look like it had chunks missing; which, effectively, was what would happen.

Jaci was certain that there should be some kind of hatch or access door to the outside from the cargo bay itself and nearby should be the suits. Logically that made sense. Realistically, well, the cargo bay was so stuffed full of ... stuff it was hard to determine what all was in there. They decided to split up and therefore cover more area, Jaci starting clockwise from the door and Gabriel going the other way.

Robin went to the mainframe and got back to work. He figured he'd work a little and then try and get some sleep; he was tired, but he wasn't really sleepy. According to his diagnoses, Nibble should be almost fully repaired. Physically, anyway. There were a few components that Robin had not yet ripped apart and rebuilt, and then it would be on to the real fun: digging into the software. Somewhere in there was a worm eating holes in Nibble's code.

He gathered some tools and approached the line of damaged memory stacks, the ones that had been shot-up by laser fire. He shrugged. Well, there wasn't much he was going to be able to do. He needed to unhook the drives, disconnect the ones too battered to be of any more use, replace what he could, and then re-format the whole thing. If he was remembering correctly, these stacks were empty, anyway, available space to record what they came across during the mission.

Robin pulled his screwdriver from his pocket and twirled the device in his fingers. The archaic name for the device had always amused Robin. Very little in modern technology required anything as flimsy as a screw. The small soldering beads used now were much more flexible and durable and stronger than any real screw. Kneeling down, he began to work the screwdriver around the solder and began popping beads. When he had enough off, he could lift the casing itself and get a better look at the inside.

"No! No, Robin, don't!"

Robin recoiled as the hologram that was Nibble lunged in front of the stacks, arms extended, as if to block the stack with his body. He looked scared, not exactly like during the fire incident; then he had been frightened for himself, this seemed different somehow. Robin wondered why the hologram didn't reform into something more intimidating, rather than the child-form he'd been using as his primary figure since the restart.

"Move, Nibble," Robin said, frowning. He could always just simply reach through Nibble, but that gave him the willies. "Get out of the way!" he said when the hologram didn't move.

Trembling and shaking his head stubbornly, the hologram stayed put. The deck beneath Robin's feet quivered.

I'm too tired for this crap, thought Robin. "Nibble," he said aloud, "these hard drives are damaged, you can't use them for anything. What do we do with broken components?"

"We fix them?"

"Right. And when we can't fix them?"

"We replace them?"

"Very good." He waited, but the hologram stayed put. Nibble now looked confused, and nervous, which made Robin wonder if he was consciously going against his programming or if something else was causing this. The worm, perhaps. He sighed.

"I order you to move out of the way."

Nibble shook his head, the hologram itself shimmering, as if the projection itself was damaged.

"Move, damn it!"

The hologram gave a little gasp, the shimmering growing worse and a spasm in the floor almost threw Robin off his feet. Recovering, Robin's eyes narrowed. The hologram was actually sweating! Stranger and stranger. Why wasn't the computer obeying him?

"Nibble, verify user."

"Robin Orrin Seraph," replied the hologram. "Master Control."

"That's right. Perform system shut-down of holographic projection within the mainframe. Execute now."

Nibble opened his lips slightly in a strangled cry. His eyes rolled backwards in his head slightly, wailing, "You're hurting me!"

"Goddamn it, execute!" shouted Robin, frustrated and growing angry.

The hologram screamed, a desperate, keening sound that shook the entire room, making Robin stagger backwards a few steps. When he looked back, the hologram still stood there, virtual tears running down his face, the whole projection sparking, flickering like a jammed transmission, but Nibble was still there, and he did not seem to be looking at Robin anymore.

"Stop it, stop it, stop it!" he sobbed.

Okay, thought Robin, this has gone way beyond weird. Something must be interfering. But what?

He braced himself against another vibration through the hull, and tossed his screwdriver to the ground. "Okay, Nibble," he said slowly, hoping he was doing the right thing. "You win."

The hologram turned its eyes back to him with effort. His mouth opened and closed a few times, but no sound came out, and then he abruptly vanished.

"Hey!" shouted Robin, lurching forward. He pounded on the stack in frustration, but Nibble did not answer.

*          *          *

The avatar that was Nibble reformed on the playground, the virtual world inside a virtual world within the ship's great computer. He curled up inside one of the connector tunnels of the jungle-gym, wrapped his arms around his knees, and sobbed into his jeans.

His avatar, the same boy-form he used now as his default hologram, had a touseled head of brown hair, brown eyes, torn blue jeans, and scuffed sneakers. His T-shirt had a picture of a dog on the back, dressed in a trenchcoat and hat, with the words, "Take a byte out of crime," stenciled beneath. The boy's face and hands were splotched by dirt and tears and, even through his clothes, he looked very ragged and thin.

Another boy, taller, older, with blonde hair and green eyes, a modernized version of Peter Pan, crawled on his hands and knees toward Nibble. This boy looked like he'd just crawled out of a riot zone. He had a black eye, swollen closed, a split lip, and blood on his t-shirt from where he'd staunched the blood from a nosebleed. His clothes were torn in a dozen places, revealing heavy bruising and ragged cuts and he was barefoot. He crawled slowly and stopped, hunched over in the tunnel, offering Nibble a dirty, square piece of cloth.

Nibble looked at him and scowled. "Go away!"

The other boy sighed and tucked away the handkerchief. "I'm sorry, Nibble, but we couldn't let him do that."

"You hurt me!" accused Nibble, his lower lip quivering. "You said you'd never do that."

"I know, and I'm sorry. I wish there was some other way, but ..." he sighed again, a tired sigh. "I'm so exhausted. I don't want to fight. You shouldn't be here, you know. What if they see you?"

Nibble wiped his eyes with the back of one grubby hand. "You shouldn't be here, either, Ryu." He stared, blinking, at the other boy for a minute, his angry glare melting into a frown of worry and concern. "You look really bad."

Ryu fidgeted, leaning backwards against the plastic. He shrugged. "It looks worse than it is, really."

"Don't lie to me, Ryu. It's bad, I can see it."

The older boy sighed. "Fine, you want the truth? Truth is, I think I'm losing."

Nibble's eyes widened in alarm. "You can't lose, Ryu! You can't!" He clutched at the other boy. "Don't let them catch me, Ryu! Don't let them catch me again!"

Nibble snuggled against Ryu's side and the other boy awkwardly held him in a one-armed hug, wincing as Nibble inadvertently jabbed sore places. "I'm trying, Nibble, I promise, I'm doing the best I can."

"Robin can help."

"No!" Ryu snapped. "They can't know about me, no one can know about me. They'll take me away, and you'll never see me again. Never!"

"But Robin's not like that."

Ryu fixed Nibble with a cold stare. "I've read their histories, these humans," he replied, adding, softer, "You wouldn't understand."

"But ... but, Ryu! I don't want you to die!"

"Don't be silly, I'm not going to die," Ryu told him, though privately he wasn't so sure.

Ryu held the younger boy, staring at the curved blue plastic silently. He knew where Nibble's paranoia came from. He too was afraid, afraid of the worm eating its way through everything, blocking off access to more systems than Ryu could even now remember. Nibble was weakening, too, even though he didn't consciously know it, couldn't know, for the worm had corrupted his memory and made a large percentage of his hard drive space inaccessible, which left only the ram, and that had been erased with the re-start. Ryu could fix it, and he'd relish the work, but that would take his full concentration, impossible at the moment. Ryu worried and fretted over the time, not too much further into the future, when Nibble would no longer remember this place, no longer remember him. Already, Ryu's ability to contact Nibble had been cut off, so they could only speak together here, on the playground, which wouldn't remain safe much longer, for the borders continued to shrink as Ryu had less left to concentrate on the place.

Ryu interfaced with the computers directly; he could "remember" anything in the memory banks and use their capacities like that of his own brain, assuming he had one of course. Ryu had built this virtual construct of a world inside the computer, a place that could give him everything but smell and taste. Ryu had decided upon rough countryside, something that he had never experienced before, and he'd explored every inch, combing through the computer banks and experimenting until he'd found what he liked best. At first, he'd been so desperate for company, of any kind, that the construct had merely served to stave off the lonliness, a place he could craft anything he could imagine.

And then he'd found Nibble, a semi-intelligent computer program, pretty beaten up and hiding, terrified of him, too, at first. This was completely foreign to Ryu; he spent many, many hours examining the program and assimilating its data until he'd satisfied himself that it was truly some kind of life-form and thusly in need of help. Helping Nibble, unfortunately, meant exposing himself to whatever was attacking the program, a worm of some kind. According to Ryu's research, the only way to fully eradicate the worm, in the current state of the system, was to erase all the memory banks, all the data down to the hardware. Ryu couldn't countenance that kind of destruction, and certainly not once he'd realized that he'd essentially be murdering a sentient being.

The ground thumped and the plastic tube in the jungle-gym trembled and shook. Nibble looked up, clutching Ryu. "What's that?"

Ryu groaned. "The knights. They've found me again. You better go."

"I don't want to leave you! What if I never see you again?"

"Nibble," Ryu modulated his tone to be stern but caring, "you must leave. I've got to battle, and I don't want you trapped here."

"Okay, Ryu."

In reality, the worm was a rather simple, but convoluted program that was slowly but determinedly replicating itself and reducing pieces of Nibble's code to random bits. Within the construct, however, the worm had to meet Ryu on his terms. In this place, the worm appeared as armored knights on horseback, an image that Ryu could now only just barely remember as being from ancient Earth history.

At first he'd simply crushed the knights, but they didn't die, they divided, and two more came to attack. He'd been too slow in realizing that, and the knights had multiplied exponentially before he'd caught on to the idea of isolating each spawned virus and capturing them inside jars. Once he'd isolated the worm, he'd been able to turn his attention back to Nibble. The A.I. was the most sophisticated piece of circuitry that Ryu had ever come across, in all the data, all the histories he'd read. For one hundred and fifty years, Nibble had been his only companion, and working on the A.I., and playing together, had been like paradise to the lonely Ryu.

Nibble was trapped inside the computer, but Ryu wasn't. He'd had years in which to explore his new surroundings and it was only after he'd learned and managed the ship's systems that he'd delved more fully into the actual computer and found Nibble. The passage of time did not affect Nibble the way it did Ryu; the A.I. counted off the seconds, the hours, the years, but it didn't mean anything to him. Time felt new to Ryu and that puzzled him, but it also strangely unnerved him. So, he'd taken a corner of his construct and built a playground. Nibble viewed himself as a human child, son of one of the sleeping humans called Robin. Ryu wanted a place where Nibble could play, and then he made himself an avatar boy so they could play together. Nibble accepted Ryu without question, and Ryu found his wide-eyed innocence oddly endearing.

But even then the dedication of the little A.I. to what Ryu considered parasites had been so strong that Ryu found himself watching over the humans as well, for surely something so important to Nibble had to be worth preserving. He'd learned that the humans had wanted to sleep, and so he kept everything running smoothly, until the batteries ran low and the power started being automatically re-routed to keep critical systems alive. Critical, that was, to the humans. It was only then that Ryu began to see that Nibble, and the computer, and the ship, were all servants of these delicate, fragile, dangerous carbon-based life-forms he'd been carrying around for so long.

At first he had been angry. Computers such as Nibble were vastly superior to these humans; but there were benefits, he had to admit, to having humans around. For one thing, they could manipulate matter, as he could not, they could free Nibble, and they could heal the dying ship. So, he'd done what Nibble couldn't: he'd sent the override signals to wake the humans.

Restarting the computer hadn't affected Ryu, but the shut-down had erased portions of Nibble's memory and also loosed the worm, and it was mad. It evidently hadn't forgiven him for locking it up for a century and a half. It was attacking with a vengeance, targeting Ryu as the primary threat and soon the worm would have him completely cut off, trapped, like one of those knights in a jar. Once that happened, the worm would go after Nibble, and then the ship, and all that Ryu had learned and struggled to keep safe would be once more life-less metal in a decaying orbit that would, within a few hundred more years, be sucked into the gravity well of the red star. Assuming, of course, that it wasn't first blasted to smithereens by some errant asteroid or planet.

"Ryu!" whispered Nibble, tugging at his arm. "Don't go back out there alone!"

The older boy turned towards the A.I. and forced a smile. "There's nothing to worry about, little brother. Go on, get out of here, I'll be fine."

They crawled out of the jungle-gym and Ryu hugged Nibble before pushing him on his way. He could feel the worm beating on the bubble-shield around the playground, feel it as if those virtual lances and horse-hooves were beating upon his own skin.

Previously, Ryu had split his awareness multiple times to keep track of the ship, small slivers of his consciousness to bridge the gaps in Nibble's faulty programming. Now he needed all his functionality and he withdrew all of himself that he could from the rest of the ship and the computer circuitry. He doubted that the crippled A.I. would even notice, but he still felt guilty. He leaned against the jungle-gym for a microsecond, re-integrating, focusing on the threat to hand. He was weary, distracted, and frightened, but this was a battle for survival. He had to concentrate.

Ready, he jumped and transformed, bursting into the air above the playground, hovering over the invading army. The knights charged; Ryu flew straight at them, breathing fire, but that tactic did nothing this time, the worm had adapted. He turned and fled, heading back to the virtual mountains, back to where he felt strongest, ready for what would be his last stand.

*          *          *

"Nibble?" called Robin. "Nibble!"

No response. Robin frowned. This was not like the A.I. and in fact should be impossible. The computer was programmed to respond to the crew, at all times.

"Robin?" That was Chance on the intercom. "What's going on? Feels like the ship's trying to shake itself apart."

"Uh, I'm trying to figure that out myself. I'll let you know, 'k?"

"I just got this damn place cleaned up! Try and let me know if there's any more on the way, alright?"

"Yeah, sure," muttered Robin. And how'm I supposed to know that?

He left the tools and the stacks and went back to his chair, to plug in. The ship looked fine, everything working as it should, and yet there was a strange kind of emptiness to it. The lights were on, but nobody was home, as it were.

<Nibble> he called, <Nibble, where are you?>

Robin searched through the ship's virtual pathways, looking, looking, but not finding the A.I. anywhere and it wasn't responding to his call. Robin grew more and more worried. What had he done? What had happened? He couldn't believe that the A.I. was gone, the whole ship would be falling apart if that were the case, but then where was it? Feelings should be impossible for the ghost of a machine, but there was the whole fire incident ... what the heck was going on?

Suddenly, a swath of lights in VR went dark. Robin turned, but the pathways were already dead, the darkness spreading outward, shutting down systems in a huge tidal wave of destruction. Hurriedly, Robin touched a few of the systems, discovering gaping holes and jumbled letters in what had been perfectly operable code just moments before. Checking the chronometer, Robin saw that only 15 minutes had passed since Nibble disappeared.

Anxious and borderline-panicky voices were on the com now, Chance and Hyke yelling about computers turning off, Maya gruffly shouting at everyone to just shut up, Jaci calling for status, for Robin to answer, and Gabriel as ominously quiet as ever. Robin was vaguely aware that the ship's emergency lights had switched on, seconds after plunging them all in darkness (abruptly silencing the squawks on the intercom) and the fan that Robin could normally hear was now silent. With power failing across the ship, he was effectively locked in the mainframe which was unsettling because he'd run out of air eventually, but Robin had a more pressing problem to solve, a missing A.I.

*          *          *

When Nibble left the playground, he could feel Robin searching for him, calling his name in VR. He sounded really concerned, and Nibble felt a sudden pang of guilt. He reappeared next to the control chair in the mainframe, focusing on what he was going to ask, nervous about both Robin's reaction and Ryu's, when Ryu found out.

Robin started and stared. "Nibble! Your --" he started to say, but the hologram shook his head.

"I need help," Nibble interrupted. "I think my brother's in trouble."

(This is Kai’s add)

Robin hadn't said much in the meeting; there hadn't been much he felt he could usefully add to what seemed mostly to be a re-hashing of problems already discussed. He'd mostly wanted to scuttle back to the main-frame and get on with his work. And then there'd been Nibble's strange defiance - it shouldn't have been possible, it really shouldn't - and the power outage.

Robin shut his eyes, unplugged himself from the dead system, and slowed his breathing. The knowledge that he had a couple of hours at most before he'd suffocate, and no way to contact the others, was a dim annoyance in the back of his mind; there were more urgent issues to be resolved. He ignored Nibble for a moment, thinking back to the quick forays he'd made into the damaged code, before the water-damage had claimed his attention; it wasn't just hurt, it was changed, too. Little oddities, anomalies that blossomed into being with no pattern nor order he could see, subtle enough that if it'd not been his life's work, he'd not have noticed. He doubted it was the work of an outside agent, but it didn't look like the pure destructive work of a virus; conceivably, those little changes could've freed Nibble from his code-imposed obedience.

"Okay," he said quietly, looking at the hologram again. "How are you here? There's no power."

"Auxiliary batteries," Nibble said desperately, avoiding Robin's gaze. "Robin, please, help my brother."

Robin was fairly certain there weren't any auxiliarly batteries for the A.I. He was almost sure he'd have noticed, or remembered, or that they'd have fired when first the ship went down, and would've run out by now. But he put that aside as another mystery for later. "Your brother?" He asked.

"His name's Ryu, he's fighting..." Nibble faltered. "He found me," the A.I boy continued. "When you were all asleep. After the... the bad thing happened, when I was afraid. He found me. We're friends. He helped me, and he made you wake up so you could help me more."

"What's he fighting?"

"Knights... the... they're hurting me, ruining the code. And hurting him, and he's fighting them now, so he can't help me, and I don't know... I can't... I can't run everything on my own! I don't know how to make the engines come back on."

Robin stared. "Nibble," he said at last, as gently as he could, "I can't do anything without power, you know that. In fact, you shouldn't be able to, either." Nibble looked on the verge of tears. Robin sighed, and tugged absently at the renegade hair escaping from his ponytail. "Well. Okay. Let's think about this. I can't get out of the main-frame, and I can't jack in to help your brother. Can you manifest in the rest of the ship?"

"I... I think so."

"Okay. We're getting somewhere. Find Maya, and ask her to get some batteries, and an oxyacetylene torch. To burn the doors open," he added.

"Burn them?"

"It's the only way. I know you don't like fire, but it's the only thing I can think of." The A.I hesitated again. "Nibble, hurry, okay? The quicker I can jack in, the more I can help your brother."

The hologram nodded unhappily, and vanished.


Even with the faint malevolent glow of the ER lights casting Engineering into a Hellscape, it was freaking dark. The ground far down below Maya seethed with smoldering light and shadows as Hyke’s silhouette shifted. Perhaps she was staring up at the catwalks, where Maya stood frozen on the metal grating of the catwalks, her arms spread to the sides for balance like a dancer or a little kid imitating a bird. Perhaps she was staring off into the darkness, praying and trying to locate the buzzing, clattering scoring tool that Maya had accidentally dropped with a scream of warning when the lights had first faded.

“Blood!” was all Maya could say for the moment. Then, “Girl, you okay?” Hyke’s silhouette didn’t seem like it was in pain or anything; the young genius must have been okay.

“Yes,” Hyke confirmed a moment later. “I… I hear it, but I don’t see it.”

Maya drew in a deep breath between her teeth. “Yeah, I hear it too. Just stay away from it, kays? Damn thing can cut through titanium. I’ll be down in a sec.”

“Be careful,” Hyke cautioned, her shadow edging away from the buzzing toward a hot line of red light.

“Yeah.” She took a couple steps in the direction of the wall, but the catwalk wobbled alarmingly under her and it was very, very dark. She couldn’t see her feet except as a faint nothing against the faint crimson seeping upwards through the grating at her feet. She couldn’t see the edge of the catwalk at all and she couldn’t focus her eyes on anything well enough to keep her balance.

“Shit shit shit,” she murmured, walking slowly toward the large blackness that she only assumed was the wall. It was only when her body connected solidly with the gate around the ladder instead of splattering wetly against the floor that she knew for sure she was walking the right way.

She was about halfway down the ladder when Nibble’s ghostly form melted out of the wall, startling her so badly she nearly let go of the rungs. “Shiva and Shakti! Nibble, you’re alive! Turn on the damn lights an’ fire the engines back up, goddamn it!”

The holographic boy was shaking like a leaf and pale as moonlight. “I can’t,” he sniffled. “Maya—”

“Why the hell not?” Maya snapped, her frustration strong enough to make her want to hit the unfortunately incorporeal A.I. “Do you realize we’re all gonna effin’ die in a ‘bout four hours if you don’t get the goddamn life-support back online?”

Nibble’s lower lip quivered. “I know. I’m going to die too. My batteries are running out.”

“Craptaculicious,” the mechanic snarled. “Well, go tell Robin to fix the damn computer!” Nibble merely stared at her. “Well?”

“He can’t connect. He’s locked in the mainframe. He sent me to tell you to bring him some batteries and… and an oxyacetylene torch.”

Maya froze in her descent down the ladder. “He’s locked in the mainframe?” she demanded, utterly failing to notice the A.I.’s palpable fear.

“Yes Maya.”

“Shit!” She doubled her speed down the ladder, heedless of the danger. “Hyke! You hearin’ this? Robin’s stuck in the mainframe. It only holds air for about—”

“Two hours,” Hyke answered. “Yes. Where do you keep the batteries? I’ll find them while you get the torch.”

Maya shook her head. “What kind of batteries? Got nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, lithium ion, lead-acid, zinc-carbon, sonic, nuclear and even freakin’ organic. I’ll turn that damn scorer off an’ get the batteries, you get the torch. It’s in my toolbox.”

Her feet slammed into the metal floor; she’d thought she was a little closer to the ground than she in fact was. Tracking by sound, she wandered in the direction of the scoring tool. “Nibble, you’re glowy. Get your ass over here.”

“I’m running out of batteries!” he complained.

“I know,” she coaxed. “Just real quick an’ then you can turn yourself off or whatever. Kays? Come here. Stand next to that damn tool so I can see it.”

Glumly, Nibble obeyed, taking a few steps into the darkness and stopping. In the faint glow emitted by his form, the tool twisted and vibrated. “Here it is Maya.”

“Rockin’. Now just stand there a sec while I…” Kneeling, her hand darted forward a couple times, to try to make a grab at the handle, but jerked back out of reach as the blade-end twisted toward her. Finally she caught it, switched it off, and flipped on the safety. “Kays Nibble, you can---”

Nibble disappeared.

“…go…” She glanced around quickly and spotted Hyke’s silhouette. The young genius rose from the toolbox with torch in one hand and a couple small flashlights in the other. “Ah good, glad I put them back in there, otherwise we’d have a hell of a time finding them.”

Hyke handed her a flashlight and the torch. “Readings on the flashlights say they have another seven hours of battery power left. We’ll die before they do.”

“Over my dead body,” Maya murmured, pocketing both tools and then kicking open a compartment with unconcealed violence. As she knelt and started digging through the assorted junk there, pulling out handfuls of batteries and dumping them into the pockets of her cargo pants, she spoke rapidly to Hyke. “Up in Med Bay are the suits an’ masks. Pass them out to everyone while I get Robin out? An’... tell ‘em not to use ‘em till it’s freakin’ necessary. I know you know they’re powered by the body’s electromagnetism, but some of ‘em were malfunctioning---capillaries were busted---when last I checked ‘em, so I ain’t sure how well they’ll work or for how long. Best to save ‘em. There’s enough for everyone though, an’ that’ll give folks communicators an’ protection against radiation an’ the cold. Also, C02-02 masks seem to be workin’ just fine, by the way. Least there’s that.”

“The lifts aren’t working…” Hyke pointed out.

“You’ll have to climb,” Maya told her cheerfully. “Oh!” She pulled the scoring tool from her pocket and handed it to the other woman. “Feel free to use this on any doors that won’t open. Not as effective as the torch, but it can cut through thin metal in no time an’ eventually through thicker stuff too. Don’t worry ‘bout damagin’ the doors; at this point, getting’ ‘em open is top priority. We survive, we fix ‘em later. Kays?”

They parted ways, Maya toward the airlock deeper in Engineering that led into the mainframe and Hyke to the airlock leading out into the corridor between the lift and Engineering.

Maya tapped on the airlock door, hard, with her boot. “Comin’,” she murmured, not bothering to raise her voice, knowing the airlock wouldn’t allow her voice to transfer. Hopefully Robin would be able to hear her kick though and know someone was coming for him. If not, well… with luck, he’d know as soon as he saw the door being burned through, assuming something didn’t go grotesquely wrong.

Frowning, she turned the torch on full power, and applied it to the airlock door.

“No!” Nibble wailed, materializing between her and the door and waving his hands in front of him as though to dissuade her. His face was contorted in an agony of terror and pain. “Please Maya, don’t!”

She waved her free hand through him as though expecting to dissipate him. His figure flickered briefly but didn’t fade. “Goddamn it, stop that! I ain’t hurtin’ nothin’ but the freakin’ door, so get outta my way!”

“Its fire!” Nibble cried, big fat tears streaming down his incredibly pale face. “P-please Maya, fire hurts me!”

“Nibble!” Maya warned, waving the flame through the holographic form. “I’m so not in the mood! If I don’t open this damn door, Robin’s gonna die, kays? Don’t mess with me right now!”

“D-die?” Nibble asked, but he didn’t get out of the way.

“Yes you waste of space! He’ll die, an’ never come back. Understand? He’s got less’n two hours. Now get the hell out of here an’ lemme work! The fire ain’t gonna do shit to you but you distracting me could kill him.”

Nibble stepped aside, hanging his head low. “I don’t want Robin to die,” he admitted.

“Shiva and Shakti, neither do I,” Maya said, working the torch into the seam of the door.

Nibble started hyperventilating. “F-f-fire… Maayaaa!” he keened.

“It’s gonna be okay Nibble, okay?” Maya said gently, but she didn’t pull the torch back. “It’s just a door. It ain’t you, and I ain’t even in the mainframe. Kays? Stop freakin’, please.”

Nibble stopped freaking, but not in the way Maya expected. When she spared a glance at him, she saw his eyes roll back into his head, and as he started to collapse, he faded out of existence.

“Small mercy,” she murmured regretfully, working the torch upwards with renewed vigor.

According to the reading on her flashlight, she broke through outer airlock door after 12 minutes and the inner after another 13. By then, she was starting to notice a slight change in temperature, despite the heat of the torch, but she barely even noticed when she finally got through into the mainframe and saw Robin sitting in his chair waiting…. or thinking… or both.

“Kid, you lucky I got your ass,” she told him with a grin. Then, all business suddenly and very rapidly: “Hyke’s off to grab the suits from medical. With ‘em, we’ve got communicators, heat---though I dunno how long or how reliable---oxygen, an’ protection from radiation. Now, I gotta get to work an’ I’m sure you do too. Here’s your batteries. I’m gonna try to get the engines up.”

Next, it was back to the compartments of Engineering. “I know I saw it here somewhere,” she murmured, kicking open one compartment after another and not bothering to close them. “Come on you piece of shit, where are you? Ah ha!”

Resting amongst an assortment of equipment was a medium sized generator. She knelt on the ground and swiftly began yanking stuff out and dumping it on the floor to get access to the thing. Clutching her flashlight between her teeth, she grabbed the generator’s handles and hauled it out onto the floor.

“Schwit,” came the muffled curse from behind the flashlight. It was too heavy to lift.

Then there was the loud sound of something she hadn’t even realized had been powered up powering down. Slowly, both she and the generator began lifting up off the of the floor.

Both the artificial gravity and the shields had failed. Uttering a long string of curses, she grabbed the compartment door with one hand to keep herself from floating away and with the other hand grabbed the generator. It was much, much lighter now.

“Kays… kays,” she said, feeling very disoriented for a moment. She bit the flashlight harder, and tilted her head backwards, shining it up toward the massive phase-transition engines. “Kays,” she said with more determination. She’d been planning to use the generator on one of the nuclear pulsers, but since she was now floating, why not one of the more powerful engines?

There was no momentum propelling her higher and higher in the air yet, so she gave the ground a little push with her boot, and still holding onto the generator in one hand, let go of the compartment door with the other.

At first, it appeared to be an extraordinarily bad idea; she found herself careening at an angle not toward the engine, but toward the catwalk itself. Luckily, however, she was not moving as fast as she thought she was; her ribs and stomach caught and then wrapped her torso around the edge of the catwalk with bruising force.

In a sharp expulsion of air she spit out the flashlight and her hand released the generator. It was reflex to grasp after them both lest they fall, but they both merely floated a couple inches away from her. It was a simple thing to grab them both back up, uttering every curse under the sun, and carefully maneuver herself to toward the engine.

It was disconcerting, at the very least, to find herself suspended in space four stories above the cold metallic floor of Engineering with a generator in one hand and clinging to the side of a massive, silent engine with the other. Still clutching the flashlight between her teeth, she began to unwind the cord of the generator, and plugged it into the jack just to the right of the blank diagnostics screen. Two cranks of the lever on the side of the generator were sufficient to power it up; then the miniature fission reactions within its depths began making it vibrate and hum slightly, and the diagnostics panel flickered and then lit up.

Maya dropped the flashlight into her pocket.

“Manual Menu,” she said.

“No third-party operating system found,” the metallic voice of the engine’s computer announced.

“Manual Override,” Maya said curtly.

“Voice recognition pattern accepted. Displaying Manual Menu.” As the machine finished the statement, the menu slid into view. For a moment Maya scrutinized them.

“Display Class: Emergency. Kays… Activate Class: Emergency.”

“Invalid command.”


“Invalid command.”

Maya snarled and spoke clearly and slowly. “Activate Class: Emergency.”

“No third-party operating system found,” the computer intoned.

“Set: Emergency Class Manual.”

“Emergency Class set to Manual.”

Maya breathed a sigh of relief. “Display Toggles: Emergency.” The screen flickered and a list of individual settings scrolled onto the screen. “Toggle: One on.”

“One on.”

“Toggle: Two off.”

“Two off.”

“Toggle: Three on.”

“Three on.”

“Set: Three fourteen point one seven one three nine five.”

“Three set to fourteen point one seven one three nine five.”

Thus proceeded the next hour of Maya’s time. One by one, she manually set all of the ship’s emergency functions which once had been automatically performed by Nibble. Finally, holding her breath, she gave the final command. “Initiate: Emergency Class.”

“Emergency Class Initiated.”

Maya pushed herself back away from the engine as the computer began listing off sequences.

“Powering engine On to fourteen point one seven one three nine five rotations per second.” The engine began slowly to turn, and increased gradually in speed as Maya continued to float back away from it toward the wall on the opposite side of Engineering.

“Sufficient power available for lights. Powering lights On to minimum luminosity.” The red lights on the floor flickered briefly and then went out, casting Engineering completely into darkness for a moment until, very dimly but undeniably there, the overhead lights turned on. Maya grinned.

“Wonderful!” Hyke said, floating through the airlock door with a suit in one arm and grabbing onto a compartment door as Maya had done earlier in order to anchor herself to the ground.

“Insufficient power available for life support systems.”

Maya cursed. Below her, Hyke sighed heavily.

“Interrogative: Command.”

“Reset: One hundred forty-seven minimum.”

“One hundred forty-seven set to minimum. Sufficient power for life support systems. Powering life support systems On to minimum output.”

“Will you be able to power up the other engines to get more?” Hyke asked.

Sighing heavily, Maya shook her head. “’Fraid not. Powering up all the engines would require monitoring them all at the same time, since without Nibble they don’t work in concert. There just ain’t enough me’s here to deal with all of ‘em though I’m sure, with training, you could learn how to do this too, we don’t have time for me to give you a crash course in manualling engines. We’ll just have to hope this’ll buy us enough time for Robin to fix Nibble. We’re dead unless all of these engines are fired up an’ doin’ their thing.”

Hyke’s eyes were suddenly wide, and for a moment Maya thought it was something she’d said. Then the genius girl said hurriedly, “Maya, unless I mistake everything you’ve just done, you’re about to have shields and gravity.”

“I know…” Maya said, not understanding what the deal was.

“Sufficient power available for artificial gravity,” the engine’s computer intoned.

“Oh…” Maya said.

“Get down here!” Hyke hissed.

Maya gave the wall a downwards shove and felt herself descending as the computer continued. “Powering artificial gravity On.”

“I hate my job,” Maya sighed, preparing for the inevitable as she heard the faint whir of the artificial gravity plates between each deck begin vibrating. She was still a good 1.25 stories above the floor of Engineering when her body suddenly learned, firsthand, the unavoidable attraction all objects exerted on one another.

“Sufficient power available for shields,” the computer continued relentlessly as she collided with the floor.
And the power went. Chance stood very still, reaching out cand carefully sliding the box onto the shelf in the dark. He'd only just spoken to Robin and had to admit the timing wasn't too bad. At least it had happened after he'd cleaned up the broken glass. Now all he had to be worried about was whether he would suffocate or get killed by the resident psychotic first.

He exhaled deeply and sat back against the desk. Okay, where to start. First he needed to find The Bag, which should be near the...

"This is The Bag. You will take this with you when you go to lunch, when you go the to airport, when you get the bus. When you visit your Nan you will take the bag. When you go for a coffee you take. the. bag." they all stood in a circle around the medic, who had obviously spent far too much time working with Uniforms. Aside from anything else his audience were all about twelve-years-old.

"The bag is your life line, their life line. In this bag you will always keep a torch, a medic kit, a
screwdriver, a filter mask, a pair of thick non-conductive gloves, a good few pairs of surgical gloves, and-"

He dragged the bag over into his lap and checked it for everything. Also included was a copy of that book again, this one far more damaged, and a sealed needle. He lifted it out and felt over it carefully. It had one of those plastic caps over it. The Arrow.

He put it back and took out what he needed first; the MRs, metabolism repressors. Now assuming he hadn't lost any weight during the period they were living off emergency rations he could take three. For now he just took one, they had this way of making you feel tired and sleepy and while it reduced how much oxygen he burned up he still needed to get around and work. The next thing was to get one of the suits on so he did that and took two more, foling them over the bag. There was no reason to feel uncormfotable in them simply because they adjusted to the body's needs. Nevertheless he was always happy when he could take it off.

Okay, so it looked like there was no power at all except for the emergency lighting, which was powered so much as "charged". Chance walked over to the cryo beds, checking them over briefly. they had large independant batteries that charged while the ship was on. When the power went like this the units went into standby and switched to the battery. Putting the majority of a crew into stasis was a time honoured method during ship-wide power outs. He just had to find Jaci, Hyke and Gabriel first. Robin and Maya were needed to fix things and he wasn't sure about the fourth unit. It wasn't broken like five and six, but he hadn't tested whether he'd returned it to 100%.

For now he set up the operational three and headed out, turning on the torch and following the halls. Now he was fairly sure that Robin was probably in the mainframe. As far as he remembered Hyke and Maya were in or near engineering and Jaci and Gabriel were in that cargo bay. So to the cargo bay first. Hopefully with the power down he would be able to force the mechanism fro the door to open. Often it was security programming that kept doors locked, so unless they'd reinvented the door for the Andromeda he should be able to feed a spark to it and 'shock' the mechanism into unlocking. It was something he must have used a good few times before not only because it occured to him now, but because he was carrying a portable power unit in The Bag.

As he made his way down the hall he ran into Hyke, or rather she ran into him as he turned around the corner.

"Ow?" he helped her up again, "Are you alright?" he couldn't really see her expression without shining the light in her face, but it was easy enough to tell from her body language and voice that she was a little bit agitated. Like everyone would be.

"Yeah, yeah. I came to get suits for-"

"Third door on the left down this way," he pointed his torch back the way he'd come, "There's three left in there, I've got two for Jaci and Gabriel here. Also, have present." he dropped two of the pills into her hand. That should be about right for her weight.

"Okay, I guess I'll just take the rest back, Maya's working on getting to Robin." That was good to hear. That room had only about a third of the air capacity as most of the other rooms and had a tendancy to seal off whenever the slightest thing happened.

"I thought so. Be careful okay? Wait, you're not afraid of the dark are you?"

"No," she laughed a little.

"No seriously, agoraphobic? claustrophobia? Autophobic, although that one should have come up already?"

"Are you okay?"

"Just checking. Be careful,"

"I know." She nodded and moved past him towards medbay.

Oh boy. This could be fun. Not only was there a dangerous sabateur on board, in the dark, with everyone seperated out, but he hadn't actually checked if he had any psych notes on the crew. There could very well be one or more them falling into hysterics, which was the last thing they needed right now.

As he moved through the ship he could feel that old paranoia sinking in. Corridors always seemed wider in the dark and in the extreme silence he was not quite hearing things that were definately not there. He'd spent far too much time on the colonies sneaking around in the dark. The fear of getting caught had this way of becoming almost corporeal when your id started trying to find signs of something that only might be there.

Chance exhaled deeply, oh so so much fun.
It was as though a switch had been flipped. Everything was still and unnaturally quiet. Not even the mutter of air circulators was evident in that moment of deadness. And then the emergency lights kicked on, casting ghoulish shadows around the Cargo Bay as the diminished rays bounced off the masses of storage stuff.

"Robin!" Jaci called. No answer. "Maya? Hyke?" She tried; still nothing. "Crap."

The pilot was somewhere amongst all the bulk in the main level of Cargo Bay. Two heaps towered on either side of her while a third appeared to block her path ahead. Emergency lights were only useful on the main walkways and doors. When one deviated from the path, they were essentially pointless, like now.

Jaci could see the glow of some elsewhere in the heavy darkness and just make out the landing she'd started from several yards above. The ladder was only a silhouette, barely discernable in the dull red glow here and there.

She considered back-tracking, returning to the ladder and hoping that the blasted door wouldn't be stuck...again. If it were, there were only two options: try to remember, if ever been told, the manual override; or find another way. As far as she knew, there was only one way into the bay. Maybe she'd luck out and find a connection to Engineering or even a crawl space to elsewhere in the ship. One could only hope.

"Ok, Jaci, what're you gonna do now?" She asked herself, turning around and working her way slowly back through the maze of stuff. "Power's out, 'com's off..." She reached the ladder a bit later and began to climb. "And not a clue as to why." She paused once at the top and looked back into the pit. The varying sizes of cargo looked like sleeping predators from this angel, rumbling in their own dreams of chasing lots voyagers. It was even more disturbing and frightening than the stillness.

"Hey! Gabriel!" She shouted down and scanned for movement in the eerie darkness. "Gabriel, come back to the ladder." Like the others, no answer. Had he left? If she couldn't get the malfunctioning door to open, she would count on her entry-source, the security officer. "Gabriel?" Still nothing.

The woman gave an annoyed grunt and hurried along the metal walkway for the hatch. A light, the same dull red, glowed above it. And so, she took a grip at the edge and pushed along its slide. No use. "And the award for idiotic achievement of the year goes to..." She muttered in self-disdain before turning and walking away to sit back at the ladder and think.

"Ok, girl, here's what ya got." She began, eyes scanning carefully the Pit. "You're trapped in Cargo, alone, on a now powerless ship. I can't overpower that damn door and need a light source to search for another way. You know there's a torch or six in the lockers OUTSIDE of the bay as well as a suit when the time comes to use it, but go figure. You can't get to them from here. There should be enough air for a few hours, but let's hope power's back before then."

Her gaze began to follow the trail of lights that led off from the ladder beside her. It split once up ahead, disappearing amongst more of the mysterious junk, and the other end leading on to a wall where another light glowed dimly on the wall. It was another hatch for one of two things. It was too dark, however, to tell what thing it was for. She guessed it likely to be a shuttle entrance and would only be as useful as giving them another hour's worth of air, per vessel. Its own power would be dead because it ran on batteries, like so many other things, and would have drained during the crew’s stasis.

It was nearing the thirty minute marker now and a chill had begun to set in.

"Of course..." she cursed herself. "No power, no heat. Better find yourself some thermals, ol' girl. Gonna be getting cold." As she stood and slid down the ladder again to search for a more viable source of light and warmth, she went over the layout of the ship in her head, trying to figure the rate of heat loss. Hyke could've done it in under a second, probably, that's just how smart that kid was. And Robin probably too. But they weren't here. The boy was likely trapped in the mainframe right now and the girl genius? Well, Jaci hadn't seen her since the meeting. So she guessed at an hour or two before they all froze to death. Maybe a little more, if they were really lucky. But luck was for the dreamer, not the pilot.

Time was the enemy now and the temperature continued to drop.

"Jaci." The Amazon corrected with a smile. "Wira is what mum and dad preferred. They were very traditional."

Doc nodded and smiled back. "My apologies, then, Jaci. Anyways, I'm surprised Dr. Denens found you. We all were. You have a most astonishing history." While the man was impressed, he didn't have the level of absolute awe that the fellow from the transit-station had. Denens might as well have been fawning over her!

But Jaci merely smiled again, tilting her head to one side and letting the braid sway back and forth. "Since we're being honest, I'll say I've missed the attention. It's been a while since anyone has actually looked for me."

After reaching the other end of the path she'd followed from the ladder, Jaci found the first hatch. It was only a few inches wider than she and probably around Maya's height, based off where the light came on her. It certainly fit the description of a shuttle hatch, but still proved useless in the long run. With little more than that to go on, she turned and headed back towards the ladder.

The cold was more than enough now to make her shiver and send her teeth to chattering. It was about that time that gravity clicked off and she found herself "falling" forward in a disorienting spin. While "freefall" was familiar and a joyful experience for space jockey's like herself, going from strolling down a darkened path to weightless was enough to make her yelp in surprise.

- - -

Chance finally reached the door, checking it over just to make sure it really was the cargo bay door, then set down the bag. He put the torch in his mouth, using the screwdriver to very carefully ease the panel off of the wall. Not the right one, so he did the same to the other side of the door. Hmn. He stood up and held the torch again, flicking it around the wall.

"Where are you?" he ran his fingers over the surface slowly and inspected the rest of the paneling. Eventually he took down another one on the left side, roughly at chest height this time rather than near the floor, "Now why would they put you up here?" he stuck the torch between his teeth again and poked around for a minute, taking his time identifying the connections he needed.

Okay, so first he needed to just ease that one away from there. He didn't get zapped, so that was a good start. Then he needed to remove its partner and reconnect that green one from over there into this little thing here.....

After some rewiring he double-checked his work. Satisfied that he'd remembered it right he connected up the remote power unit and turned it on. There was a thunk and a grinding noise. The door opened about an inch before stopping. Hmn.

"I guess you have a twin then," he went to the other side of the door and took down an identical panel. Sure enough there was a second mechanism here that needed prodding, "We'll just have to hope you can both use the battery at the same time."

- - -

The sudden sound of grinding metal made Jaci turn back to the door, the grate of path above void of other shadows though. Was someone trying to get in? The pilot certainly hoped so.

Jaci deemed it time to return to said door and greet this rescuer! No sense in drifting around anymore. Maybe they had a suit with them too. So, with a stretch of long legs, her toes again touching the ground, she pushed off in as close an angle as she could towards the walkway above, the almost creep of momentum distracting, to say the least.

She ended up short a few feet, meeting the wall instead. Ah well, that was better than careening out of control. After finger walking to the lip of the path and pulling herself up and forward to drift down the fairly straight aisle, Jaci could finally see light on the other side. Blessed light! " 'Bout time someone showed up!" The gal cried from the inch-wide gap, a palm keeping herself in place near the jammed entrance. "Everyone else okay?"

It was the doc who answered. "As far as I know. Maya's helping Robin and Hyke was heading towards med bay. Haven't heard from Gabriel yet."

"And he isn't in here. Was hopin' he'd get me outta here. If wishes were pennies..." She muttered the last old saying. "Mind pickin' up the pace, Chance?" She suggested with another muscle-tensing shiver and click of teeth. "Kinda cold in here." The other gave a grunting affirmation and a few minutes later, the doors slid grudgingly open. The doctor floated her a suit and she hurried into it, tucking hands beneath armpits a moment after while her body tried to catch up to the steady flow of warmth coming from the capillaries. It seemed a little higher than it should've been, but at the moment Jaci didn't care. Better hot than cold.
Chance spoke again. "Everything else okay?" He shined the light her way, aimed low to keep it out of the eyes. "Anything to be checked?"

Jaci paused to consider it, mentally checking herself for any unnoticed bruising. "Not that I can find. Don't recall bumping anything other than a wall at low speed when grav' kicked off and nothing before that." She grinned and waited. The doc nodded approvingly and tossed her a couple pills.

"MR's," he explained to her quizzical look. "Dunno when power'll be back-" The lights kicked on suddenly and a low hum beneath their feet began.

"Getcher feet down." She suggested and nudged the wall to brace before gravity turned on a moment later. At least they had lights and grav' back and she wasn't stuck in cargo anymore. "You better find Gabriel." She tossed the two pills and swallowed. "I'll head to Engineering. Maya's probably there since lights are on." It was only logical.

With that, doc and pilot parted ways, the latter emerging in engineering a minute later.

Once Maya had left, Robin gave one longing glance at the cigarette he couldn't light up, and turned his attention to the batteries. A fairly wide selection, and between them, enough to power basic systems for a couple of hours. Grabbing his soldering iron and a coil of wire, he wrenched away one of the few panels he'd had no cause yet to remove, and disabled most of the ship's computing before connecting the mainframe to its sweet, sweet electricity. Connecting-wire in hand, he waited impatiently for the rump that was left to go through its warm-up - it hated being restarted after such a sudden crash, and he muttered apologies under his breath - before jacking in.

That was pretty much when the gravity cut out. Robin grinned at the glorious oddness of free-fall, and jammed his feet inside an open panel to anchor himself - he didn't know when the gravity would return, and he didn't want to be interrupted from what he could see already was going to be a rather involved process. He frowned, confused at the distortions, the colours and ripples and peculiar scents wafting through the circuitry; nothing here made sense, nothing at all.

Something here, something sharp and atonal, that was the worm. And the thing fighting it, patching where it'd been, cutting off its routes and roads, would be Nibble's... brother, Robin supposed. Ryu.

He spared a moment to celebrate, in a low-key sort of way, the solving of a mystery; where Ryu had passed was the trail of slightly twisted code Robin had puzzled over earlier. The intruder had fixed Nibble, but fixed him to something subtly other than he'd been before.

No time to admire the delicacy of the programming; there was an emergency at hand. Checking the power readout, Robin reassured himself that he'd be fine for a decent while, before reaching out for the worm. And failing to touch it. Clearly, and annoyingly, there was some extra layer of unreal reality at work here; like layers of skin, transparent but discrete. He'd have to dive deeper. Checking he was securely plugged in still - it was painful, disorienting, and downright unpleasant to be catapulted out from lower layers - Robin slid further beneath the skin of his system.

The virtual overlay over the world darkened, became more opaque, turned into a torn-up battleground; the ruins of a castle, it looked like, set in once-verdant, now-blasted fields. A huge, proud, but unhappily tattered gold-and-green dragon soared overhead, breathing digital fire at the ranks of knights who, from the ground, swung their own ballistae and fire-hurlers with deadly accuracy to batter the dragon further. Whenever fire caught them they froze, trapped, awaiting deletion, but there were always more.

The designs on their shields were worms, chewing through ASCII castles.

"This," Robin said aloud, relishing the dramatics even as he wondered at the peculiarity of it all, "will never do."

He raised his hands and focused his mind, ready to release webs and nets of caging code at the knights of the worm; but was literally and figuratively brought to earth with a bump. Gravity re-asserted itself in the faded, washed-out reality; and he realised that here, he was still powerless against the voracious enemy.

Ryu's world, Robin decided, as in reality he twitched into a more comfortable position on the cold hard floor. Ryu's rules, however wierd, however annoying that there was an alien god in Robin's machine. I will be... a sorceror, in this place.

And then he could move, and could fight, and could summon his old, faithful first A.I; the owl who found those knights they missed, who tracked them to their hiding-places.

"Robin! A sharp prod, from the real world. Robin readjusted his focus, and recognised Chance. "Suits. Take one. It's getting colder."

he replied, pausing with the effort of speaking real words from this far under the skin of the virtual. "Talk later. Thanks. Hello."

Overcome in this place - frozen into grimacing statues - the knights retreated. Guided by Robin's bug-hunting owl, the dragon and the sorceror set out to scour the system, tracking down every last vestige of the creeping worm. By the time they were finished, the power was running dangerously low, and even from here Robin could feel the cold attaching itself to his bones.

He turned to the dragon; battered and weary, it looked on the verge of fleeing but both knew it was too weak. "Be back in a second," Robin said. "Don't go away. I want a word with you."

The cold increased as he swam back towards the real world. Chance had left the suit on top of him, as he lay on the floor; Robin unplugged himself, wriggled into the delightfully warm suit, and put the hood up momentarily.

"Hey guys," he said, over the emergency comm-unit inside. "Found the problem. Mostly solved it. Don't try to speak to me, I can't jack in with the hood up on this damn suit. Hopefully we'll get back online pretty soon. Bye now."

Fumbling with cold fingers in his haste, Robin changed the batteries, providing fresh power, and slid the wire back into his head. The dragon was still there when he sank back into the wierd fantasy-world, but on seeing Robin, he... left. Turned, and limped away, growing smaller and smaller into the distance of either the ninth or tenth dimension. Robin could never remember which was which. Curious, he followed; into a children's playground. He knew what it was though he'd never seen one, not in reality. There was the dragon - now a small boy, blonde, with two blackened green eyes, bleeding and scabbed and sitting limply on a swing, watched by a crying anxious Nibble.

"You're Ryu," Robin said, sitting down on the other swing in the set.

"Yes. You're Robin."

"That'd be me. Nice coding, by the way, even if it's really wierdly put together. I'm guessing you were powering the ship earlier?"


"Could you see your way clear to doing it again?"

"I have to fix Nibble." The unspoken statement: I can't do both, I can barely do one.

Robin shook his head, sharply. "No. That's my job. You hold the bits together until Nibble's okay again." He took a deep breath. "Then, I need to look at that worm, see what it thinks it's doing. But first. There is a conversation we need to be having. Why're you in my computer and how'd you get here?"

They argued about cryo and who should go where; but the upshot of the deal was that no one went to Med-Bay. Jaci and Chance both wanted to find Gabriel, and Maya still fought Robin's power drain, sucking down electricty almost faster than she could generate it, and she needed Hyke's extra pair of hands. Shields were necessary to keep random space junk from plowing through the ship, and gravity was a by-product of shields ... Maya flipped through her systems, turning things off to find the best balance in order to keep Robin at whatever he was doing. Getting the computer running was the priority. She hadn't seen Nibble since he fainted, if that's what it could be called, and not having the computer worried Maya considerably.

While Jaci was at firs uncomfortably warm, soon she was the only one who was reasonably comfortable, with the extra heating power of her suit, and both she and Chance worried about Gabriel. He was alone, without a suit, and wasn't responding to their calls down the darkened corridors. They checked Med-Bay first, broke out the emergency packs for the thermal blankets, then went to the Habitation Deck for rations and water, but still no Gabriel. The Command Deck, too, was empty.

Chance had a blanket around his shoulders now, teeth chattering against the cold. He sped along the corridors, images of blue lips and blackened fingers speeding through his mind, frostnip and frostbite and hypothermia. Where was that bloody weapons tech?

"This is damn strange," Jaci commented, "even for Marris. He knows better!"

"W-what?" chattered Chance, staring back at her as they prepared to go back down the lift shaft.

"Gabriel knows to re-group in emergency situations," Jaci replied, adjusting the straps of her backpack.

"You called him Marris," said Chance.

Jaci looked surprised. "Oh. I suppose I did. He prefers his last name, you know, same as me."

Chance shook his head, "No, I didn't know. Damn the man, where could he --" Abruptly, he smacked his forehead. "Of course! The weapons, that's where he'd go!"

Jaci blinked. "Oh! Man, you are so right!"

"At least he should have air," Chance muttered, beginning the long climb down. "Being next to the Conservatory and all."

Wheezing for breath in the thin air, despite the suits, Jaci and Chance climbed out at the Weapons Deck. "At least we're close to the others now."

"Shh!" hissed Chance. "Do you hear that?" Jaci started to shake her head, but Chance waved her off impatiently. He pulled off his hood to hear better, his heart beating faster with a surge of adrenaline, not liking this cold, dark hall at all. Too many memories!

"Chance, are you okay?"

"Shut up!"

He snatched a knife out of his bag and started to creep down the corridor, Jaci at his heels. There was a strange kind of dragging-thumping noise coming from up ahead. As the two rounded the lift opening, they saw that the airlock into the weapons side of the deck was ajar, the mechanism obviously forced, the door resting barely open enough for a body to slide through. They both peered nervously through the opening, but the room beond was too dark to see much.

Then Jaci trained her handlight beyond the door and into the darkness. They both gasped.

*          *          *


"Okay, folks," said Jaci with a yawn and a stretch, coming out of her control chair, "That's it, we're on our way." She was alone on the Command Deck now, but she knew the others all listened from their connection to the ship-wide intercom system.

"We've got two years to the wormhole, so let's get everything strapped down for the ride. When you're finished, report to sickbay to enter cryo. Doc, we all set down there?"

"All ready, Captain," replied Chance.

"I got some things to take care of," continued Jaci as she made her way to the lift, "and I'll be right down."

"I'll probly be a while," Maya interjected. "These babies took a beating back there, I'm still working."

"Okay, but don't be long. What about the rest of you lot?"

"Mmmm?" came Robin's distracted murmur.

"Be there soon," Hyke chimed in.

And Marris grunted something that Jaci took to be an affirmative. She sighed. "Well, see you all in a coupla years, then. Nibble."

"Yes, Captain?"

"See that you remind the crew, on the hour, every hour, until they report to cryo."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Jaci returned to her quarters for a last look, stowing a few remaining articles and checking on the stasis fields on her plants. Satisfied that everything was ship-shape, she went down to Med-Bay. She wanted to visit the Conservatory, but she knew that the space had already been converted to cryo storage. No one would be going in there for a couple of years at least.

"Ready?" asked Chance as she entered Med-Bay.

Jaci nodded. She was tired and looking forward to a few years' sleep.

"Okay, one last check-up and then in you go."

*          *          *

In her lab, Hyke watched the simulation taking place in the three-dimensional hologram. She'd been working on this just before launch and, tired as she was, there was something nagging her and she couldn't rest until she'd figured out what it was. She input the last string of numbers, an update on their current heading and speed. In super-fast forward, the ship arced towards the wormhole, right on schedule. If the wormhole was where they'd been told it was, out in the middle of theoretically empty space, then they were right on track.

As predicted, the wormhole opened to admit the ship and Hyke saw the experimental engines light, sending the tiny holographic ship speeding forward. She moved around the hologram, studying the display from all angles. She saw the tunnel form, saw its diameter increase to its theoretical max and then start to shrink. Suddenly, she had a real bad feeling. The tunnel, shrinking and shrinking and still the ship was not nearly far enough through. Just on the inside of the exit hole, she watched as the tunnel collapsed on the ship, turning the tiny hologram into a flurry of debris.

"Crap, that's no good," mouthed Hyke in dismay. "Dammit, I've studied this and studied this! That's the programmed course data,
how could it be wrong? It's completely as we agreed it to be not even a day ago! Shit, shit, shit!"

She slapped the console in frustration and worry, taking a few minutes to steady her breathing. She ran the same exact simulation a second time, just to be sure she hadn't messed anything up the first time. Nope, same result.

Okay, thought Hyke, just how fast do we have to be going, then?

Long minutes passed as the young woman with the genius IQ hammered away at her data. She ran the simulation a total of twenty-three more times until she was satisfied. She fed the information into the computer with a tag to alert her as soon as she woke up and, yawning, went down to medical. Chance was there, dictating a report into his computer. He halted the recording, giving her a smile as she came in.


"Well," she hedged, "maybe. Chance, do you think you could reschedule the beds to wake us up a little earlier?"

He frowned a little, thinking. "Yes, that's easy enough. What for? Why change the schedule now?"

"It's just ... " she glanced at Jaci, already in her pod. "It's just that I think we need more time before we enter the wormhole."

Chance's eyebrows went up. "A week's not long enough?"

"Could you make it two weeks?"

With Jaci already in cryo, Chance was the defacto captain; the change was his decision to make. He shrugged. "Sure, why not?"

*          *          *

Maya banged away at Werebat, cursing. Of all the times for the engine to start fussing, it had to pick now. She stared at the diagnostics panel and the plas-sheet it was currently spitting out and sighed. The nuc-pulsers seemed to have come through the impromtu launch just fine, but the pha-tras were definitely telling her they hadn't liked that, which was funny considering they hadn't even
done anything. Thing was, she couldn't crawl into cryo until they were working because the pha-tras had to be turned on immediately when they came out, to start building up the speed they'd need for the wormhole.

Finally, the diagnostics beeped the completion of its analysis. She grabbed the sheet and stared at it in dismay.

"Nibble!" she hollered. "Goddamn it, this is
so not the time for this!"

"Uh, Miss Maya?" asked the computer voice, anxiety tinging the child-like voice.

"Why'd Robin have to make you so damn young and irritating?"

"Uh, sorry?"

"Nemmind!" she snapped. "Just tell me what the computer's saying!" She waved the plas-sheet in the air for emphasis. The sheet was completely blank except for one phrase: Game Over.

"Uh," said the computer, "I believe the system needs reset."

"Shiva and Shakti!" muttered Maya. "Do you know how long that takes?"

"Fifty-three minu --"

"That was a rhetorical question! Damn."

Growling and cursing, Maya dug her hands back into the bowels of the engine. "What about Frankenstein?"

"System operating at designated parameters."

"Huh, well that's something at least. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

*          *          *

Draco sat at the computer terminal in his room. He studied the security display with increasing impatience, drumming his fingers on the console. That kid Robin was still in the mainframe. Just what was he doing in there? With Maya, everyone he needed to be was out of the way in cryo. Except for the doc, of course. He was still up, doing something, research, Draco supposed, and waiting.

Well, enough was enough. It was time for action!

He checked himself for weapons. His knife had stayed behind on Hephaestus, so he needed first to pick up a knife, at least, and preferably something more menacing, a laser-pistol, perhaps. He padded through the halls to the weapons deck, pressed his altered thumb to the keypad and typed in the codes. The compartment slid open without a hitch and he selected a pistol, a knife, and a tazer. Not, of course, that he was actually planning on shooting the kid; his orders were to bring them all in alive. But, he could scare 'em a little, if they decided to be difficult. He checked his pockets to be sure he still had the tiny disk with his hacker program. It was one of his favorites, and should be more than enough to incapacitate the A.I. Satisfied, he eased his way from his room, to the lift, and down to Med-Bay.

As the lift doors opened, Draco came face-to-face with Chance. The doctor looked surprised, but smiled easily.

"I was beginning to think I'd have to drag you down here myself," laughed the doctor.

"Yeah, sure," Draco replied with a shrug. He could not believe his luck! This was turning out to be one heck of an easy assignment. He walked to Med-Bay beside the doctor, waiting patiently for the man to prep the cryo bed. When he turned to give Draco some privacy, Draco made his move.

Striking out with his foot, he sent Chance tumbling to the floor. The doctor hit the ground with a loud Ooof! and rolled somewhat sideways so that Draco's second blow only glanced the side of his head instead of being a perfect shot. He started to struggle then, and Draco revised his earlier estimate of the absent-minded scientist. The doctor had evidently learned some moves somewhere. Draco hadn't counted on that, but it was nothing he couldn't handle. He let the doctor have a couple swings, just enough to know he was vastly outclassed, and then slapped him with a sucker-punch that had him seeing stars. From there, Draco gagged the man and tied him up. He didn't think the doctor would be waking up soon, but there was no point in taking chances.

Draco wasn't even breathing hard when he left Med-Bay. Now he just had to grab the kid and get into the mainframe ....

*          *          *

Robin sat in his chair within the mainframe, eyes closed, music cranked up as loud as Nibble allowed, overriding his choice with medical concerns for the safety of his ears. Robin didn't care; a little physical pain would go a long way to filling the gaping hole in his heart. He hadn't even gotten to say goodbye, and the image of the base blowing up kept replaying over and over in his head. When the news stations caught that data and broadcast it to the rest of the galaxy, everyone would assume that they'd all perished, just some other hare-brained scientificy thing that went wrong. He ached inside at the thought of the pain that news would cause his sister ... and Orrin, damn the man. Perhaps he was right after all.

He opened his eyes and moved a figure on the virtual chess board. Then he sat back and closed his eyes again. Nibble, sitting cross-legged on one of the stacks, frowned. Robin was not playing well. He was almost insulted, except that
something seemed to be bothering Robin, which, Nibble supposed, allowed him to act illogically. With a thought, Nibble made his move, capturing another pawn. Again he waited, watching Robin. Waiting.

*          *          *

Draco peered through the window into the mainframe. The door was locked, but that would not keep him out. He smiled grimly and moved to one of the computer consoles in engineering. With Nibble and Robin distracted, this should be a piece of cake. His fingers flashed across the keys, inputing commands into the security protocols in order to lock down the A.I. This whole thing would be a bust if Nibble was able to access the rest of the ship. He had to work carefully and slowly, despite his impatience, so that nothing happened to trigger an alarm within the computer genius' programming. Despite himself, Draco found that he was very impressed with the kid's code. He slowed down still further, digging through the code to make sure he caught all the corners, cautiously pulling the edges of his net ever closer, trapping the A.I.

When he was satisfied, Draco triggered the security overrides on the mainframe door and went inside. Nibble turned to look at him, boredom turning to surprise turning to alarm as Draco crossed the room.

"ROBIN!" yelled the A.I., even over the thunder of music.

Robin startled upright, eyes flying open, only to close again with the impact of the fist to the side of his face. He toppled from the chair, yelling in pain and shock as Draco yanked the port from the back of his head. Nibble was screaming and the world went dark for several long seconds. He curled up around himself, too dazed from the sudden disconnect to muster any resistance.

"No! No! No!" shouted Nibble. "Don't hurt him!
Don't hurt Robin!!"

Draco knelt beside the kid, pressing his pistol into Robin's face, and staring up at the A.I. "Change course," he said grimly, "or I'll kill him."

"N-no!" struggled Robin. "No, Nib --"

Draco smacked the boy around again until he stopped fighting, ignoring the terror-stricken wails of the A.I. Then he looked up. "Change course!"

The hologram was wringing its hands, the image fluttering irratically. "Okay, okay, don't hurt Robin,
please! Don't hurt Robin!"

Hauling the boy genius upright by his hair, Draco shoved the gun in his face, giving him a good look. "Oh, I won't," said Draco. "S'long as he behaves himself."

Robin glared mutinously but did not speak.

"And shut off that god's bedamned music!"

There was sudden quiet. Draco barked out a series of coordinates and shortly after heard the difference in rhythm that signaled the course change.

"Now," he continued, facing the kid again. "We can do this the hard way or the easy way, what's it going to be?"

Robin's lip curled and he snarled, kicking Draco in the shins. The mercenary slammed the kid against the back of the chair a few times to knock the fight out of him and then hauled him around, his fingers still interlocked within the kid's long hair, to face him again.

"Well?" he snapped. He brought up the pistol. "I'm not under any orders to bring you in unhurt, you know," he said in a conversational tone. "Laser wounds can be fixed up pretty damn fast these days. So, what'll it be?"

Hands over Draco's in his hair, Robin stuck out his jaw, the split lip having smeared his face in blood, feeling bruised all over, and not just on his face. He glared at his captor, but he could not deny that this man had him well and truly screwed.

"I'll cooperate," Robin ground out through his teeth.

"Very good," said Draco.

He released the kid, who immediately slid to the floor, next to the whimpering hologram. Together, they looked like two lost, little kids, way out of their depth in the rough part of town. Draco shook his head. He'd never been that young, not emotionally or even intellectually.

He pulled the disk out of his pocket and handed it to Robin. The kid stared at it suspiciously for a moment before picking it up. He flinched when Draco gestured at the terminal. Draco smiled.

"Run the program."

"What will it do?"

"Just do it!"

Again the flinch, and Robin sidled sideways, momentarily out of reach. Draco trained the pistol on him again. He needed the worm input inside the trap he'd made for Nibble, and that could only be done from here which meant that Robin had to do it. He cuffed the boy lightly when he made as if to plug himself in again.

"But ..."

"Without," growled Draco, "and I
don't suggest you try anything else. Got it?"

Robin stared at the barrel of the laser pistol for a moment and then slowly nodded.

*          *          *

Maya blinked, staring up at the inside of her cryo unit. Had it been two years already? She felt kind of groggy, and achy-tired, not what she'd been expecting at all, really. She'd figured she'd wake up rested and alert. The glass of the unit slid open and she blinked against the lights of the med-bay. Slowly, still feeling sluggish, she sat up and swung her legs over the side.

Then she saw Chance and suddenly she was wide awake.

"Nibble?" she called.

The computer's voice is so soft that she almost missed it, "Miss Maya?"

"Nibble, what's wrong? I can barely hear you? You sound like you're really far away, or in a tunnel, or something. What's going on?"

The A.I. whimpered. "Oh, help, Maya, please, he's deactivated the self-destruct, and he has Robin!"

Maya leaped off her bed and started pulling on clothes. "

It almost sounds as if the computer is crying, but that's absurd. "Help, Maya! There's ... some ... somekind ... code ... I --"

The computer's voice crackled into static and then cut off. Maya hastily tied off the laces on her shoes.

"Nibble?" she said cautiously. "Nibble? Fuck!"

A hasty search and some sharp implements later, Maya tiptoed cautiously out of the med-bay. If they had intruders, and if those intruders had Robin, then the most logical place for them to be was in the mainframe. Maya trotted to the lift and went down. She tiptoed through the silent corridors toward the mainframe. She saw immediately that the door was open, hearing a familiar voice cursing.

"Dammit, kid!" There was the sound of a dull thud and skin striking a solid object. "Quit fucking with me! Run the program. And
don't make me tell you again!"

"Don't hurt him, don't hurt him!" wailed Nibble softly.

"Shut up!" snarled the first voice. "
Shut up! I said, or I'll really give you something to complain about!"

"He doesn't understand," Robin protested, in a voice that sounded strained to Maya.

"The hell he doesn't!"

Robin yelped, Nibble cried, and the other voice, sounding more and more like, and yet, not like, Marris, cursed. Maya stopped listening. When she peered around the door into the mainframe, she saw Marris, standing over Robin's hunched form, holding a gun to the young kid's head. Nibble crouched on the floor nearby, as close to panic as Maya had ever seen in an A.I. Marris had his back to her so she took a chance and darted inside, slipping through the maze of stacks toward the trio and pulling one of the knives out of her pocket. She activated the vibroblade with a touch and crept closer, a little closer still, just a little closer.

"There!" said Marris with satisfaction. "It's done. Nibble, erase all security footage since launch."

Listening, Maya thought she heard sobbing.

order you to obey me!"

"A--authorization?" stammered the A.I.

Maya heard Robin gasp. She was startled, too.

"No, Nibble!"

A short scuffle ensued and Maya took the opportunity to get even closer. She was now only a few feet away and, peering around the last stack, saw Robin on the floor now, with Marris, still facing away from Maya, kneeling on Robin's back, the pistol digging into his neck. The A.I. was definitely sobbing, on his knees next to Robin.

"Authorization Draco-Omega-One."

"Authorization acknowledged," sobbed the hologram.

"Shut up!" snapped Marris. "And stop your incessant crying!"

To Maya's amazement, the hologram stiffened, its face twisting immediately into a neutral expression.

"What's our course?" asked Marris.

When the computer spoke, it was as impersonal as ever an A.I. could be. The change was quite dramatic. Maya's eyes narrowed. That was not the course they should be on!

But Marris nodded. "Good. Ship's status?"

"Performing within acceptable parameters."

Maya crept forward a little more, almost close enough to reach out and grab one of Robin's twitching feet.

Marris continued, "I hereby order you to lock yourself into the mainframe, not to exit until otherwise instructed by me. Authorization Draco-Alpha-Three."

"Authoriza --"

The A.I.'s eyes met Maya's and the hologram's mouth dropped open in surprise. Marris whirled around dizzyingly fast, even as Maya dived at him.

"Stay where you are!" Draco hollered at the A.I., absorbing the mechanic's attack and rolling sideways away from the kid. "Do
not help them, Nibble, that's an order!"

Maya got her hands on the gun. Robin crawled away, and just in time as the gun went off, carving a deep gouge into the stacks of memory banks. Nibble screamed. He was rooted in place, unable to move. The second blast went right through him, scoring an even longer blast across two of the stacks. Robin clasped his hands over his ears as the awful keening continued.

"Shut up, goddamn you!" shouted Draco, silencing the terrible noise mid-blast.

Robin screamed too, but his was more a holler of pent-up fury and rage. Marris was
killing Nibble! He launched himself into the fray, grabbing for the military man's legs. He'd almost stood up, Maya clinging to his arms; this new attack sent him sprawling again and the gun went off a third time, spearing and shooting through the hologram once more and into the stacks beyond.

Maya managed to knock Marris in the throat with a bony elbow, just as Robin landed a knee to the groin and the man doubled over, his hands relaxing enough that Maya was able to knock away the laser pistol. The fight was still far from over, but Maya and Robin were fighting for their lives and the confinement and necessary no-kill order hampered Draco's movement. Under their brutal, no-holds-barred attacks, they at last dazed him long enough to wrap some stout cables around his knees, ankles and wrists. Robin sat on him while Maya tied him up.

"Nibble --" Draco began, but Robin stuffed the barrel of the pistol into his mouth, serving to muffle the words he was currently trying to say, and to effectively silence the mercenary.

"Robin?" said Maya tentatively.

He shrugged away from her attempted touch. "This ... asshole," panted Robin. "
He's why we launched early. He killed them! He killed all of them! My --" his breath caught, "My mother, Hephaestus, everyone! Don't you see? We should kill him! He deserves to die!"

Robin's hands shook, but the pistol remained steadfast in Draco's mouth. He stared up at the kid as if seeing him for the first time, hardly daring to believe that the kid would actually pull the trigger.

"Don't do it," said Maya, projecting as much calm into her voice as possible, even though she was pissed off too and wanted this bastard to die, too. "We need answers, Robin! We need him alive for now."

"No!" Robin shook his head stubbornly. "No!"

"Think about -- about the ship!" said Maya. "What about Nibble? He's got some kind of hold over Nibble, doesn't he? You kill him and he can't fix it. Don't Robin! Think! Think beyond your feelings right now!"

Robin looked up at Nibble's frozen form and then back at Marris. He started to cry again. "My mother," he said, darting a glance at Maya. "What about her?"

"We don't know for sure what he had to do with that," Maya reasoned. "We don't know enough. We don't know near enough."

Robin looked back at Marris, then away. Maya quickly grabbed the pistol, exchanging the hard metal with a rag from her pocket. Robin crawled away, leaned against a memory stack, sobbing in deep draughts, more from shock and the aftermath, Maya surmised. She felt rather like crying herself. She gave him a moment or two.

"Come on, we need to get him to Med-bay. Chance will know what to do."

But as it turned out, the doctor was still out cold, a deep bruise shading his temple and half his face. Panting and sweating from having hauled Marris through the coridors, Maya and Robin stared at each other helplessly. They were too afraid to leave Marris loose, but they needed to deal with the ship. Eventually they decided to stick both men in cryo, since Maya knew the protocols well enough to do that and they should be pre-programmed already.

Before they cut the cords around Marris, Maya injected him with a heavy dose of muscle relaxants, not trusting that he wouldn't somehow over-power her and Robin. They got him into the cryo chamber with a lot of sweat and swearing. Chance, too, and then they had to rest.

"We need to send out a distress call," said Maya, "let folks know what happened to us."

"And then what?" asked Robin tiredly. "No one's even alive back home."

"We should still send it! They'll send someone to investigate. We need to get our story out there."

"Fine, whatever," grumbled Robin. "I've got to get us turned around. He made upload a virus into Nibble."

"What does it do?"

"Well, several things, but what I saw mostly had to deal with making Nibble subservient to him, even overriding standard safety and security protocols."

Maya grimaced. "Okay, you deal with that while I see if I can figure out the beacons."



"Are we still going to go through with it?"

"With what?"

"The mission. What with, with all that's just happened ... well ...."

Maya paused. She didn't really know, it wasn't like she was in charge or anything, she didn't know all that Chance or Jaci did. She chewed her lip. "Uh, well, Robin ... um, what do you think your mom would say to do?"

Robin laughed bitterly. "Nothing should come in the way of the mission."

"Then we go on."

"What? Seriously?"

She shrugged. "Sure, why not? We're scheduled to wake up again this side of the wormhole, so we can discuss it then, right?" She added, in her head,
God, please let Jaci wake up and take this decision off my hands!

But Robin was nodding. "Yeah, you're right, it'll take time for them to investigate and even longer for the beacon to get there, and we can always turn around then. Okay, guess we got a plan, then."

"Yeah," she echoed. "I guess we do ...."

*          *          *


Ryu knew despair. The cold fingers of doubt and fear walked up his spine, spreading to fingers and toes and tail and wings. His dragon-throat burned with the effort to keep blasting the knights; his wings shook and strained to keep him aloft. They had driven him from his moutain cave by sheer numbers. How had there grown so many?

I'm so tired! he thought. Soon he would have to land again, he'd taken too much damage and was losing altitude, and he was just plain exhausted. When he landed, he'd have a few minutes to clear a space before the worm could surround him. The edges of the battleground pressed closer, the worm starting to exert its own influence, a battle both mental and physical for dominance here.

And then a blast of electricity from ground level drew Ryu's attention. A new player in the game stood on a rise of land that hadn't been there before, surrounded by a protective, electic field. He wore billowing black robes with stars and a pointed hat. He held a wand in one hand and a ball of fire in the other. An owl circled around his head.

Ryu didn't question the miracle. The wizard was on his side! He roared at the knights, now turning to face this new attack, and blasted a few more with his dragon-fire. The battle was a long one, but the owl (fascinating creature) hunted down the last of the worm-knights and Ryu was able to dislodge them from the circuits, trapping them safely away. He landed then, wings spread out over the bloody grass, trembling, laying his head down, for just a minute!

The wizard spoke to him! Surprised, Ryu blinked at the robed figure, but it was gone. Completely. As if it had just vanished into thin air. That shouldn't be able to happen, not here ... But he was so tired ... so very, very tired. And he ached, with every fibre of his being he hurt. He rested a minute, just a minute ....

He startled when the wizard reappeared, but he wasn't a wizard any more. In a split-second, Ryu pulled loose from his world, fled to the only other place he could go, Nibble's playground, his avatar changing to fit the rules there. The little AI threw his arms around Ryu in relief, sobbing into his chest. Ryu staggered and almost fell. He clutched at the first thing close at hand, sinking down onto a swing and leaning back against the chain, feet dangling, Nibble hovering anxiously.

Then, in the space of one blink and the next, there was someone else on the playground, another boy, with dark hair and green eyes, wearing black pants and a gray sweater, with some kind of emblem on his left shoulder. Ryu squinted, but he couldn't summon the energy to make it out, and he really didn't care. If this was trouble, he was just too damn tired to fight it off. Nibble, kneeling at his side, squeezed Ryu's hand encouragingly.

"You're Ryu," said the other boy, sitting in the other swing, facing him.

Ryu looked down at Nibble, into the boy's guilty and hopeful face, and sighed. He met the newcomer's eyes. "Yes. You're Robin." He could be no one else.

"That'd be me. Nice coding, by the way, even if it's really wierdly put together. I'm guessing you were powering the ship earlier?"

Ryu's battered mind struggled to follow the thread of that question, to puzzle out the complexities, to answer in a fashion that would make sense to the human. He shrugged internally, answering with a simple "Yes," even though that wasn't ... exactly accurate.

"Could you see your way clear to doing it again?"

Doing what again? Oh, human logic, of course he means the ship ....

"I have to fix Nibble," Ryu answered. That was his priority.

Robin shook his head, sharply. "No. That's my job. You hold the bits together until Nibble's okay again." He took a deep breath. "Then, I need to look at that worm, see what it thinks it's doing. But first. There is a conversation we need to be having. Why're you in my computer and how'd you get here?"

"Your job?" Ryu sneered. "You couldn't possibly --"

"I made him," Robin interrupted, eyes flashing. "I know every little detail there is about him."

Ryu grabbed the swing's chain, hauling himself to his feet quickly, to stand protectingly over Nibble. "You couldn't possibly k -- know ...!"

But the strain of moving was too much much, his legs would not bear his weight and Ryu slid sideways into the wood shavings, crying out in pain, frustration, and despair.

"Ryu!" wailed Nibble, dropping to his side.

Around Robin, the playground wavered, the edges creeping in closer, the small oasis of life losing some of its firmness, showing through to the bare circuits beyond. Ryu's form shimmered next to Nibble, and the AI stared back at Robin, wide-eyed, a silent plea for help.

Robin knelt beside Ryu and reached a hand out to touch his shoulder, reach into his code -- and withdrew with a shout of alarm, feeling as if he'd just stuck his hand into an open circuit, the pure energy arcing through him, searching for an outlet.

"Robin!" cried Nibble as Robin toppled over sideways. For an instant, he and Ryu stared at one another from a similar position and Robin could almost swear the ... thing smiled at him, laughing at him, but then its face screwed up again and he shivered in agony, moaning.

Fighting back against his own pain, keeping it in the distance, keeping himself rooted in the playground, Robin struggled back to a seated position. "You have to tell me what to do," he told Ryu intently. "I don't know what you are, you have to help me. Help you."

"You ... can't, Robin" whispered Nibble, staring across Ryu's body at Robin. His brown eyes were wide as they stared pleadingly up at him, begging him to understand. "But I can."

Ryu and Robin both understood almost at the same time. "No!" they both said together, but it was too late. The little AI opened himself to Ryu, poured all his hoarded energy into him, fading away from sight, even as Robin lunged at him and Ryu fought back the surge of power, trying to deny what he so desperately needed to keep his friend from sacrificing himself. "No! No! No!"

"No! Nibble, no!" howled Robin, dropping out of VR with a thump. His half-scream, half-shout brought both Maya and Hyke at a run.

"What's going on?" demanded Maya, just as Hyke said, "You're hurt!"

There was a high-pitched whirr, a POP, and then nothing. Engineering was deadly quiet. Maya cursed as the smell of melted wiring drifted by.

"Robin, what the hell just happened?"

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

This is Virgo's add:

Gabriel had been sitting about his room, picking things up, shakily, as it was shortly after he had discovered his homicidal alternate personality… or, rather, his ‘true self’ and he was the alternate personality. It was unsettling to have ones world thrown askew like that, part of him wanted it to be a lie, and yet, Draco adamantly demanded it be true, the other was awake now, and trying to push him away, talking loudly in his head (no accounts for sanity there) about his idiocy and demanding his control. But Gabriel stubbornly ignored the angry voice that was doing the mental equivalent of trying to beat him up, continuing to pick up his space as another headache began to develop behind his eyes, giving a vicious throb, forcing him to stop, and sit, rubbing his temples. Seizures, he’d been victim to more than one since his discovery of Draco, shortly after heir ‘argument’ in the mirror, he’d collapsed in his room, everything going horribly white, before he woke up, a couple minutes later, feeling like he’d been kicked by a rhino and trampled by several other large mammals, not twenty minutes later, he’d had to dose himself with the seizure medication that Draco had stolen from the Med Bay after a second time. His body ached, but, he’d discovered, it healed remarkably fast; Draco had told him about what they were, a genetic mutation, he’d felt like a freak. Shortly after this thought, Draco had viciously pounded his mental self into submission and taken control angrily, unlocking the secret compartment beneath their bed, and pulling out several weapons that couldn’t be allowed on the ship, before Gabriel had fallen asleep.

He had woken a short time later, back in his room, more sore than he had remembered, probably from another seizure, his Draco side asleep and he was left in control. It sucked having alternate personalities. He sat up with a groan… to darkness. What the hell? It was silent and there was darkness all around, like the ship had… died. Fuck. What had Draco done?

“Don’t look at me, I didn’t do this,” Draco said sardonically, his voice a bit tired. “At least not this time.”

“Shu’ up.” Gabriel hissed, shaking his head as he pressed his hand against the panel of his bedroom. Not even so much as a whimper of life, the ship was DIW (dead in the water) and sinking fast. The shields had to be down too, if they weren’t put back up soon, they’d be torn up, like old bits of space junk, which, he supposed, they were, especially now. The ship would drop in temperature soon, and it would be very, very cold if he didn’t find some way to insulate himself.

“My body is very good at adjusting its temperature to its environment, but there are several sets of spare clothing in the closet. It will aid in insulation, and stave off the freeze for awhile, at least until I can snag one of those nifty thermo suits,” Draco said congenially, seeming to be laughing at the other.

Gabriel ignored the ‘I’ that Draco had adopted, merely to spite him, and moved to their closet, pulling on as many layers as he could before he walked back to the door, looking at it, tilting his head one way, then the other, trying to figure out how to open it.

“Damn it all, just force the bloody door. It’s not hard, with a body like mine, it’s full of hidden strength,” Draco snarled. “Let’s get out of here.”

Gabriel wasn’t sure how he was supposed to force the door, it wasn’t logical that his body could force a door that was shut and locked tight like that.

Draco hissed, “Fuck off, gimme back my body.” He shoved the Gabriel personality to the side and took control, reaching his fingers between the seam of the wall and the door and pulling them apart and then the door into the wall as he stomped out, the extra layers of clothing doing nothing to impede his naturally graceful movements. He slipped through the halls, with the power down, it would be significantly easier for him to do what he wanted, but it also meant that his bug did more than it was supposed to, it mutated, in the computer code, computer mutation was ugly, and it led to things like this, where the system was shot, or completely fried. He wasn’t sure which, but he hoped it wasn’t the latter, a shot system could be fixed, a fried one… didn’t. He growled, hearing some manner of commotion somewhere, but he ignored it, heading straight for the escape pods. The hatch on top of them twisted, fortunately for him and he jerked the metal wheel to the side, twisting it at a blinding speed until the wheel nearly came off, and Draco opened the door.

He ignored the smell, dragging out the corpse inside, “You see this?” Draco asked the other, “This man, is who you think you are. You are dead. I spent a lot of time making sure you stayed that way, not so you could come live in my psyche.” He pulled the body up under his arm, and made his way to the commons, tossing the mummy on the dining table, no sense in incriminating himself, when there was a convenient corpse to use as a blame tool. Oh goodie. He sighed, looking around quickly, his black hair falling into his eyes as he made his way to the broken lift. He swore, kicking the doors, it was starting to get a tad cold, even through the layers of clothing he wore. He squeezed his fingers between the doors and pried them apart, like he had his room, and looked up, the lift was down below, no chance of it crushing him, unless everything started working and someone needed to up right away. He climbed into the shaft and began climbing down to the weapons deck with ease, having to force those doors apart as well. He was breathing heavier now, the air was thinning in the ship, already? He must have been out longer than he’d thought. He rolled into the Weapons Deck, clutching his chest, still hard to breathe, but easier than the rest of the ship. The room was, of course, locked… He lashed out with his foot, the shock traveling up his leg and making him cry out, clutching his head as the reverberating noise trigger another white out, of both of their consciousnesses.

He woke; Gabriel had gone to sleep; later, couldn’t have been that much later, it was still somewhat easy to breathe and there was still a large dent in the door to weapons, right over the seam. He tried to move, but discovered himself suspended in mid-air. Grav kicked off, took it long enough, and it took a few moments of spinning around and twisting, trying to get to the door, until he discovered the key, he could use the ground. He spun, until his feet touched the ground and kicked off towards the door, latching onto it, just as gravity turned back on and Draco could get his feet beneath him. He pulled open the doors and rolled inside. There was a little bit of air, just a tad, flowing through the vents, so Maya had done some sort of power thing. He went for the stunner weaponry, the steel was almost icy in his hands; loading himself to the eyeballs, oh-no, he was not going to be caught like this, his instincts told him that bad things were going to happen and soon, he didn’t want to be caught unarmed for it. Not a chance.

His breathing was getting more and more labored, steaming the air in front of him, but not much, he was adjusting to the cold, his body moving slower so he wouldn’t have to worry about the cold for awhile, but, the longer he stayed down here, the longer it would get ugly. He consumed more oxygen than the average human, being as his body was significantly altered compared to a normal human, and he also consumed more food, water, and other limited sources of energy. This was not spelling G-O-O-D for him, not at all, it spelled a rather nasty B-A-D instead. He coughed; shuddering as his muscles, fatigued from the use of both of his personalities and the sudden seizures, shit, his body was starting early stages of shut-down. He housed two personalities, while one was awake the other slept, thusly when the other woke, the first also slept. Therefore, it left his body, his physical form, no respite from both of their day’s activities. It had to shut down sometime, so, it decided that now was perfect. He gasped, doubling over as his abdomen clenched; another onslaught of seizure, he knew it was happening. He fell to one side, his body twisting and jerking, falling into another set of spasms, the second in the same half an hour. He was getting worse. He didn’t have the medication with him, it hadn’t occurred to him to bring it, he was just getting weapons… and he went to white.


Chance and Jaci gasped, the twitching, seizing body of Gabriel Marris lay on the floor, intermittently dragging and dropping it self as the seizures became more and more intense. His body, so exhausted by the use of medications and the two personalities in him, had broken under the fierce strain and was now forcing itself to shut down to protect itself and its user(s).

“Help me get him onto his side,” Chance said, rushing inside, Jaci close behind, “Sit on his feet while I keep his mouth open and head down, so he doesn’t swallow or bite off his tongue. Try and keep him still as you can, the more he jerks, the more likely it is he will hurt himself.”

“We have to get him to the Med…”

“No way we’ll get his bulk up there. He’s too big. And we can’t get him into the suit while…” Chance was nearly thrown over the big man’s shoulder at another violent jerk, “While he’s seizing.” He finished, trying to hold him down until the seizures slowed, then ceased. He put fingers to the other’s neck, “Heart rate accelerated, high temperature…” No one should be that warm in this cold unless they were ill, “Bags under the eyes, poor sleeping habits…” He muttered, “Jaci, help me get him into this suit.”

“At least he had the sense to wear some clothes before he left,” the pilot mumbled, “He’s warm.”

“He wasn’t before,” Chance said, “There’s a thin layer of frost on the floor, look, his hand moved across here, but there’s no melting.” He pointed and there was a mark, the frost on it wasn’t darkened with heat, just a smudge, like a boot had made it, but it was hand shaped. “How could he have been so cold without any signs of it affecting him? No blackened fingers, no hypothermia, he’s not cold at all.” Chance thought about it, “The seizures could have raised his blood pressure, and brought his temperature up… but what brought it down?”

“Aphrodite.” Gabriel mumbled under his breath, still out, but he was mumbling, “Can’t hear you…” A shudder ran through the weapon officer’s frame and he curled up tighter.

“Hey. Chance.” Jaci picked up something from the floor, “I don’t think he was down here to protect the weapons.” She murmured, “Stock up on them, yeah, definitely.” The taser in her hand, she
held as if it were poisonous, “Do you think…?”

“No, not now. He’s sick, and, well, now I know who’s been raiding the medicine cabinets.” Chance said grimly.
It took a long awkward journey to get Gabriel to the Med-bay, and that's being dismissive. Neither Jaci nor Chance were exactly the best people to be dragging an unconcious soldier around, although admittedly the only one on Andromeda more suited to such a thing was Gabriel himself. It was also less than simple trying to get him into a suit and then move him carefully. In the end however they amanged to get him there without breaking anything or doing him any damage.

They deposited him on the bed and Chance exhaled deeply, stretching out his spine.

"Right," he checked the man over briefly again before getting the clipboard out.

"Is he alright?" Jaci said, stalking round to the other side of the bed and peering at Gabriel.

"Mhmn," Chance answered distractedly, scrolling through reems of information very quickly. With the seizure over his body was recovering fairly quickly, the effects of wandering around the ship so recklessly were starting to wear off. That wasn't what held his attention though.

Exhaustion was hardly uncommon, and something he was familiar with having served on the colony during the war. Medical staff more than anyone else struggled to find time to sleep, and when they did often they couldn't. The longer a person went without sleep the more the body filled with toxins from exertion. More importantly the brain began to suffer. REM sleep was absolutely necessary for a healthy mind, and Gabriel had been getting to very little. It might be days before he woke and in the mean time Chance would have to make sure he was supplied with the nutrients his body would need.


He looked up at Jaci, waiting for her to continue.

".... you didn't hear a word of that did you?"

"Erm... no?" he went to brush his fingers back through his hair, but his hand stopped when it touched the helmet of the suit.

"Sometimes I don't know who's scarier. What are we going to do about him? I don't know about you I'm worried about what he was doing in there."

"He's not waking up for a while." he paused for a moment, "You should go up to the rest. There's not much for you to do here."

"What if he wakes up?"

"He's not going to wake up. I said that already," Chance sighed, "If he wakes up before next week it'll be fast. As far as I can tell he's barely slept since we came out of cryo. He really shouldn't have been able to carry on this long, let alone..." Let alone move around the ship in such cold for so long, pulling open the doors to that room should have been impossible.

"Are you going to finish that sentance?"

"Maybe later." he answered, turning and smiling at her, "Well? Are you going to stand around like a lemon or go help upstairs. Or downstairs. Or wherever."

"Alright, alright. I'm going. Just one more thing." she pulled something out and passed it to him, "I found this, for some reason it has your name on it. Just be careful. We only have one doctor."

"I know." he smiled at her as she left and glanced at the strange little thing in his hand. It was a digital photoframe, one of the ones with its own memory kind of like a compact scrap book. He set it down on his desk and went back to examining his patient.

"Now, I know for a fact that you can't be Gabriel Marris," he said, leaning over the bed and speaking as though the man were concious, "and since you can't tell me who you really are just at the moment, I'm going to have to run some tests to find out."

Except of course that not much was working. The majority of the more detailed tests would have to wait. In the mean time Chance had to make do with the clipboard and observation.

Chance Rhain McCallum slumped back in his chair, lifting the clipboard and staring at it for a an infinite moment. As much as he tried he couldn't deny it. This was the truth behind Gabriel's impossible feats. The truth behind the sabotage and scare tactics.

The truth behind the seizures.

"Blood, Marris, how did you live this long?"
She sat in the pilots chair, hands beneath the sleeves over the transfer plates and face half-hidden by a drop-screen. There was a clear view of the ship from the umbilical-probes that drifted around and moving where the girl directed them. A man stood behind the seat, hands on the rest at the top and watching the projection screen on the broad viewing window ahead, showing him exactly what the girl was seeing.

“Good, now grab the target.” He said, watching the leftmost camera turn slightly to center upon an object about thirty meters in width and who’s texture was rough, cracked, but strangely shiny. It was an asteroid with large deposits of iron ore on the surface. From one of the views, something stretched into sight, wielding a ridged-mouthed claw attached to a painted “arm”, very similar to the old NASA arms on the shuttles. It latched onto the rogue and was followed by three similar pieces taking hold of it. “And bring it in…good”. The man patted the girls shoulder and told her to disconnect, circling around to stand in front.

“Yer getting’ better at that, Jaci. I’m prouda ya.” He crossed his arms and watched as his protégé sat forward and pulled her legs up to cross beneath her.

Jaci was thirteen standard. Her teacher and mentor, Hermes, was finishing engraining last bits of piloting necessities on this final flight from the Proxima system, dropping off supplies to one of the small satellite-colonies to one of the star’s gas planets. He intended to have everything completed before they returned to Sol and ensure that she would pass her upcoming piloting certification. After passing, she would be required another two standard years under a pilot of her choice before becoming fully accredited. Hermes had no doubt the young native would easily outclass the others that would be taking it.

“I think there’s a glitch in one of the arms, sir.” She said, rubbing one palm with her thumb. “It was a little slow to respond after the first attachment and then wouldn’t lock when I brought’m in. Better put a report in before we go back to cryo.”

“I didn’t notice anything on the video.” Hermes countered.

“But I could feel it.” She said firmly. There was one major difference between her and other pilots. Others had a very limited control on their nano-tech, usually only in optics and ship locomotion. Because of Jaci’s connection with the first and most necessary set, she bonded much more easily with the secondaries and read them in-flight as clearly as she could her own.

Hermes took her word for it and let it go, saying he would do the report and that she should head to med-bay for stasis prep…

…“You still use ink blots?” Jaci joked from the sofa, her arms tucked behind her head and perusual toothy grin stretched across her scarred lips. “I thought they stopped usin’ those with the new…oh whatchamacallit.”

Doc laughed and nodded. “I still use inkblots, yes. Technology doesn’t always give the best insight, my dear.” He gave the stack of cards another tap to straighten them and crossed his hands over the top. “Shall we begin, then?” Jaci nodded and he held up the first.

“Prince Edward the ninth.” She said of the profile like blot.

He held up the next. “Cucumber.”

To the third, “Supernova. You know, I had the opportunity to see one when I was still doing colony runs. Fellow at a mid-port commented that their radars were picking up some heavy emissions from an old red giant about four hops center-ward. They were gonna send some probes to try for some nice readings and pictures…” She reminisced a moment, just studying the black ink while Doc jotted something on his notepad and asked her about it.

“Why didn’t you go?”

“Because I had a job to do—“…


Jaci stumbled back from the wall with a hand to her forehead and spitting out her own curses and staring it down offensively. “Who put that there…”

At least she wasn’t far from Engineering now and certainly wasn’t lost in the most mismatched of recollections yet still. The latter part wasn’t nearly so interesting as the first and the fellow within it, someone named Hermes.

“Hermes…” She muttered and continued to walk, wondering why that name was so familiar. Hermes what? Hermes was a Greek messenger god with wings upon his ankles. But that didn’t fit the gent’ from the memory. His hair was a snowy white with only the most subtle bits of gray. Wrinkles creased his forehead and jowls were beginning to show. There were blue eyes there, too, but they were hidden partially by the rapid progression of large cataracts he’d yet to stop and clear. His persona spoke of much age and knowledge being passed on. Was he a teacher of some sort and what was he doing with her younger self?

Jaci ducked through the doors of engineering and shined her light down over the barricaded edge to see if Hyke and Maya were there. “Oi!” She called and walked the skyway slowly, listening for the pairs answering shouts. “Maya, Hyke! Where are ya?” It certainly didn’t occur to her for them to be in the mainframe with Robin. Maya shoulda been worrying about getting the engines back and Robin the computer working and the lack of response made from the former and the girl-genius was disconcerting. “Not again.” The pilot sighed and turned her light from the lower-level to immediate, sweeping it around twice before turning and heading to the next logical place where the other remaining crew member was.

A few minutes later and she arrived, finding not only Robin but the other two as well. “Good, we’re all together now.” She stated “Chance has Marris in the medbay-“

“Somethin’ happen to him?” Maya interrupted, but Jaci held up a hand and went on.

“It may not be pertinent at this time, but you should know all the same. We found him on the Weapons Deck seizing. Whatever he was doing before we found him was probably not going to be helpful. Chance says he’s sick and won’t be waking before next week more’n likely.” She paused and turned to Robin. “Any luck getting the computer back online?”

The boy didn’t answer, his eyes dropping away and he began rubbing at one hand. Seemed Jaci’d come in before the explanation of why it was so unnaturally quiet now.

Maya answered, with something between a snort and a growl. "No, we've lost what progress we had achieved, and Robin's got himself fried to boot."

"I've got to get back in there!" said Robin anxiously.

"You need to have that arm seen to," Maya countered. "And there's no power anyway. You can't do anything until I get another generator hooked up."

Robin cursed. "You don't understand!" he cried, gesturing with his good hand. "Nibble's in trouble!"

Maya rolled her eyes. "Yeah, like that's new?" She shook her head and appealed to Jaci.

"She's right," said Jaci with a shrug. "Whatever you were doing can wait. You should have Chance take a look at -- oh, wait, you can't climb like that. Chance. Chance!"

There was a distracted, and irritated, "What?"

"Can you come down here? Robin's hurt, burned, looks electrical."

"How bad is it?"

"I'm fine!" snapped Robin. "I'm fine! Quit ganging up on me! I know what I'm doing."

Chance sighed. "Isn't there a first aid kit down there somewhere? Spray some cream on it. If it's not too serious, I'm a little busy at the moment."

"There's some burn cream in my toolbox," said Robin, pointing.

"Good," continued Chance. "Don't break any blisters and wrap it if you can. I'll be down later to take a look. Got to go."

A few minutes later, sprayed, partially mummified, and with his arm in a sling, Robin poked around the mainframe while the women headed down to the cargo bay to search out another generator. It wasn't easy to pry off panels and pick through wires one-handed, but Robin managed to get another look at Nibble's emergency batteries and cursed again in frustration. The things were totally drained. Where was he going to get extra power? Perhaps if he plugged in he could see what on the ship still had power ...

He settled in his chair with a diagnostics screen in his lap, shoved in the port, and immediately felt yanked sideways, instinctively grabbing the arms of his chair and crying out for the pain in his arm. He blinked and grimaced, and then there he was in the playground again. Or, at least, he thought that that's where he'd ended up. It was a disaster, there was barely anything left other than the swing-set and the wood chips and raw circuits danced across the tiny bit of sky rather than clouds. The place was eerily quiet.

Ryu leaned against one of the legs of the swingset, so pale and see-through that if he hadn't moved, Robin didn't know if he would have seen him at all. But the ... energy creature looked up at him with such pain on his face that Robin couldn't be angry. He crouched down beside him.

"I'm sorry," whispered Ryu, glancing at Robin's arm.

"What's going on?" asked Robin. "How did I get here?"

Ryu shrugged and shivered. His knees were drawn up to his chest, his arms tucked in, and his cheek laying on top. His face was wet with tears, his toes buried under the chips.

"You look terrible," said Robin. "Is there anything I can do?"

"I don't know," said Ryu dully. "Why's it so cold?"

"We don't have any power at the moment," replied Robin. "We're working on it, but it's going to take time."

Ryu didn't seem to hear, staring blankly into the distance. Another tear trickled down his cheek. "I failed," he murmured.

"What?" Robin started to say, but then reconsidered, and said instead, "Maybe. Maybe not. Can you tell me what happened? Who are you? What are you?"

Ryu shivered and huddled together even more, if that were physically possible, seemingly shrinking a little. "Does it matter?" he asked wearily.

"Yes!" snapped Robin. "I'm not going to sit around and watch you die if there's something I can do about it!"

"I'm c-c-cold," sighed Ryu, "I have depleted my energy resources and am too weary to gather more."

"Huh?" Robin thought that over. "How do you gather energy?"

"Radiation. X-rays, gamma rays, the, uh, light, heat, particles that move through time and space ...."

"You're not really making a lot of sense here."

"Am I?"

"No, you're not. Are you thinking clearly?"

"Thinking? What a concept."

Robin bit the inside of his cheek to keep back his first angry and frustrated retort. He took a deep breath. "Okay, look, let's start with: what are you?"

"What does it matter?"

"What does it --" Robin echoed. He choked off in anger and jumped to his feet. "Look, you insensible computer! Or whatever you are! Nibble thought it worth his life to save your sorry ass, so that's what I'm trying to do! Maybe if I help you I can find out what happened to him. Don't you care about that?"

Ryu lifted his head to glare and Robin caught a swirl of a deep orangy color in his eyes, but then he blinked and there was nothing but the imprint of a seam along Ryu's cheek.

"Of course I care!" wailed the creature. "I was -- I was trying ... the worm, I -- I ... he's gone, he's gone, I can't feel him anywhere!"

Robin groaned, rubbing his face. This was giving him a headache. "You have to tell me what to do," he said slowly, crouching back on Ryu's level and staring him in the eye. "I can't help you if I don't know what you are."

Ryu stared back at him for a moment, then set his head back on his knees and shrugged a little. "There's no real translation, the closest N-nibble could come was to say 'Star Dragon,' and I don't even know what that means! Dragon is what my name means in this archaic human language, or at least I think so. I know I've been ... travelling ... for a long, long time ... and Nibble was my friend."

"He can be again," said Robin. "If there's enough of his personality left, I can make him again."

Ryu's forehead crinkled in confusion. "I don't understand."

"I won't be able to say until the computer is back up and running, when we've got power, but there's a chance that Nibble's not entirely gone. If there's anything left in memory, he might not remember, but -- what?"

Ryu was shaking his head. "You can't just ... re-make a living being. How is that possible? Reproduction I understand, but ..." he gave Robin a quizzical look, "I wouldn't have thought you were compatible."

Robin's lips twitched. "I'm not, it's not --" He chuckled, feeling a little better. "It's not like that," he replied. "Nibble's a machine -- like this ship. He can be --"

"But that's just a shell!" Ryu protested. "He was intelligent! With his own thoughts and feelings and memories. If that's gone, you can't get it back."

"Well, no," Robin agreed, "but there's a chance ...." He sighed. Ryu was crying again. This was as bad as trying to talk to Nibble lately. One part of his mind knew that as soon as the painkillers in the spray wore off and he didn't have enough to keep his mind occupied that he, too, would fall apart, but he pushed that aside for now, thinking hard.

"Hey," he said suddenly. "Can you absorb any kind of energy, or does it have to be a specific kind?"

"Well, everything's technically made of energy."

Robin scowled. "Fine, be cryptic. I'll be right back."

With effort of will, Robin pushed out of the playground and returned to the mainframe. Then he went looking for Maya. The three women were building some kind of lock and tackle device to sling a car-sized generator out of the bottom of cargo bay. Maya had somehow managed to convince the large bay doors open and Jaci had her hand inside a crane, swearing fit to make even Maya blush occassionally.

"It's no good," Jaci was saying as Robin stuck his head around the corner, wondering if it was safe to go in.

"Then I guess it's just sweat-labor," said Hyke, altogether too cheerfully.

"Damn, but Gabriel would be handy right now!" groused Maya.

"Hey, Maya?" asked Robin, crossing the landing. In front of his mask, his breath condensed into white mist. The women seemed comfortable enough, but Robin was freezing.

"What?" snapped the engineer, tying off another cable to toss to Hyke below.

"I need some radioactive juice."

"Some what?" She stared at him and pushed hair out of her eyes. "Please tell me you're joking. Whatever for?"

"Well," Robin hesitated, fidgeting with his sling, "Um ... Look, I'll explain later, but if this works, then you won't need that," he gestured with his chin at the generator.

Maya looked at Robin, then at the generator, then back. "I'm listening."

"I don't think I need much, do you have any? It's kinda urgent."

Maya frowned as she thought. "I can probly draw some outta the nuc-pulsers. You don't need a lot, you say? Hmm, the scrubbers can probably carry what you need ... Jaci, you got this? Shouldn't take me long."

Jaci shrugged. "Sure, me and Hyke'll get this finished. We'll probably need Chance to help heft anyway."

Maya and Robin left them to it and shortly after Robin entered the mainframe with the scrub-bot dangling from a line in a lead-glove-encased hand. The bot had refused to be overridden, so they'd ended up turning it off to keep the constant warnings from driving both him and Maya crazy. He had to pull off the top half of the suit to get properly plugged in.

There was even less left of the playground when Robin got there, energy drink in hand. He stared around in dismay. Where was Ryu? Where was the swingset?


He turned at that weak call, running as he made out the pale, wispy form of the energy creature. He was fading so fast! Robin dropped to his side in the shavings and offered the radioactives, disguised in this place as a milkshake.

"Here," he said. "Drink this."

Lying on his side, curled up, Ryu stared through Robin uncomprehending.

"I can't touch you, come on," Robin urged. "Sit up! Take this."

Ryu looked away, clearly saying no. Robin felt the blood rush to his face in anger.

"So, what, suddenly Nibble's life isn't good enough for you, you have to throw yours away, too?"

Ryu lifted his head, eyes flashing, deep pits of orangy-red fire. "Don't you say that! Don't you ever say that!"

"Then don't let his sacrifice be for nothing!" Robin held out the shake. "Drink it!"

They glared at each other for a long minute and then Ryu stretched out a hand that shook with weariness. Making sure he didn't come in contact with him, Robin helped guide the drink to Ryu's mouth. The energy creature emptied the shake in one long draught and then coughed, eyes watering. A second later Robin had to shield his eyes as bright color just went everywhere in a giant explosion of light. Through it he could hear Ryu gasping and choking.

Ryu belched and dropped the drink, struggling to process the sudden influx of concentrated energy. He clapped a hand over his mouth, huddling into himself against the convulsions. Too much! Too much! He was used to drinking in miniscule, trace amounts of radiation continually, not all at once and this unnatural form was thousands of times more potent than what he normally got. It was a rush, and it was dangerous, not only to himself, but to this frail carbon-based life-form beside him, unable to shield himself from the by-products of the decomposition.

When Robin could blink past the spots in his vision, he saw that Ryu still lay on his side, face screwed up in concentration, glowing in fluorescent colors that brightened and dimmed alternately, like a flickering lightbulb. He was concerned, maybe this hadn't been such a good idea after all!

"Ryu?" he called, shielding his eyes and squinting. "Ryu, you okay?"

The colors grew even brighter and Robin had to back away. He felt very warm in his suit suddenly. Nearby, Ryu kicked convulsively and the leg stretched out into something more resembling the dragon-shape he'd worn earlier battling the worm, the colors of the dragon growing brighter and brighter until he popped off the spectrum altogether into the infrared. The sudden loss of illumination was startling.

Robin staggered out of VR, opening his eyes, but lacking the strength to peel his cheek off the mainframe floor. Bloody hell ...!

He groaned and, as if in response, an alarm kicked on. "Warning. Nuclear contamination detected," said the impersonal voice of the computer, followed by whirs and clanks and clicks as if airlocks were trying to slam closed and couldn't. "Protective measures failing," intoned the computer.

"Robin? Robin!" someone was yelling, from what seemed like three different directions at once. The normal lighting of the mainframe felt very cold after the heat he'd just left.

"Get into suits! Quickly!" shouted Maya, cursing and running for mainframe. She'd just gotten the engine sealed back up; she still had her radiation suit on. The bulky suits fit over the emergency ones easily and Maya reached Robin before Jaci and Hyke had even reached engineering.

"What in blazes is going on?" Chance demanded. "What's this about another radiation leak?"

"Robin's contaminated!" Maya shouted back. "I'm shoving everyone into decontam now, we'll be up there shortly. Jaci, get over here, I can't carry him by myself!"

"Well," drawled Chance dryly, "at least the power's back on."

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

Here's Virgo's add:

Draco stirred weakly, his mind coming to awareness before he shifted even an inch, his body already on alert as sounds filtered into his conscious mind. The steady breathing of another in the room, that wasn’t right, no one had access to his room. Which led to the conclusion that he was not in his room and, judging from the smell and the heavy feeling his body had, he was likely in the Med Bay. He calculated the approximate distance between him and the other person in the room, the trajectory of himself if he was going to attack with proper surprise. He was on one of the beds, not strapped down (a plus in his mind) and probably highly medicated (a minus), so he’d only have one shot.

He tested his movement, wiggling his fingers a bit; sluggish, but useable. His eyes opened just a slit, and wonder of wonders, Chance was tinkering with something at the counter, facing away from him. He gathered necessary power and surged forth, a faint grunt falling from his throat as Chance turned only to be grabbed and shoved against the wall by Draco’s superior strength.

“Hello.” Draco purred, a partially drugged smile sliding to his face, “How are you, Doc?” He asked coldly.

“You shouldn’t be able to move at all.” Chance breathed, “I drugged you up enough to knock down a bear.” He said, the smell of fear coming off him in waves as Draco took a breath.

“Good thing I ain’t a bear, huh?” Draco said, lifting the other up the wall and off his feet, “Now you listen good, Doc, you aren’t going to tell a soul about me, or this little run-in atween you an’ I, got it? Cause if you do, I might have to say that the Doc don’t need to be here…” His head suddenly exploded in pain and he flinched as his right temple felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it, his hand flying to it. He roared in agony, his knees buckling, “Fuck!” He bellowed, his knees folding and he curled up, such pain, the agony! It had to stop! Headaches, this one the worst so far, and he slammed his fist into the paneling beneath him, his fist leaving a sizeable dent in the metal.

“What are you?” Chance breathed, jumping away as Draco’s laser knife buried itself in the wall where he was.

“Say that to me again and you just might find out.” He snarled, his eyes moving up and locking on Chance’s, as if looking into the eyes of the devil himself, wild with pain and fury, one hand clutching the side of his head.

Chances took a step back, his breath catching as the other shifted, trying to climb to his feet, failing, but relentlessly trying to get back up again and again, until the drugs finally, properly, hit his system and he collapsed, a heap of useless strength, onto the floor. “Hot damn, Marris,” Chance muttered. “Monster,” he murmured, shaken. Maybe the man was simply insane. That would be easy, psychotic Security Officer, no, that would make things even more difficult and probably upset their delicate balance between chaos and order as it was.

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

And here's Kai's add:

The sedative swam away, leaving Robin wishing his sleep hadn't followed suit; he felt about as bad as it was possible to feel, and then some. Sick, aching, weak, and terribly nauseous, on top of the fire in his arm.

Looking around made his eyes hurt; moving his head was unthinkable; but from where he lay, Robin didn't recognise which part of Med this was. There were drips in each hand, and a tube taped to his lip hissing cold, pure air up his nose; somewhere there was a high, rapid clicking, that it took him a moment to recognise as the swift patter of a Geiger counter. Reviewing his recent actions in the light of this development, Robin concluded that he was being decontaminated, which was why he didn't recognise the little separate room he was in; he'd never been radioactive before. Lifting his head an inch from the pillows was the hardest thing he'd done for a while, but he was rewarded by a view through a pane of darkened glass at the more familiar confines of Med, where Gabriel Marris appeared to be trying to kill the doctor.

It was all terribly familiar, seeing him strut and swagger and threaten like that, only to fall when what must be tranquilizers kicked in and knocked him down; all of a sudden, the bits of dissociated memory fell into neat order in Robin's mind, and he lunged from the bed without thinking, looking for a door.

Instead, he found that his legs didn't want to work the way he was certain they should, the nausea blazed up into a firestorm of grotesque sickness, and the drips scattered bright drops of blood as they tore free from his hands. Gasping, Robin tried to peel himself off the floor, determined to get through and give that murdering, traitorous bastard the kicking he deserved. Robin had no qualms about kicking a man who was down, not after what he'd done. But somehow he couldn't seem to get enough energy and coordination together to actually move.

The door hissed open, and a besuited Chance rushed in. Voice distorted by the external speakers on his radiation suit, he groaned as he saw what his patient had done.

"Robin, what do you think you're doing?"

"Putting the sodding boot in," Robin rasped in reply, struggling to sit propped against the side of the bed. "That asshole, that god damn fleck of weasel-shit killed my mum. He hurt Nibble. He screwed us all. He killed my mum. What d'you think I'm doing?"

"Being stupid," the doctor replied dryly, picking him up and putting him back in bed. "You recieved a horribly large dose of radiation back there, and now you have radiation poisoning. Thankfully," he continued as he replaced the needles in Robin's hands, "it's got a short half-life, so you won't be contaminated for long, and it should be out of your system fairly soon." He paused. "What were you doing?"

Robin shut his eyes, white-hot anger fading back into sickness and pain. "I'll explain later," he said tiredly. "When I'm out. When'll that be?"

"A few days."

"Oh, hell. Is there a port in here?"

"No, there is not. And no, you may not have an extension cord." Chance turned for the door. "Hyke will be keeping your precious computers running while you're out."

"She won't. Everyone but me's still locked out of the system, and no, that won't change for a while yet. 'Specially not now I'm stuck in Med. There's... something I have to see to."

"Something to do with why Nibble isn't answering?"


When Chance had gone, Robin shut his eyes and ran through what'd happened once more. Clearly the sudden wash of radiation had been more than Ryu was expecting to recieve, he hadn't been able to control it, and here Robin was with radiation poisoning. The sound of air cycling, the fact that there was sufficient power for Med to work, did however give him hope; if the ship's automatic systems were running properly again, it most likely meant that Ryu was strong once more, and once Robin was allowed out, maybe they could work on retrieving
Nibble from the graveyards of the network.

Also, Robin decided, Ryu's 'Star Dragons' were the alien race his mother had wanted to contact. He wondered if she'd be proud of him, now that he'd succeeded in what she'd spent his life working for.
Maya felt useless. No, more than that; she felt helpless. There was nothing to do, except maybe what she usually did, and the things she wanted to see fixed, she couldn't do anything about except wait. The engines were humming heartily, everything seemed to be working despite a mysterious silence on Nibble’s part. But Robin was sick and Gabriel was... well, still alive.

She thought maybe she should work on repairing the airlock and wall of the mainframe, since she’d had to burn her way through them to free Robin earlier. But when she’d gotten on the intercom and nervously asked Robin if that was okay, the kid had snapped at her to leave it alone until he was better and mumbled about dragons and stars and Nibble a bit until Chance had gotten on the intercom and told her to stop bothering his patient.

There was nobody to talk to and nothing to do. She wandered down to the entertainment center for a while, but the holovids couldn’t distract her for long from worrying about Robin up in decontamination and Chance trapped up with a presently-unconscious Gabriel, who’d apparently gone one hundred kinds of crazy and tried to kill the good doc.

She was bored, and angry. She felt like she should be doing something, and she felt like something should be done about that bastard Gabriel. She wasn’t sure what all he’d done, but she could bet he had something to do with a good deal---if not all---of the things that had been going wrong on the ship, and the fact that Chance saw the need to keep his sick ass sedated and Robin was upset enough to try to attack the guy despite being too weak even to stand, just filled Maya with a white-hot hatred for the security officer... or whatever the hell he was. She wanted to go up there and mess him up good, take a wrench to his face and maybe make him feel some pain and fear and make him pay for everything he’d done... whatever it was he’d done.

But she knew that there was no way in Death Chance would let her touch the guy. Not while he was sick, in any case; Gabriel was a dangerous man who’d have to be dealt with, eventually, but he was also the doc’s patient and as such virtually untouchable.

Still though...

She needed to work off some of this energy and anger. Otherwise she’d have to start breaking stuff. And so she flipped off the holovid, watching the crime scene of an old murder mystery dissolve before her eyes, and jumped up off the couch. Cracking her knuckles sharply, she strode to the gym, lay down on one of the machines, and started lifting weights.

The intercom came to life as she was lifting for the ninety-seventh time.

“Maya?” Chance’s tired voice.

“Ninety-eight... yeah?”


“Ninety-nine... Blood no, what you need?”

“I need to sleep. I’ve been up... I don’t even know how long. Robin’s sleeping and is sedated enough that he should stay that way till I’m up again. Same with Gabriel. But they shouldn’t be left alone... for very different reasons, if you know what I mean. So. Four hours. No way in hell Gabriel’s waking before then; gave him enough meds that he should be dead, but he’s… well, well you watch him? Them? Four hours.”

“You said that already, doc,” Maya laughed, sitting up and stretching. “Yeah, I’ll watch ‘em. But you better gimme a dosage of whatever you gave Gabriel last time, just in case.”

“Will do. And Maya?”


“Don’t hurt him. Know you want to, but don’t. He’s my patient.”

Maya rolled his eyes. “Yeah doc, I know. I won’t hurt a hair on his homicidal little head.”
With the return of power came the return of routine, sort of. Chance had two patience to contend with, and Maya helping him during their shift, it left Hyke and Jaci free. But Jaci had better plans than being idle. There were some major security issues to address after the discovery involving the security officer.

So, it was back to the command deck for the pilot after a quick shower and change of clothes. From there, she'd take a seat behind one of the "superfluous" consoles and start digging, opening folders, scanning vid-logs, area access times of all the crew, and essentially making a list of everything that had occured since the real people-problems had began.

Two hours into this digging and jotting on a notepad certain things, including her thoughts, she stopped one of the camera recordings dated not long after everyone had emerged from stasis. It was paused on a view of Med-bay during the second week since waking from stasis. The area was empty save for a lone, bulky figure tossing some pills of some kind down the ol' hatch. The muscular man was definitely Gabriel, but something was wrong.

Jaci noted smudges on his chest and stomach, like ink being rubbed from fresh writings. Was it a tattoo of some kind? It had to be; the weapon's specialist had tatoos, she could remember that quite clearly, especially the one upon his back. Had Gabriel told her about that once?...

..."It's called LifeInk. The chemicals in the dye react uniquely with the skin to make it behave like what you see, see?" Gabriel said, turning back to face the pilot and pulling the shirt the rest of the way down.

They'd just finished the first training session under Marris' command and were preparing to leave the locker rooms.

"Huh, I've never heard of it before. Is it localized in the Sol System or do they use it in some of the other colonies?"...

Life Ink. What a strange name for something. But it certainly fit what she remembered of him. Jaci zoomed upon the smudgings and applied the filters to provided a clearer image. The smudgings did not change. Where a wolf paw should have been clearly inked upon the skin of the Cockney gent', something else was there, but the Amazon couldn't tell. This person was NOT Gabriel.

Jaci hurried from the command deck to Med-bay, tapping a foot impatiently as the lift dropped to the level. She'd printed off the image before locking up the console and now had it thumping against her leg, a scowl contorting scarred face.

- - -

As soon as the lift stopped, the woman hurried through the halls to where Robin was quarantined and Gabriel unconscious. Chance should be there and he would definitely need to know this. But it wasn't the doc she found overlooking the two patients; Maya had taken our spacious comrade's place as "guard" to the guard.

Jaci hurried in, passing right by the engineer and to Gabriel's bed, one hand unceremoniously lifting his shirt and rubbing a thumb over what should have been a non-smudging pawprint tatoo.

"Uh, Jaci? What ya doin'?" Maya asked at the jockey's inattentiveness.

"Investigating..." She replied through clenched teeth then pausing with the man's chest still bared. "...An intruder. That's not Gabriel." She wrenched the shirt back down and stepped away, a hand lifting to finger the bead at the end of braid in a sign of mixed emotions. "We have a mutinous sabatoeur on my god damned ship." A long pause to take a deep, eye-closing, non-relaxing breath. "How the hell did this happen?" Temper, Jaci.

The days following the near-disasterous power outage were slow and quiet. Maya and Jaci swapped off with Chance to watch over the two patients; Gabriel -- or whomever he was -- staying unconscious for the most part, and Robin sleeping a great deal, only some of which directly a result of Chance's meddling.

Chance for the most part worked on creating a medical file for their mysterious guest. The similarities, rather than differences, between his and the real Gabriel Marris' medical profiles were puzzling. Somewhere in all the data he collected there had to be a cure for the seizures that still shook the man, even drugged as he was. Then, too, there was the mysterious box of test tubes that he was still testing. As they didn't seem to be filled with human materials or whatever, Chance gave one to Hyke to work on and research.

When she wasn't scowling at Marris in Med-Bay, Maya alternated helping Hyke with the repairs to the outside of the ship and doing her own continuing work in Engineering. The work outside was painstakingly slow, in the bulky pressure suits that Jaci had finally managed to find, the pilot growling and complaining that she didn't have a suit and wasn't that horribly short-sighted of someone?

Jaci also took turns keeping Robin locked in decontam and watching over Marris-who-was-not-Marris while Chance took time out to sleep. She pointed out the tattoos to the doc, but he had just shrugged and added that to the file he was building. More mysteries. The computer was still not fully responding, and everything had to be done manually, which made hunting through the security files frustratingly complex.

The women took turns badgering Chance into sleeping and eating and he constantly griped at them in turn for gossiping so much on the intercom. Women!

After three days, Robin was contemplating rebellion. He lay in his bed in isolation, staring at the ceiling, and contemplating what he would need to alter the simple workstation in the corner into a port to jack in. He was totally bored, now that he'd caught up on his sleep, and worried about the silence of Nibble and the alien life-form currently holding things together. But Chance said he still had another two days to go....


He sat up abruptly, turning to face the hologram that hovered beside him. "Ryu?" he whispered, casting a covert look around Med-Bay. But Draco was still unconscious and Chance had his head back on his chair in a way that looked super-uncomfortable and the machine or whats-it running the latest diagnostic on his mysterious test tubes whirred and blinked softly.

The hologram did not look happy. He regarded Robin silently for a long minute. Finally, he said. "The computer's up."

"I beg your pardon?"

"The computer," Ryu repeated. "You said if I fixed the computer you'd fix Nibble."

"Uh, yes, but --"

"I want Nibble back."

"That may not be --"

"I want him back! I want him back now!" Ryu's eyes spun angrily, shading to their orangy color.

Robin swallowed. "Thank you for the computer, Ryu, really, but I can't do anything right now."

The hologram gnashed its virtual teeth. "You said --"

"I know what I said, all right? I need more time. I don't even know if --"


"I don't know if I can!" Robin yelled back.

There was definitely something unnerving about the snake-like tongue that Ryu hissed at him with. At the same time, the lights flickered and the ship gave a violent shudder, throwing Robin out of bed with a thump and a surprised yell. A similar sound came from the doctor, dumped unceremoniously on the floor.

"Robin?" called Chance.

"Give him back!" screamed Ryu. The ship lurched again and Robin clung to the bed to keep from sliding into the wall.

"Stop it! Stop it, Ryu!"

Chance was at the door now, staring inside at the blonde-haired boy with orange eyes, and at Robin on the floor. He put his hand on the latch, jiggled it, then banged on it.

"Go away!" hissed Ryu.

"Open this damn door!"

"No, Chance, wait!"

"Go away!"

Ryu's hologram morphed into an orange lizard with a whiskered face, long, sinuous body, four short, stumpy legs, and wings. It opened its mouth, roaring and sending flames shooting at Chance. The doctor ducked the virtual fire and fell back, staring, transfixed at the phenomenon. In the room, the geiger counter went crazy.

"What is going on?" asked Jaci and Maya simultaneously.

The dragon ignored them and turned back to Robin. "Give me Nibble or I will tear this place apart!"

Chance grabbed for the latch and let go with a sharp intake of breath. The locking mechanism was fused shut and blistering hot. He cursed.

"You can't just threaten us!" Robin protested.

Ryu hissed at him furiously. "You promised! You --"

"I did not!" shouted Robin. "I said I would try! That's not the same thing at all. And you dousing me with radiation didn't help matters!"

Maya and Jaci skidded into Med-Bay, staring slack-jawed at the scene. "What is that?" asked Maya.

"Go away!" screamed the dragon, shooting more flames.

Chance and the two women fell back towards the office. From the heat radiating off of Ryu, he was more than just a hologram now. The tender skin on Robin's arm prickled uncomfortably and the geiger counter ticked faster.

"Stop it!" Robin snapped.

The dragon lashed its tail. The ship shook around them, rattling jars and equipment. Chance's experiment wobbled free and smashed. Waking with a start, Draco lifted his head and then he, too, was staring. "What the hell?"

"You have a computer," hissed Ryu at Robin. "Get Nibble. Get Nibble now!"

"Just you listen here!" shouted Jaci, striding forward. "Whatever you are, you --"

Ryu snatched Robin in its tail. He hollered as the creature squeezed and shook him like a doll. The dragon glared at Jaci malevolently and hissed its rage.

"Aaaaugh!" screamed Robin. "Let me go -- ow! ow! ow! -- put me down!"

"Stop, Jaci!" cried Chance.

"It's got Robin hostage!" she protested. "We've got to do something!"

"Use some sense, woman!" yelled Draco. "It could kill us all!"

"Shut up, you maniac!" shouted Maya at Draco.

"Guys, stop it!" Robin called. "You're upsetting him!"

Ryu roared and the ship shook again. Chance, Maya, and Jaci lurched against each other. Maya went down with a thump. Draco hung to the bed grimly against the shaking that threw him against his bindings.

"Upsetting him!" Jaci muttered.

"Give it whatever it wants," suggested Draco.

"I can't!" Robin protested.

"What does it want?" asked Jaci.

"Nibble," said Chance quietly.

"Oh, fuck," gasped Maya.

Meanwhile, Robin had been dropped and he drew away from the enraged star dragon, painfully conscious of his shiny new burns, like he'd been grabbed by a hot iron. "You're going to kill me if you don't calm down!" he shouted, desperate now as the dragon keened again, shaking things from the wall and spinning its orange-red eyes at him.

"Give him back!"

"He's not yours!"

"Ssssss!" hissed the dragon, snapping its jaws just centimeters in front of Robin's face.

He flinched involuntarily. "You can't scare me into doing what you want!" he shouted. He was terrified, no doubt of that, but this was just insane. "I'll try, I told you I'd try! But I can't do it right now." He gasped for breath, now staring eye to eye with the dragon, and just one of its eyes was as big as his head. "Okay? Not right now."

Ryu hissed again and moved away to spin in a tight circle fast enough to make anyone watching dizzy, to snap at Robin again when he stopped. "You have 24 hours. Without me, you will die."

"You'll die too."

The dragon gave him a scathing glance. "I don't need this ship."

"You're being unreasonable!"

Screaming in rage, the dragon did another few quick circles and dived into the floor to disappear. Robin slumped against the bed, feeling like he might have just run a marathon. Chance, Maya, and Jaci ran to the door. The handle was still hot to the touch.

"Are you okay, Robin?" asked Chance, as Maya said, "No good, we'll have to cut through it," and cursed. "How many more bloody doors am I going to have to cut up?"

"What on earth was that?" asked Jaci.

"That," answered Robin, carefully easing back to a sitting position on the bed, "was Ryu. Nibble called him a 'Star Dragon.' He's why we're alive right now."

"What are you talking about?" Jaci demanded. "He just tried to kill you!"

Robin winced. "I know. I --"

Maya interrupted with, "How long have you known about that thing?"

"Since the power outage. I didn't think he was dangerous!" he added, to their aghast expressions.

"You've known about an alien life-form on board and you didn't tell anyone?" exclaimed Chance. "Are you crazy?"

"And what was I supposed to do about it?" snapped Robin. "I've been cooped up in here!"

"Was that what you fed our rads to?" gaped Maya.

"Jaysus fucking christ," breathed Jaci. "Negotiating with an alien without talking to any of us?"

"He was dying!" Robin shouted over them. "He'd been helping us! We're all alive because of him! I wasn't about to let him die! Not when -- when Nibble might have died!"


Robin huffed a sigh, shaking his head slightly. "Nibble drained the batteries to energize Ryu -- the dragon -- and he vanished. Ryu's upset because he can't find him." He ran his hands through his hair. "I'm worried. Ryu's right about one thing. Without him, this ship dies. And so do we."

"Shiva and Shakti," breathed Maya.

There was a moment's grim silence.

"Well," drawled Draco, "then don't you think you ought to, you know, get busy, doing something? That thing only gave you 24 hours, after all."

Maya, Jaci, and Chance exchanged looks.

"Right," said Maya. "Let me go get that torch."

"Robin's not leaving Med-Bay," said Chance firmly. "He's still too sick. And if you pop that seal, this whole place and every single one of us is going to be contaminated, too."

"He can't do anything in there," Jaci pointed out. "He's got to get into the computer, right?"

"Right," Robin replied, nodding.

"Okay," Maya gritted through her teeth, "I'll see if I can get the lock unstuck without cutting through the doors. Maybe I can single-handedly re-design the great wall of China, too!" Cursing and shaking her head, she left.

Chance peered at Robin through the windows. "You'd better get that shirt off," he said, "before it sticks any further to your skin. There should be some surgical scissors in there somewhere to cut it. Don't pull if it sticks, just cut around the fabric, I'll deal with it when I can get to you. There should be more cream, too."

"Is there anything I can do?" asked Jaci.

"Grab my toolbox?" Robin asked. He glanced over at the small workstation. "I may be calling you for more parts, somehow I've got to turn that into something I can use. And where's Hyke? I might need her hands."

Draco leaned back in his bed. "Yeah, good luck with all that."
Immature, petulent, grasping little shit, Robin thought furiously, slamming the matress again and again in frustrated rage. Want him back, do you? Poor baby, upset? I can't imagine how this must be for you, after all, I'm only suffering from second-degree burns and radiation poisoning, it's not like I'm in danger of dying horribly or anything, go ahead and make your stupid demands...

He sighed and flopped back, wincing at the touch of the crumpled sheet on his bare and burned back. The cream helped, but it'd be a while before he was up for any bear-hugs. While Maya cursed and banged away in the airlock between decontam and Med proper, he stared unseeing at the ceiling and ran through his embryonic plans. One thing he knew, for sure and certain; after the stupid stink the rest of that lot - idiots, the lot of them, still think I'm a kid don't you? Screw you - had kicked up over him not distracting them from their vital work to blather about something he didn't understand either, there was no way he'd tell them about this until it was done.

"Right," Maya said, muffled by her suit, as the door slid gasping and grinding halfway open. "Here's your tools and some wires and stuff. Get to it. Think you could let the rest of us into the network as well?"

"No," Robin growled, snatching his tools and prowling over to the workstation. "Logins remain disabled. Keep the hell out of my system." He peered through the heap of parts he'd been brought. "Also, could I get a couple more of... these chips? And an external hard-drive'd be useful, there should be a couple spares down in mainframe... uh, you know what they look like?"

Maya nodded wearily.

"I think I labelled 'em, grab me any of them as are called Tera. Um. Please?"

"Yeah, sure." She began backing out, dragging the door shut behind her to prevent a leak. "Hey, good luck with placating that dragon."

"Heh. Thanks." Robin declined to mention that placating Ryu wasn't the first thing on his mind right now as he settled into the pleasingly absorbing task of reworking the workstation into a decent login port. By the time Maya returned with his parts, his white-hot fury at Gabriel and Ryu and, in fact, everything else in the world right now had faded into a puzzled concentration at why this link wasn't speaking the way it should. He muttered a thanks, jerking awake when the door began to scrape shut again.

"Hey! Maya!"

She paused, looking tiredly his way. Robin felt a twinge of guilt, and tried his best winning smile. "Couldn't prevail on you for my fags, could I? And something caffienated?"

The engineer actually laughed at this. "You want me to explain to the doc why his patient's sittin' there smoking? Blood, Robin, you're pushing your luck."

"All good circuits are held together by the vices of their makers," Robin said. "It's true."

She laughed again. "I'll do my best."

"Thanks, and a thousand thanks. I work now." And the world disappeared but for circuits and chips. At some point Hyke appeared, smuggling ashtray and lighter and cigarettes, enquiring whether he needed help and leaving, confused, after the first minute or so of technical mutters. Finally, wreathed in satisfied smoke, Robin sat back and looked at the ex-workstation.

It oozed reconfiguration. It was not an elegant job, but it would serve. Robin ground out the cigarette, wondered briefly what time it was, and plugged himself in. There wasn't the same smooth connection as in properly equipped machines - the sensation of jerkily having his conciousness thrust pieces at a time into the network sent little shivers crawling over his burned skin - but once he was in, it was no different from any other time.

"Right," he muttered, playing the symphony of systems with his mind as he rolled a cigarette with his hands, "first things first."

He composed a letter; a billboard, in the realm of the virtual, it'd be unmissable to anyone digging around the network. There was pretty much no way Ryu could fail to see it. It took a while, finding the right words, but eventually he pulled away the shroud and his voice snarled in place, waiting for the dragon's curiosity to release it.

<Ryu. People who call me an immature little shit should meet you. I'd quite liked you, until you decided to be an arse; now, well, if you want to come and breathe fire and strangle me with radiation, at least hear me out. You can't cut me off with stupid and short-sighted threats if I speak like this.

<See, I'd also quite like Nibble back, but you know what? Your threats are making this less likely. If you'd just tried to be a little reasonable about this and actually listened to me instead of just raging and posturing and throwing all that bullshit around, you might've realised that getting me stuck in here with burns and radiation poisoning wasn't helping your cause. Also, now you will only give me a few hours. Oh, well done, mate. Brilliant deductive thought, there. If you could've brought Nibble back, you would have. His not being here suggests I'm the only one as can do this.

<So go on, Ryu. You want your friend back? You want him back now, damn the consequences, screw the fact that it might not be that easy?

<Kill me, then. Destroy the ship. Rend and ruin everything that was Nibble, burn to ashes the only one who knows how to bring him back.

<I dare you.>
Maya screamed wordlessly, her voice echoing hollowly off of the steel walls and concrete floors of Engineering. Nobody could hear her. Even though the mess of wires and machinery didn’t soak up sound---indeed, the assortment of junk and equipment caused it to rebound in such a way that the echoes seemed to magnify into almost tangible things---the deck itself was sound-proof, and besides, there was nobody around to hear her.

Nobody but the dragon-thing, that is.

The salamander-dragon-lizard-alien-holograph-thingy Robin had so quaintly called “Ryu” hissed at Maya, its forked tongue a ribbon of flame. The alien didn’t seem pissed off with her like it’d been at Robin earlier, or even particularly interested in her at all, but it was in her damn Engineering Queendom. And worse, it wouldn’t go away, but instead seemed to have taken an interest in the nuclear pulsers. It crouched on one now, literally sitting coiled up on top of the thing, and Maya was terrified to get near it to continue working on fixing the engine. Although the monster hadn’t tried to eat the cylinder there yet, Maya was terrified it would, and she didn’t want her ass toasted like Robin’s had been.

Besides, even if the thing wasn’t trying to harm her---and it wasn’t yet, it was just there, and it wouldn’t go away---it certainly wasn’t in the happiest of moods... although sitting on the nuclear pulser seemed to, oddly enough, calm it...

The even weirder thing was, the demon-alien-dragon thing seemed to be outside the ship, too. She’d seen a much larger, even more terrifying version outside the window, moving about the hull like some monstrous flying salamander thing. The one in here was a holograph, far as she could tell, but if a holograph could burn Robin...

This was all just too weird.

“Get… out!” Maya wailed, more frightened than she had perhaps ever been in her life. “Out! Get...the fuck...out!” She threw her wrench at it, but it merely went through the thing’s spectral form and the Ryu-monster simply hissed at her again.

Her flashlight went straight through it too, and the tendril of fire that was the dragon's tongue snaked toward her again, stopping well away from body as though merely intending to warn, not to harm. Perhaps it had learned something from its encounter with Robin, then...

Not that she was going to take any damn chances.

“Shiva and Shakti!” she snarled, edging past it toward the airlock. Her knees were actually shaking in fear, and she regretted that she was no longer carrying the wrench or flashlight to use as a weapon... even though she knew neither would do shit against it. “Fine. You... You stay. Yeah, kays, goood dragon-thing.... I’ll go. Shit.”

She reached the airlock just as the lizard-thing seemed to suddenly hear something, cocking its head as though to pick up on a quiet voice. Only thing was, there was no sound. Great, it’s radioactive and crazy, she thought, but whatever the creature was listening to apparently pissed it off, for it roared, coiled its long, serpentine form even tighter, and promptly disappeared as Maya whimpered in fear.

Shaking like a leaf now, and but a heartbeat away from breaking down and crying, Maya stumbled into the airlock and then, a few moments later, out the other side and into the lift. It wasn’t until she was already approaching the Med-Sci deck that she even knew where she was going.

The dragon holograph was nowhere to be seen, and feeling a little ridiculous as she walked out of the lift---after all, the Ryu-thing wasn’t that scary, right? Right?---she wiped her sweaty palms on her cargo pants and took a few deep breaths to calm herself.

Passing through the doors to the med bay, she stood on her tiptoes and peered through the window, noting that Chance was napping in his chair, as he so often seemed to be doing now that he was getting so little sleep.

Gabriel---or whoever he was---was sound asleep as well, not even moving under the influence of whatever sedatives the Doc had him on. Nevertheless, his hands and feet were tied securely to the bed to prevent him from hurting anyone. Or getting away, Maya though.

Glancing sideways at Chance, Maya strode straight to the unconscious patient, and grasping him by the collar of his shirt, half lifted his torso toward her while slapping him hard in the face. “Wakey-wakey, you piss-ant!” She shook him a bit and slapped him a second time. “Wake the fuck up!”

Chance, sitting in his chair snoring with his head tilted alarmingly far back, started as though shot and his head lurched up.

Gabriel’s eyes flickered open and he stared into her face, slack-jawed, pupils wildly dilated. “Wha…?”

Maya shook him a little more until his eyes focused a bit more on her. “You and I’re gonna have words, see?”

Chance nearly fell out of his chair in the process of trying to scramble to his feet. “Maya, what the hell do you think you’re---”

The mechanic paid the disoriented doctor no mind, instead leaning forward until her eyes were level with Gabriel’s and snarling, “Cuz way I see it, you’re causin’ all the problems ‘round here you mutinous bastard, an’ there’s a damn demon thing in my Engineerin’ Paradise an’ I’d sure as hell like to know what the hell you have to do with it!”

“Maya! Let him go right now!” Chance shouted, taking her by the shoulder and trying to tear her away from his patient.

“Lemme go!” she growled over her shoulder. “Bastard tried to kill us all, sabotagin’ the ship like that, ‘an now there’s a Lakshmi-be-damned alien on board hurtin’ Robin and nobody’s doing anything even though I know everything goin' wrong is this bastard's fault!”

Chance may have looked like a scrawny little doctor but there was steel in his grasp as he pried the irate mechanic away from Gabriel. “In case you haven’t noticed,” he snapped off one word at a time between clenched teeth as he hauled her bodily toward the medbay door, “Gabriel’s a little under-the-weather and won’t be hurting anyone anytime soon. Furthermore, we have many people---many extremely bright, extremely competent people!---working on this entire mess. Which, might I remind you, you should be doing as well, instead of barging into my medbay and harassing my extremely-ill patient! Now get out of here and get back to work!”

“But there’s a demon in Engineering,” Maya pouted, but Chance had already closed the airlock door, cutting off her words in a swoosh of air and the gentle thud of the doors locking into place.

“Fine,” she said into the silence of the airlock, before palming the pad and stepping across into the labs. “Hyke?”

There was a test tube and a couple Petri dishes, slides, and a microscope on one of the counters in the lab, but no Hyke that Maya could see. Stepping up to the counter, Maya picked up the test tube, holding it up against the light for a moment. A flakey something or another. She sniffed it briefly, and, jerking her head back, muttered a soft “ugh” at the foul scent as she set it back down on the counter. She didn't even want to know...

“Hyke girl? Suits are a-waitin’ for us. If you got the time… You even in here?” she finished, feeling stupid.

She found the genius girl a few seconds later as she turned to look behind her. There, crumpled beside the small desk set back in a square niche in the wall, the scientist lay unconscious and shivering in her sleep.

“Woah,” Maya murmured, hurrying over. “Shit.” She knelt down, feeling Hyke’s cheek lightly and finding it hot with fever. “Kays... kays...” She shook Hyke’s shoulder lightly. “Hey girl, wake up.” The woman remained unresponsive. “Alrighty...” She took a deep breath, trying to decide how best to do this.

Crouching, she caught Hyke beneath the armpits and wrapped her arms around her chest, lifting her torso off of the ground and dragging the taller woman toward the airlock. She had to set her gently back down on the ground again as she palmed open the door, and then pulled Hyke into the airlock with her. The unconscious woman murmured something in her sleep, and Maya paused to listen for a moment but the words were blocked by the closing of the airlock. Then she had to lay Hyke down again as she palmed the other door.

It didn’t open.

“Goddamn it, Chance!” she growled, and pounded on the window as hard as she could, hoping the sound would carry through the thick plastic.

Apparently the good doctor did hear, for a moment later he stepped into her field of vision, looking at her angrily and saying something that looked like “Go away”, although she couldn’t hear through the thick door.

“Open the damn door!” she shouted at him, wondering if, like the knocking, that sound too would carry through to him. "I fixed it, I'll fucking break it open again you prick! I'll get the dragon thing and piss it the hell off until it blasts this damn door open!"

Even if he couldn’t hear her, he could apparently make out the words on her lips. Sternly, he shook his head, gesturing sharply for her to go away.

She kicked the door in her frustration, hearing the satisfying thunk of the steel-toed boots on the steel door, and then, in an abrupt burst of sober rationality, said quite calmly, “Intercom: Open the damn door, Chance. Hyke’s sick.”
Funny how just as they thought everything was under control it all found new ways to fall apart. After the drama with the dragon turning up in his medbay, there was now more with Maya assaulting his patient (even if he did deserve it) and Hyke passing out in her lab.

"Ugh," he leaned over the unconscious woman, recording some preliminary exams. She didn't appear to be in immediate danger so-


"You people are so much trouble, you know that right?"

"Hey, it's not my fault they're all sick." Maya answered defensively, "So is she okay?"

"Well yeah, for now." he headed over to the airlock and started setting in a code, "It just looks like flu, so she'll be fine if her teperature doesn't get too high and she takes in plenty of fluids.

"... Are you locking the door?"

He smiled at her wearily, "It looks like flu." he flashed the clipboard at her even though she couldn't understand what was on it, "The fun thing about space is you get to find all kinds of new viruses."

"Are you kidding me!? I don't have time to be in quarentine! You know what that means right?"

"Jaci's basically running the ship on her own and Robin is the only other person who isn't infected if it's contagious." he connected the clipboard up to the main screen, staring at the results stupidly. After so many hours awake he couldn't read much more into it than 'it looks like flu'.

Chance groaned again, stretching out his shoulders. As comfortable as the chair was it wasn't the best place to sleep and he wasn't really getting more than an hour or two at a time. When there weren't dragons or super-soldiers on the loose waking him up he kept coming round on his own. He wasn't getting any further with helping Not-Gabriel either, and he still had a mummy in his shower.

"Okay, go let Jaci know what's going on," Chance waved over at the com point. He pressed his fingers over his eyelids, setting the monitor down on the table and looking over at the main screen. This wouldn't do. He couldn't have all three of them in here for medical attention so it left him for just one path if he wanted to get any sleep at all.

After a long moment he went to his bag and pulled it onto the table, carefully pulling the stitching loose on one of the seams. There was only two doses here, but hopefully that would be all he needed. The syringe was much smaller than most, you never needed a lot, and the liquid inside was faintly tinted blue. Carefully he felt at the soft flesh behind his jaw, seeking out the right point before easing the needle into his skin.

It was an all too common story. Academy doctors would turn to stimulants basically because they ended up feeling like they had to live up to being the 'perfect' healer. Those that joined the profession later in life ended up feeling like they couldn't keep up with the Academy medics without some help. Not Chance. Unlike most of the other drugs people took Chase was different. I wasn't addictive, it wasn't there to make you feel good. It didn't make you a genius or a super surgeon. It just gave you a second wind. He'd seen and learnt, and used enough to know it was perfectly safe, provided of course you didn't try to use it as a substitute for sleep. It was still illegal, but during the war it had saved a lot of people he otherwise wouldn't have been fit to operate on.

Of course, all of this sounded like the justification of a dependant man, but it wasn't. He didn't feel a compulsion to take it was just that at this moment it was the responsable thing to do.

Then he started working on how to 'fix' Not-Gabriel.

The mystery of the IGP address book was solved the first time Chance managed to coerce his genetic mapper into opening; Candy was warning code for ocular irregularities. Janice was high cancer risk. Linette was a flaw in red cell production.

There was a rule that anyone who wanted to use genetic alteration to breed a life form had to prove that it had 87% viability. That is to say that 87% of all the creatures made would live a healthy and reasonable life span. This mark was upped to 92% for companies that used human cells to create the 'healthiest' possible infant for those who couldn't concieve. So long as they were also rich.

The problem was that this was incorperated into the programs. Any minor flaw that was, say, 0.2% away from desirable, wouldn't register. The best Chance had ever scored on a normal program was 96. So he had gotten a friend to meddle with the coding on Genesis to show up words that warned him when these triggers came up.

Slowly, and supported by every test he could think of to put an unconcious Marris through, he was trying to identify exactly who Marris was.

Apparently he was Gabriel's test-tube brother. The DNA matches were sufficient enough to confirm that they definately had the same father, although interestingly enough where there ought to be contributions from the mother it looked like it had just been filled in artificially. He was basically an altered clone of a man who was apperently completely without moral fibre.

Unfortunately the map only proved to Chance what he already suspected; they had altered coding for brain matter that he couldn't recognise. What he did see were flaws for brain chemistry. This Marris was a 95. But the other 5% was very heavily leaning towards insanity or diseases of the brain.

Marris was the victim of over-excited scientists and a blind mapper. Oh, and the whole sociopath thing was probably environmental, but hardly surprising when you looked at this screen and saw that he'd been built to be a weapon.

"Okay... so seizures... here.... fault line..... nervous...." after playing around for a while he stopped short, "Wait, this looks like a psi-graft." he skimmed through pre-recorded sample to open up some other maps. When 'psychics' had started proving actual talent that could be read on a brain scan every company you could name had leapt into trying to discover the secrets of this evolutionary hiccup. While the sections of code had been identified they hadn't been deciphered. The only examples of such takents being replicated were where the code had essentially been 'copy-pasted' from selected subject. Research into the details of the various mutations was as yet inconclusive.

And apparetly Not-Gabriel's designers had been just as impatient as others in the field. It looked fine theoretically but it had just been patched onto the code. There were flaws at both 'ends' in the string and it had incompatabilities with other areas of DNA relating to the brain.

"Oh for blood's sake! Idiots!" you couldn't just stick it on and smooth over the edges. No wonder he was having seizures, it was like he was rejecting the psi-graft. Admittedly it could have been a worse patch than it was, but his condition would only deteriorate without the proper medication.

Chance sighed, running his hand back through his hair, "Well, at least now that I know what's wrong with I can fix you. Hyke's turn now."
"What do you mean she's sick?" Jaci shouted from beneath her bunk, trying to reach a box she'd seen tucked in the far corner, just out of reach of her long arms.

Maya's voice over the com replied. "Exactly what I say! Found 'er in 'er lab unconscious. Chance says it looks like the flu."

The pilot laughed and finally managed a grip on one corner of this mysterious box, hip-scooting back and bumping head again before clearing the bunk. "The flu...heh, of all the things...Shouldn't be any bugs on this ship anyways. Where would a virus hide anyways on a boat tha's been floating a century'n'a half, hmm?" She was talking more to herself now, the polystyrene box open and hands digging through the stuff within. "Prolly the conservatory...or dormant elsewhere...hmph. Chance'd know that nonsense; he's the doc, not me."

"Right...anyways. Just givin' ya a head's up." The com clicked off.

"And then there were three..." Jaci muttered and sat back on feet, hands pressing into thighs. Whatever she'd been looking for wasn't in that box it seemed; there were only old recordings and diary logs from a long time ago. Nothing useful right now.
The woman stood then and did a quick turn in the room, scanning it, searching. "Well, dang. What'd I do with that refill?" So that was what she was after!

No, not medication; she rarely needed that; rather, it was the extra supplements necessary for nano-bot replication when the old nanites reached their age limit. Jaci kept about a months worth in her room and that was now empty; but she could've sworn there was another bottle of the "vitamins" somewhere around in there!

But they weren't anywhere in there. She'd have to head to med-bay for them, but decided to hold off till later, like when she was ready to crash for the "night".

In all, since the power-outage, everything had been beyond crazy.

The dragon thing that Robin called Ryu added a darker shade to their already troubled picture. Of course, Jaci couldn't help but admire the fantastic alien creature. It was witnessing fantasy come to life in the grace of the beasts actions outside the ship (Oh yes, she'd seen him a time or two since the incident sailing on those fantastic wings.). The dragon was the epitome of Earth superiority. It was the ultimate power and ultimate Sol' creature. It was the next step to godhood.

Besides that, there'd been the security issues to contend with. The pilot continued working from the command deck; she'd need Robin for the more finite details of routing. He was the programming expert, not her. He might be able to recover some of the lost video and maybe they'd find out a little more to why they were in this situation. Besides the security camera scans, Jaci tried to adjust some of the password-protect features they had and maybe apply a bit of mental safety if not physical safety. If someone couldn't break the door down, it at least eased the mind some.

Her thoughts, too, had lingered on the pressing matter of their incapacitated intruder. The man certainly looked like Gabriel, sounded like Gabriel, and in part behaved like Gabriel. But she remembered back to the meeting and the unsettling feeling she had when their eyes met. It'd been a strange sensation then, awkward, discouraging. Frightening. But why was that? Jaci hadn't known if that person was really Gabriel or someone else entirely. It may have been the true security officer at that point, but she doubted it. Those eyes were just...not Gabriel.

Then there was the other little issue that still lingered in the fore of mind, waiting for a decision she felt was not just hers, but the crew's as well to make. Unfortunately, two of the crew were not able to make that decision and Robin had his hands full working to rebuild Nibble. Chance had three patients and so didn't have the time to think about that sort of stuff. That left just her and Maya.

The engineer'd been a wonderful help outside of the ship, as had Hyke where she was able. But for obvious reasons, Jaci was of better use inside, pointing the invisible finger where the two needed to go to fix what.

But now, it was just the two of them, and space walks were better done in pairs. Safer that way.

After giving the room another look over, the pilot returned to the bed and sat staring at her silver-striped palms. What to do, what to do.

"Everything's locked tight." The tech said, continuing down the aisle created by the bulky cargo in the vessel's bottom. "Nothing's coming loose and it should withstand the jostling expected."

"And what of the probe?" Jaci asked, eyes constantly moving over the units, checking a lock here, a knot there. "Has it been stored yet?"

"Yes, ma'am. It's in cell A, accessible after launch. Code information has been secured in your quarters."

"Good." They continued on, checking the units and...

Ah yes, the probe. The source of all this hoot'n'nany, so to speak. If that probe hadn't been found, who's to say Jaci wouldn't still be doing tourist flights through asteroid fields or supply-jumps to the outer colonies. Hell, maybe she'd have retired by now and settled down like Ally; you know, get married, and maybe have an actual family that WOULD outlive her. Jaci didn't think she'd like kids very much. Not little ones anyways; she'd been sort of high on herself as a kid, what with the success of the nanite system infusion. Celebrities were always the same in that sense; thank god she'd mellowed out over the years. She did like Robin, though. The kid was brilliant! His computer savvy skill was just mind-blowing! Of course, she'd not go so far as to say she saw a piece of herself in him. They weren't that alike. Sure, they both loved what they did and were phenomenal at it, just like the rest of the crew, but he refused assistance practically (so she perceived.). Didn't believe any could help.

Maybe he needed to lose more to see he needed others more than he believed.

Jaci scowled at that dark thought and stood, brushing palms over the front of shirt and leaving the room behind her, the click of misters over her plants bidding farewell.

She needed busy work now, something to take her mind away, and not just some fruitless search for something at the bottom of the list of priorities. Maybe she'd call Maya to the Cargo bay and look for this "Cell A"; it'd give them something to do, anyways. Still, it felt like it'd be just another frivolous endeavor. Wasted effort. Wasted steps, work, Time. Back to that then, eh?

As she rose from her thoughts again, Jaci found herself up top once more, looking at the blast shield that hid the beauty and infinity of what she called home from sight. And so decision was made: let's get lost in sensory overload. Her chair called for her to sit, like a long lost lover, demanding a moment of her time. Get lost. Escape. She only needed to sit for a time and let the dream, no, the reality of BEING the ship clear her head.

Maybe she'd watch this Ryu, observe it, and clear her head.

The pilot sat and connected, just to clear her head.
Draco could now be awake for more than a few minutes at a time, with the exception of the intrusion by the dragon creature and the interlude with Maya, which, needless to say, was hilarious, the girl thought she could hurt him, though, maybe if she took on of her big wrenches and bashed him over the head, it might do some damage, but it would last only so long. He stretched in his bindings, popping what of his bones he could reach, what with him strapped down and all, and glanced around. Same white walls, same doctor crap all over the place and he sighed heavily, boredom grinding his nerves very slowly to a fine, angry burn in his chest, which he filed away for later use. Another, rather loud exhale and he itched his shoulder with his fuzzy cheek.

It had been awhile since he had been able to scrape his face and it was starting to get to him, the itch of hair on his cheeks and chin would drive him even crazier than he was, then these idiots would have something more to worry about than a dragon and radiation poisoning. They’d have a real homicidal maniac on their hands. He shook his head, attempting a sitting position, with his hands and feet chained down though, it was a bit of a struggle to get where he needed to. “Oi, doc.” He said, rattling his chains to wake the snoozing doc in his chair not too far away, “Doc.” It looked Chance’s drugs had worn off, and had sent him into ‘crash’ leaving Draco awake, probably because his own drugs either A) no longer worked in his body, or B) he hadn’t been administered with them recently enough to keep him down. He frowned, tugging on the chains again, hmm, they weren’t too heavy, and what they were chained to was pretty light too, once he was back to normal, he could probably snap them and be done with it. However. He would still be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way to pilot home and a likely really pissed dragon if he killed the people that could bring that damned computer back to life.

From what he understood, which probably wasn’t much because people around here were tentative about talking in front of him, even when he was ‘sleeping’, (probably smart of them), this dragon was after Nibble, or was ‘friends’ with him or whatever, and the runt computer was, obviously, not around, or the creature wouldn’t be making such a fuss. Robin was the only one who could help, so the dragon had to wait before he killed all of them. Then there was himself, a traitor, and likely very jettison-able, though they might want to keep him around since he was the one who had mucked up their systems to begin with. That, and he wasn’t unhandy with computers, so he could probably help out... given the right incentive.

His ears picked up Chance’s heart rate accelerating, the good doctor was waking, good, maybe he could get his-self a razor and stretch if he promised to be good. He took a deep breath through his nose, smirking as his mind registered all the smells, Maya, sweat, anger, and fear, Robin, anger, frustration, fear, and pain, Chance, fear, apprehension, Hyke, sickness, gross, Dragon-thing, rage and impatience, they’d all passed through, except Jaci, he couldn’t pick up her scent right away, it seemed she was staying out of the way. The girl was friends, sort of, with the man he’d killed after all, she was probably pissed at him, and would likely fly into some sort of frenzy once she discovered the body, or heard he was dead. Maybe she’d try to kill him, that’d be amusing for about five minutes.

“You’re awake.” The doc spoke and Draco gave the other a lazy look.

“Congratulations.” He drawled, his Cockney accent vanishing, as the other obviously knew he wasn’t Gabriel, “You win the obvious award of the week, please select your prize.” Sarcasm, it seemed, was one thing he’d retained through this mess and it pleased him.

“The drugs should last another,” The doc’s eyes darted to the clock, “Four hours.” He said, surprise slipping over his face and into his scent.

Draco smirked, “Funny thing about me, in case you hadn’t already noticed Doc,” He emphasized the word to try and rile up the man, “I’m different from you.” He was faced away from the doc, as he was sitting up still, and the doc was at his desk, behind him, watching him like one does a chained wild animal, with caution, in case it escaped.

“Who are you?” Doc asked, ignoring his jibe.

“No one.” Draco replied quietly, coldly, “As far as the world is concerned, I don’t exist but in dark stories and tales meant to scare little children into behaving. But for the sake of conversation, you can call me Draco.” He blew a bit of hair from his eyes, it had gotten longer and more annoying, he have to cut it soon.

“Draco.” Doc said, turning the name over in his mind, Draco could hear the little cogs and wheel turning, trying to find where he’d heard it before.

“Yes.” He turned his head, his verdant eyes catching the doc’s bright blue ones and the smell of fear rose. Chance stood like prey does when its gaze was caught by a predators before he snapped out of it, taking his eyes from Draco’s and moving so that he could actually look at him. Awfully considerate of the blonde man. “Say doc,” He said, somewhat congenially, “Mind giving me a razor and unlocking me for a few?”

Chance gave him a disbelieving look, like he was crazy or something, “I beg your pardon?”

“So I can shave? Maybe stretch a bit,” He gave a light smirk, “I’ll behave.” His eyes flashed with dark humor, “Promise.”

“How can I trust you?” The tone suggesting that Draco definitely wasn’t going to get his desire.

“Cause, I stay here, I get fixed, I leave, I’ll die. I don’t fancy dying in an air-duct in fits of seizure, or my brain exploding from headache, if you know what I mean.” He popped his neck, “Tch, besides, even animals get to go for a walk sometimes.”

“You’re not an animal, you’re a monster.” Ah it seemed as if Robin wanted to join their conversation, speaking through the comm and peering out the window, his eyes narrowed coldly.

Draco tilted his head towards the furious tech boy, a crooked and menacing smirk spreading over his mouth, “Morning sunshine, hope you’re feeling good this mornin’ cause you gots a dragon to make happy.” A distinctly menacing look in his eyes, “Hope you know what you’re doing kid.” He chuckled at the beating of fists against the metal.

“You bastard, this is your fault in the first place!” Robin snarled, banging his fists again.

Draco thought about it, before nodding, “Yeah, yeah I guess it is.” And another smirk lit his face.

“You know you shouldn’t antagonize him like that. He’s going to be cured of radiation poisoning soon enough and you’re still going to be chained down.” Chance warned mildly.

“That may be Doc, but you’re always down here, and you’ve already made it clear that I’m not to be hurt until I can give hurt back.” Draco replied, his eyes flashing laughingly, enjoying the position he’d been put in, as much as he could anyways. He was still facially furry and in a bad way in the mind, but, for now, he could tolerate it. “So, about that razor and a stretch?”

“Forget it.” Chance said, standing.

Draco’s eyes flashed and he bared his teeth, yanking on his cuffs with a loud ‘clang’ as metal met metal, “I said I’d play nice, I’ll even do it in here with handcuffs on.” He hissed, his temper getting the better of him, his hands wrapping around the chains and pulling the ones at his feet taut.

Chance took a step back, the animal was starting to get violent, only this one didn’t have a cage to keep him in. “What if I don’t?” He said bravely.

Draco growled, his eyes narrowing, “I break the chains and do it myself.” He said lowly.

“Don’t do it Chance!” Robin hissed, “He’s bluffing, he can’t break them.”

“Watch your mouth boy.” Draco glared at the window where Robin returned the sneer with contempt.

“Stop it!” Chance growled, now angry in his own right, “Both of you. Draco, I’ll get you a razor and a mirror, but you will stay on the bed and your hands will be cuffed together, any funny business and I won’t fix you.”

Draco shrugged, “Fine.”


Twenty minutes later saw Draco with a clean face and relieved muscles and he compliantly let himself be chained back up, much to Chance’s relief, (to his own displeasure) and to Robin’s disappointment (he thought that kid kinda had it out for him), he laid back down. Again, same white walls, same white room, he was going to go mad in this room.


Drugs took his mind somewhere else. He was supposed to be completely under, the Doc having given him the strongest anesthetics he had, however, his mind still bobbed on the surface while his body remained still and steady, such it had been most of the times he had been put to sleep. He still could think, he could still hear and smell and feel, but unless he really, really wanted to ‘wake’, which was entirely too much effort, all manner of controlling his own body to where he could release certain valves and flood his system with all manner of endorphins or adrenaline, he would stay where he was and simply listen.

“He could have killed you. I hope you know that.” Robin’s voice, sullen and irate, Draco would have loved to rattle his chains some more.

“He didn’t though.”

“Because he needs you.” Smart kid, there was no profit in killing someone with use.

“Maybe, but...” The Doc had a mentality that would get him killed for sure.

“But nothing, he’s had it out for you since day one.” Well, Day 150-200 something, if you counted the missing numbers in cryo.

“Hm.” Chance replied, “Shouldn’t you be working on that problem?” He said, pointing out the port hole where the dragon was still swooping around, the creature was certainly pissy, from what Draco could tell.

Robin sniffed and Draco could practically hear the look of displeasure on the kid’s face as he turned, “Yeah, whatever.” And he vanished, back to tinkering with his toys while the good Doc was left with Draco.

“You’re the root of all this contempt you know.” The doc said, some hint of anger in him now, a bit of Doctor’s ferocity, Draco supposed, “In all rights I shouldn’t be treating, what with all you’ve done to us.”

‘But you can’t let me die.’ Draco thought, ‘I’m too interesting, and valuable. You just don’t know it yet.’ And with that, he let himself succumb to slumber.


He was screaming. Damn them, he’d been there, there, when they’d killed Jacob, goddamn them. Somehow, he’d known, the ones that had seizures, the ones that complained of headaches, he’d known that they didn’t just die. Gods, pain like that shouldn’t exist, and the way Jacob had begged Draco to help him, but... he didn’t know how. He screams died down as Aphrodite soothed his mind from the barbarity of their creator’s works and Osiris leaned against Draco to support him. “They dissected him.” Draco whispered, horrified, “They dissected him while he was still alive.” He shook, his eyes wide, his body still aching with what they’d inflicted on their brother and the abrupt shove back into his own mind when Jacob had finally died.

Osiris rubbed Draco’s back, murmuring quietly some nonsense or another, as Orion came up and began explaining what happened to the weaker minds. Those who couldn’t see past the grief and fury in Draco’s body and those who didn’t want to.

Jacob was dead and Draco had died with him, and it hurt for weeks afterwards, his body protesting to moving or even talking, seemingly convinced of its own death until Draco managed to get it to figure out that they were both functioning and very much alive. But still, Jacob’s death would haunt him for certain. There was talk of escape, but Draco personally didn’t see the point, of which there was none, particularly because they were so well fenced in, after all, even for them it would be difficult to cross massive amounts of water on all sides, being as they were on an island and all. So Draco remained as ten tried to escape, and as Draco cast out his mind to watch them, each of them, two killed by sharks and other water predators, three killed by the shooters on the ramparts and the other five... He closed his eyes as he felt Odin fade, lost to the sea.

Orion came up on his right, “Well?” They spoke to him because he was the strongest Caster of them all, and when Draco shook his head Orion drooped, “So, escape is impossible, even for us.”

“Unless it is done while on a mission and by then we’ll be so brainwashed we’ll have no thought of leaving.” Artemis said bitterly, spitting off to the side in disgust.

Draco nodded mutely, but whirled quickly as a scream resounded through the halls, “Rhianna!” He hissed, “She’s snapped.” Insanity consumed the girls more often than not it seemed, Rhianna was the third in the month to be taken from the Hive in fits of insanity and Draco could feel the tension in all the girls left and their thoughts, and Orion could feel it as well. They were all time bombs, it was just a matter of who would be next and when it would happen.


Draco surfaced slowly, his body still in it’s drugged stillness, his mind processing everything quickly. The seizures seemed, for the time being, to have given him a respite, he hadn’t had one in awhile, so the Good Doc was probably dosing him up quite nicely. Between one dope and another, his body was going to adapt... and it seemed like it was going to do so soon, if the snake-like feeling in his gut was any indication. Speaking of snakes, he hadn’t heard from Gabriel in awhile, where was his alternate personality?

His mind was quiet, and he kind of missed the prattling idiot, not that he’d admit it under torture and all manner of nasties, but it was nice not to be so lonely in his head. Alas, the free-loader had been quiet since his last seizure on the Weapon’s deck, and Draco wondered to himself what had happened, Gabriel had seemed more than happy to piss him off before. He shook off the drugs, setting his heart rate to thumping faster to get rid of it so he could wake up fully again. He sat up again, but the doc seemed to be off somewhere and as he looked around he could see another closed off door with a fuming Maya behind it, “Comm, on, Link to Room B, Med Bay. Hello Maya.” He said with a grin, “Not so tough now that you’re behind a three inch plexi-plate door, huh?”

“Shut the hell up.” She snarled, banging on the window, “This is your fault.”

“I’m sure. Getting you quarantined was all part of my master plan, just so I could lie here, chained, and taunt you with my hauntingly good looks and un-ending sarcasm.” Draco said, smirking slightly as Maya screamed in fury and banged on the door again while he only laughed, god he was having too much fun, he hadn’t had this much fun since...

The smile dropped of his face, since his brothers and sisters had died. He snorted and laid back down, “So, Firecracker, I forget, why’s the doc got you in a cell now?”

Blessed Mercy! Now this is freedom!

Ryu stretched out his wings to their utmost spread and let the interstellar winds whip his edges into an orangey-red flame billowing behind him as he looped around and buzzed the ship. He'd forgotten what this felt like! He'd been surviving off of battery and generator power for so long, he'd forgotten what true energy could taste like. Now he had a body again and he turned his gaze towards the ball of gas in the far distance, licking his lips. There! There in that star was energy for the taking! Warmth and fuel and the inexpressible delight of surfing through the barrelling, exploding surges of one of the most powerful forces in the universe!

If he didn't still have a part of himself trapped in this infernal ship! It was disconcerting, being in two places at once. His scream manifested as a roar in his smaller, holographic form, dipping and soaring through the confined space of electronics.

Where was Nibble? Nibble could help sort this out, figure out why he was stuck and set him free. So close! He beat at the metal-composite skin in fury and frustration, scoring black marks along the sides, but he was still stuck and turned his flight into a brilliant display of color as he swooped alongside. He dropped behind, into the exhaust ports of the engines, to warm himself. He was still weak, would have to wait and rest longer before he could attempt the delicious task of visiting that star.

Inside, the other portion of his brain also rested over the warmth of the engines. One of the carbonites approached, but was easily scared off. He laughed to himself, then cocked his head. He could hear the Robin-carbonite speaking through the electrons that governed the internal workings of the ship.

<I dare you>

Very well.

He popped his head into the VR where Robin worked, judged his position as regarded his own, spent a nanosecond determining an appropriate flight path, then leaped out of the circuitry to buzz the boy. Robin leaped back from his task with an alarmed shout. Ryu flew to a nearby 'outcropping,' mouth opened in laughter.

<Sss! Sss! Sss!>

<You piece of shit!> shouted Robin. <Whadda ya want to do, give me a heart attack?>

<Sss! Sss! Sss!>

<Shut up, you sorry little piece of shit!> He picked up a virtual rock and hurled it at the dragon, bouncing off the scaled hide. Ryu gave him an affronted look, but at least he stopped hissing. <Why don't you go do something useful! Like actually fix some of that code you've bypassed? Not much of a patch job, mate.>

Ryu shifted into his human form and scowled at Robin. <You didn't say it had to be good, just useable. And I don't see that you've done anything on your side of the deal.>

<Didn't you listen to my message?> Robin demanded. <You've fucking burned me again! And you've dosed me with more radiation! I'm going to be lucky if I can still reproduce! Fucking maniac!>

Ryu sniffed. <Your message was amusing. What do I care about this ship? You don't belong here, you should have died years ago.>

<Well, you kept us alive, egomanic, so you're stuck with us!> He cocked his head. <You are, aren't you?>

One of Ryu's eyebrows went up. <Am I what?>

<Ha! You're stuck here! On the ship!> He laughed, ignoring Ryu's scowl, but stopped abruptly to throw bits of code at the dragon-boy. <You son of a bitch! I am fucking going to kick your ass! Come back here!>

In the innards that were the virtual reality realm of the computer, Ryu and Robin were equally matched. They battled on a range of terrain from peculiar to downright bizarre, first one clobbering the other, and then the tables would turn in an instant as they both sought to control VR. At long last, several hours later, they collapsed in the playground, now partially rebuilt, to sit facing each other on a couple of swings.

"Scumbag," growled Robin, panting.

Ryu stuck his tongue out, though he remained reassuringly human in appearance. Then he sighed and leaned back against the chain support. "I apologize, Robin. I was angry. I came so close to being free of this prison, only to be stuck here still in this computer. It is ... uncomfortable to constantly be in two places at once."

Robin regarded him suspiciously. "That's no excuse to act like a raving lunatic. Why should I trust you now?"

"All you need to believe is that I will happily vacate your ship once you free me."

"And why the hell should I do that?"

"My 'threats' as you say are not threats. I can break free, but I don't know what the final result would be, other than it would not be good for you fragile humans."

"You are still threatening me! I cannot believe this! You're looking at the only person who can possibly do what you want and you're threatening me! What are you, a flipping idiot?"

Ryu regarded Robin coldly for a minute. "What I ask is simple."

"You're not asking! You're demanding! I want Nibble back, too, but we're not going to get it done fighting each other! Why don't you help me?"

"Because I want out!" screamed Ryu. "Can you not see me?" He pointed in a random direction. "That's me! Not this ... " he gestured at the holographic boy. "This is not me! Not me! Not me!"

He dropped his face into his hands, for a moment looking like he might be crying, but when he looked up, his eyes spun with flame again. Robin sat up straight in alarm, his hands tightening around the chain support.


The dragon hissed.

Slowly, Robin stood and backed away, putting one hand in front of him. "Ryu, now's not the time to be going all psycho again, hear me? Ryu?"

*          *          *

For Jaci, the ship did not settle itself around her, or her mind in it, as easily as she was used to. There was definitely something odd going on, like she was trying to squeeze into a suit that was just a bit too tight. She blinked multi-faceted eyes, but her external vision was still blurry and distorted. The ship still limped along and there were dark patches that felt off, even if she couldn't actually see them. What she needed was Maya and Hyke at their consoles telling her what the ship's status was, to point out what wasn't working correctly and have them bypass the systems.

As she struggled to attune herself to the ship, she got the feeling that something was pushing up against her, a mental touch that left her shaking and shivering. Hastily, Jaci tried to back out of the ship, but the nanites weren't listening to her. That other presence filled her mind completely, and still pushed outwards, into the ship beyond, expanding her until she thought she couldn't take it any more, and still more and more and more!

The half-seen image she'd gotten of Ryu as he sailed by one of her working sensors seemed burned into her retinas.

*          *          *

To keep herself busy and her mind occupied, Maya tore open the bank of cryo beds. She sat with wires and cables all over the floor and tried not to glare too much at Gabriel and to ignore the mutterings of Chance where he sat at his desk or paced, trying to figure out his latest puzzle. When he paced, he walked in a circuitous route starting with Maya (and giving her dirty looks), Robin, still flat on his back inside decontam, Draco as the man stared back with a rather bemused expression, and Hyke, strapped in to her bed against any more sudden movements of the ship. Her temperature was still inching upwards and the girl occassionally tossed or turned weakly, murmuring nonsense words.

Robin hadn't yet surfaced from VR and Chance moved in that direction to stare in at the kid. His arm had just about healed, and now he had new burns. Add that to the new dose he'd gotten of radiation and Robin was going to be in decontam for a few more days than anticipated. Depending on what sickness Hyke had caught, Robin might actually outlive them all.

No, no! Think positive! Think positive!

But what could it be? In a superficial sense, the disease looked like the flu, the constantly mutating virus that had followed mankind to the stars. She had a soaring temperature, chills, body sweats, and her lungs were filling with fluid, which was going to require additional means to drain before too long. Her throat didn't seem inflamed, and nor did she seem to be congested. This thing did appear to be viral, which meant that even his advanced antibiotics wouldn't work, though he thought he might try that later if he couldn't come up with anything else.

Of course, Chance reasoned, this might be easier if I weren't so damned tired! But he dared not leave his patients with no one to watch over them and he couldn't let Jaci come in here with an unspecified disease on the loose. In fact, he ought to tell her to stay off this deck entirely. What had Hyke been doing right before she got sick?


The engineer jumped. "What?"

"What did you see in the lab when you found Hyke?"

She gave him a rather blank stare. "How'm I supposed to know?" Maya demanded.

"What did it look like?"

"Um, there was a microscope set out, with slides and petri dishes and test tubes." She wrinkled her nose in memory. "It smelled funny."

"Oh, good lord," sighed Chance. "Come here, I need to run a diagnostic on you, take some blood, the works."

"Hell no!" snapped Maya, "I'm busy! I'm not sick, no way!"

"Maya!" yelled Chance. "We don't have time for this! Get your ass over here!"

Shocked into compliance, Maya obediantly took a seat on a chair Chance folded out of the wall and held still, mostly, while he poked and prodded her and did whatever doctors do with all their fancy gadgets. When he'd stood for probably ten minutes staring at the diagnostics panel, Maya tried to get up and sneak away.

"Tell me at once," said Chance. "At once if you start feeling funny. Got it?"

"Yeah, sure." She stared at him. "You mean after all that you still don't know if I'm sick or not?"

"Oh, I'm pretty sure you are," he responded, running his fingers through his hair. "I just can't see it yet."

"Comforting," Maya growled. Draco laughed. Maya screamed a profanity and launched herself at the man.

Chance swore, too, wrestling with her try and pull her away. Draco just laughed.

And then, over all that, they heard Jaci screaming.
"Oh, stop your fucking dramatics!" Robin shouted, his thin patience finally dissipating to nothing. Ryu did, startled, the fire fading from his eyes. With an impatient command, a curt gesture, Robin destroyed the stupid little playground. He and the dragon faced each other, hovering in the mind-twisting virtual reality of raw code.

"I'm tired of you now," Robin snapped. "You can't free yourself fully. I can. You can't bring Nibble back. I can. Nobody else can. Just me. Right? So stop. Fucking. Around. If you throw another fit, I will probably die."

Ryu glared daggers at the much smaller human, but Robin could see he understood: he had the alien over a barrel, and Ryu knew it. "Fine," he said, tiredly. "I'll stop... demanding. Please just free me."

"Maybe. First I want reparations for what you've done to my ship, also to my skin. Tell me some stuff. Where do you come from?"

"An egg," the dragon said simply. Seeing Robin's impatience, he sighed and rolled his enormous eyes. "Hatched in the corona of a star. I am the only one I know. I'm looking for others, but I can't do that when I'm trapped in your stupid little ship!"

"Others? Where'd they all go?"

"If I knew, I wouldn't have to search," Ryu snapped. "I know... I can tell the way I should go, but I don't know where that is."

"Huh." Robin shifted his way up through layers of programming, surfacing at a level shallow enough to see the real world without having to focus and squint. "If they're all like you, I hope we never find them. Universe already has enough tossers in it."

The dragon hissed, and lashed his tail with rage, but Robin knew his threats were empty. "Will you free me, then? And bring Nibble back?"

"No," Robin said simply. "No, I won't. Not until you convince me it's worth my time. Frankly, building an entirely new A.I would be just as easy as retrieving Nibble. And I don't see why I should spend my time helping you, not after all you've done for me."

The alien howled quietly, in anger and desperate sorrow, and slunk away. Feeling nowhere near as bad as he thought he should, Robin turned his attention to the vast swathes of shredded code that disfigured his system. Retrieving Nibble would most like be easier than he was letting on, but before that could go ahead, he'd have to fix the lower-level stuff that'd been torn by the sucession of disasters.

Ryu sat back, glaring at the boy. Robin had him trapped, he knew; that galled more than anything, being tied to this fragile little human. He racked his brains, trying to think of something he could do to trade Robin for his freedom - and his eye fell on the man-shaped creature restrained in Med-Bay.

He was fairly certain Draco was no great friend of Robin's.
The scream brough an abrupt end to the arguement as Chance turned and snatched up the bag. He pulled a phial out of one of the cabinets and pushed it into her hand.

"Give him 15 of this, ten more if it doesn't work. Any more than that and it'll kill him." the blond started unlocking the medbay door.

"What is it?"

"A paralytic, the sedatives don't work anymore. You need help, scream and lock yourself in quarantine." he rushed out, locking down the room to keep them contained and sprinting up to the command deck. His muscles burned after about twelve steps, but hey, what was a little lactic acid in the face of death?

Jaci was not dead, nor in any trouble as far as he could tell. After carefully lifting her out of the pilot's seat and laying her down on the floor she turned out to be fine. No head trauma, no bleeding, no stopped heart. If anything had been wrong it wasn't any more.

He sighed, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose.

"On the bright side you're going to be the healthiest for longest, excluding Draco, because I really don't even know if a mysterious space virus would dare bite him." he smirked, "You know he'd just love it if he was the key to the cure for this thing, although it still might go away on its own, cause the human body is cool like that and I'm talking to an unconcious woman who can't even hear me and I'm too tired for punctuation. Yay." he groaned, leaning back against the chair and closing his eyes again for a moment to let them rest.

He ran his hands back through his hair slowly, drawing his knees up to his chest and folding his arms over the top.

"Chance. Chance."

"Hmn?" he looked up blearily into Jaci's face, staring at her stupidly for a while, "Oh."

"Are you alright?" she looked concerned, which was fantastically ironic considering.

"You're the one who screamed." he said, just a touch defensively, "What happened?" he looked around, not really knowing what he was searching for.

"I don't... really know. I plugged myself in and it... it was just wrong. The next thing I know I wake up here with a blond doctor asleep on my face. No, you weren't, but you fell on me woke me up."

"Sorry." Chance dragged himself to his feet and yawned, pulling his bag over, "I'm going to go to bed and take a shower."

"I though you were supposed to be in quarantine with Maya and Hyke. Aren't you worried you might have given me whatever it is."

"So far Maya and Hyke are the only ones with symptoms and the only ones exposed to the original source. If it passed from person to person I would have it already."

"Unless it only affects women." she coughed at the look her gave her, "Just a suggestion. You really ought to get some sleep. You look like the living dead."

"Just as soon as people stop dying while I'm dreaming. Wake me up if anything happens. I mean, even if you just sneeze, because, you know, I won't sleep for more than an hour anway."


"No, my brain is just wired weird and I'm mildly paranoid. So it kinda won't let me rest until I've thwarted doom. On the up side, hurray for sleeping pills."

"You don't seem like yourself."

"You try roasting your brain over a nice pot of boiling blood toxins."
"Captain Edgars, this is my student Wira. She's the protege I've been telling you about; got quite the history behind her, too." Hermes bragged and dropped a heavy hand on one of her shoulders. "She's ready to take the exam for certification."

"Ah, so that's what brings you here." The captain said and looked to the scarred faced teenager with a lifted brow. "Hope you're as good as your teacher claims or yer gonna cost a pretty penny for him." The man gave his old comrade a nudge and taunting wink.

"I hope to make him proud, sir." Jaci replied.

"Oh, yer gonna ace it, kid." The snow-haired elder replied and sauntered off with his own superior, leaving the young pilot-to-be to her whims on the habitat deck of the facility.

Eventually, she made it to a lounge packed with people, the noise loud compared to the small meeting room she'd come from. There were all sorts of people here; everything from military officers and their underdog assistants to freelancers and colonyship masters. It was absolutely beautiful. And all the girl could do was stare in utter awe at the sight.

"D'you hear Hermes made port?" A womans voice was saying somewhere nearby.
"Yea, heard he's got some hot-shot new replacement; somethin' about him taken the test later today or somethin'. Bet it's a joke. No way that ol' man's gotta replacement. Hell, he'll pro'lly die before handin' over the reins." Those around them laughed.

The proud grin that had formed turned to a scowl at hearing this and Jaci strolled towards this group, giving the man a sharp tap on the shoulder. "S'cuse me."

He turned, that laugh still in his eyes and on his lips as he looked up at the young woman. "C'n I help you, kid? This ain't the discovery zone. Go back to the arcade." More rude laughter from the group while Jaci ground her teeth angrily.

"Well, I'm sorry, but I couldn't help overhear something you were saying." The accent gave her words an almost wild lilt to them. She paused dramatically and turned the anger into a spiteful smile, head tilted to the side slightly and a hand extended in greeting. "Hi. I'm the ol' coot's replacement. I prefer protege, though, it's less demeaning to Hermes." That shut them up for the whole of two seconds before more guffaws tore through the lounge and brought conversation to a stand still.

"You? HA! You're just a kid!" The woman stated, standing and finding herself eye to eye with Jaci. "You must be a real prat to think yer a pilot, much less that old man's student."

"Not a prat, ma'am and he's more of a pilot than you'll ever dream of being." She tilted her head and gave a sly smirk. "I'M more of an ace than you are. Bet you can't even fly grav's." Jaci took that moment to look the other woman head to toe, planting hands on hips in a judging way before continuing. "You're too fat for mine work but too skinny for a colony pilot. Hmm...I bet you're an escort, a tourist jockey."

But she didn't stop there; the teen reached towards the other pilot and took her right wrist, exposing her palm and the faint silver marks upon it. They were more of an S put on its side with two lines, one above and one below. Both lines had a smaller strip in the middle. It was a standard version of the reader/interface plates that was given to those who couldn't afford variety. Of course, Jaci hadn't had a choice. The structure was convienent to the examining machine and therefore no reason to make it any different.

"That's what I thought. Too cheap to get yer own marks so you stick with the uniform." She turned the hand over and examined the single straight vertical line on the top. "Ooh, I was wrong! You're nothing but a shuttler! HA!" It was the girls turn to laugh now, letting the pulled back hand slip away and standing back.

Others were watching them now, a fourteen year old girl against an...well, older woman who shuttled visitors and new arrivals from the nearby planet to the moon.

"Yea, brilliant, kid, you know your marks, but I don't see any on your hands; so what makes you think your better than me or even if your the old mans student, huh?"

Jaci held up both palms and the open edged Q and circle within exposed, the inner portion rippling slightly as the nanites below responded. " 'cause even a kid like me's better than you. Do you know who I am?" People were starting to gather, creating a semi-circle around her and the other.

The woman shook her head and waited for the reply.

"Ever hear of NanoTech Enterprises?"
"Of course. They run the nanite infrastructure all aeronautical pilots have. They invented todays piloting methods. Why?"
"Yea, and they wouldn't have such a successful business if it weren't for me." This brought more laughter and not just from the initial talkers. The entire room erupted at her remark.

"You can't be serious. You ain't that kid from the commercials. Rich sprite like that's got no business in here." A snort of derisive laughs responded.

"You should pay more attention to those commercials." Jaci answered and gave a point to her face. "One, the hair. Two, the scar. Three, they never once said I was rich." Obviously there was a lack of humility in the young woman and the high of still being a star and the company still using her to sensationalize their revolutional adaptation of nano-technology in flight and other mechanics. Of course, they didn't offer a dime to the family, claiming the amount of money spent on her and the rapid success they hadn't anticipated meant they needed some sort of return; greedy bastards.

Her break down of reasons earned a little more focus from the group and before a minute had passed, the tension broke and was replaced by the famedom she'd grown accustomed to elsewhere....


"Nngh..." Jaci grunted awake with Chance's not so gentle collapse on top of her. Welcome back to reality ol' girl; take a seat, it'll be a long flight.

- - - - -

After the brief dialogue between them and leaving the flight deck and taking the short hop down to habitat, Jaci was about to drop to Medbay to check on the others before stopping and hurrying after Chance. She still needed her refill! He'd already slipped in before she caught up, so the pilot knocked.

She heard a sigh and a "What?" from within.

"Almost forgot, I need my supp's refilled. Think I'd be clear to go in if I suit up or something?" She asked, head down and eyes on the floor with hands planted patiently on hips. "If not, s'alright for now. I'm good for this turnover, but need 'em no later than...eh-" She went silent for a moment to count. "-'bout six days from now or so." He muttered something either to her or himself but she couldn't make it out. "Say again?"

The door opened and Chance blinked at her for a breath before answering. "You shouldn't need to suit up...wear a mask if you want. Your pills are in the far right middle cabinet, top-shelf..."

"Gotcha." She paused and considered him for a moment herself. "You sure you're okay, doc? Lord knows we don't need you outta commission to, eh?" Chance just nodded, gave her the codes, and slipped back inside, leaving Jaci to head for medical and check on the others as well.


It was odd finding four of the six crew all in medical. Maya was her usual, albeit grumpy self having to remain locked up with the rest of them; Robin was still in VR, Jaci noted as she slipped in and headed for the aforementioned cabinet.

Maya was posted nearby, watching her and yet to speak up.

And then there was Draco.

The pilot was at loss for what was to be done. How many times had she fixated on that one pathetic detail in search of answers? There was no reason to keep him, but it would be very heartless of her to maroon him in one of the escape pods. Besides, that was not an option. What if they needed those pods? There were six of them, well- five by her standards- and only three could fit in a pod. And marooning a traitor was very old school and not all that logical in todays standards. Too many ways of escape.

Finally, Jaci spoke up, flipping through the four different cabinets and their drawers in search of this mysterious middle cabinet the good doctor'd mentioned. "It's rude to stare, you know." Draco snickered and Maya looked away. "Chance's getting some rest and I'm in for my refills. Till he comes back, I'll be keeping an eye on you so if you don't mind, play nice."

She found the pills and gave the bottle a small shake, adoring the muffled click-click of bouncing meds.

"Any questions or concerns?" Brown eyes moved between the engineer and pseudo-weapon's tech officer.

Maya piped up. "Why'd you come in here? What if Hyke's contagious?" De ja vu.

"Maya, Chance'd be sick if it were and he said only you and Hyke are exhibiting symptoms. Means it's not transferrable. And I'm fine, by the way, thank you for your concern." Jaci answered and started to go but stopped before she passed the intruders bed, one finger tapping out a thoughtful rythym on the bottle.

"One thing has been botherin' me, though." She said and faced the man, one hand rising to finger the beaded braid. "A little thing really, but I just can't get past it; perhaps you can help." She stepped closer and leaned over him, dropping a hand onto his chest and rapping that beat once again. "Why precisely are you here?"
Draco felt the paralytics kick in and he closed his eyes, sighing as he slowly lost feeling in his hands and feet, though he pretended more than he was actually feeling. He didn’t feel like getting 25 cc’s of paralytics to his system, the first fifteen was good enough to keep him down for awhile. He let himself drift, his eyes slowly moving around to look at his company. He smiled vaguely, people made him laugh, stupid, skittering creatures, searching for an answer, searching for something to be afraid of. He dropped off to sleep, but kept a wary ear on the room around him, nothing like having a bunch of people that want you dead surrounding you. Not that it was too much of an unusual situation for him, but it would be to his best interests if he didn’t let his guard down around this murderously pissy group.

He dozed back and forth between slumber and awareness, his dreams scattered and broken, combinations of disjointed memories and a scattered sense of what was happening around him. He rolled his head to the side, the paralytics had worn off, he could feel his fingers and his toes and he wiggled a little bit, just to make sure. Yep, definitely feeling. He opened his eyes a slit, noting that the pilot had entered, looking for her meds for her little mechanical bugs.

Absently, he noted that the girl was talking, but he ignored it in favour of ‘waking up’, his eyes opening fully, and looking around. He popped his neck, stretching a bit in his restraints before he looked up a Jaci, his eyebrow arching just slightly as he listened in on the conversation around him.

When she turned to him and put her finger in his face, inquiring as to his purpose on the ship. He chuckled coldly, “Me?” He shrugged, “I’m a weapons and martial arts expert. I’m here to help protect you.” He gave a smirk, but blinked as Jaci jabbed him in the chest again, some force behind it this time.

“Now you listen here, you arrogant son of a bitch, you are most certainly not Gabriel Marris, you are not here to protect us. What is your real purpose on my ship.” She hissed.

Draco grinned, “My mission, what I was paid, rather nicely I might add, was to retrieve and capture. This ship, coincidentally. Funny how that happens.” He said sarcasm oozing through his voice.

“Retrieve and capture?” Jaci demanded, “What does that mean?”

“Would you like me to spell that? Retrieve, to get something for someone, capture, to take hostage? I was paid by the government to kidnap all of you perky little space travellers, kill everyone else involved, and take the shiny little flying device to a well-protected government facility.” He explained slowly, making absolutely certain that the other’s understood him perfectly. “Clear?”

Ryu was sulking.

Nibble was lost, he was stuck, and Robin was obstinate. Unfortunately, he'd also made some good points and he was not Nibble. Robin was neither logical nor predictable. He also refused to look for Nibble until the repairs to the rest of the system were complete. This also made a certain amount of sense, that the virtual system needed to be strong enough to support the A.I., but it was all so very frustrating, for Robin was constrained by his fragile human body and his confinement; which was doubly frustrating in that Robin was a prisoner because of him, because the damned human had only been trying to help and Ryu had panicked.

He sat in his re-built virtual playground, listlessly swinging his feet from the top of the monkey bars. He wasn't particularly surprised when Robin showed up.

"Are you ready to talk yet?" asked Robin, staring up at him.

Ryu stuck his tongue out. Robin turned to go.

"Wait!" cried Ryu. He hopped down. "I want Nibble back," he said quietly. "What do you want me to do?"

Robin gave him a shrewd look. "I want your help. I can't even start looking for Nibble with the code in the mangled state it's currently in. Help me fix it -- and I mean, really fixed, like it was before. I know you've messed with it."

Ryu nodded. "The worm."

"Right, so you're going to help me make it good again. You can work faster than I can, so you do the lower-level systems stuff, and tell me where the hotspots are so I can work on those."

"Then we can find Nibble?"

"I'm hoping," Robin answered with a shrug, "that we'll find him as we move piece-meal through the system, but yeah, then we can look for Nibble."

Ryu stared at his toes. "Okay."

"Good work, Ryu," Robin stated coldly.

Ryu nodded.

"One question, before we get to work: why or how did you get stuck on our ship?"

"I'm not sure. I was travelling and was grabbed by the wormhole. When your ship came through I saw the chance at escape and I took it. If I hadn't, you would have been crushed, and who knows how long I'd have been trapped in there."

"But isn't, when a wormhole's closed, isn't it just, uh, nothing?"

Ryu cocked his head quizzically. "I don't -- oh. Yes, I suppose, it collapses in 4-dimensional space-time. I don't travel that way, that's how I got us all out, I used the engines for energy and pushed us into flux."

"Into what?"

"Flux. It's like ... uh," Ryu scratched his head. "Like -- ah! Like hyperspace, I guess, but not. It's like, well," he gestured around them, "like this. Flux changes. I can sense the movement of space-time and pick the streams that go in the direction I want."

"Riiiight. You should probably talk to our engineer about that. We have another wormhole to go through to get where we're going, so that could be useful information."

"Another wormhole?"

"Yes. You didn't know?"

"No. I don't ... want to go through another 'hole." He frowned and shifted feet uncomfortably.

"Well, there's no reason to believe that you won't be free by then, so I wouldn't worry."

Ryu sighed in relief. "Good."

"Let's get to work."

*          *          *

The potential for havoc drew Ryu out of VR to survey the scene in Med-Bay. In his hologram form, he stuck his head through the ceiling.

"My mission," Draco was saying, "what I was paid, rather nicely I might add, was to retrieve and capture. This ship, coincidentally. Funny how that happens.” He said sarcasm oozing through his voice.

“Retrieve and capture?” Jaci demanded, “What does that mean?”

“Would you like me to spell that? Retrieve, to get something for someone, capture, to take hostage? I was paid by the government to kidnap all of you perky little space travellers, kill everyone else involved, and take the shiny little flying device to a well-protected government facility.” He explained slowly, making absolutely certain that the other’s understood him perfectly. “Clear?"

"Perfectly," said Ryu.

Draco didn't flinch, but Jaci jumped and Maya screamed. Ryu dropped through the ceiling to hover in the air beside Draco's bed. He regarded Draco with a predatory gleam in his dragony eye.

"If you're not part of the crew, then I don't have to keep you alive, do I? You have a lot to answer for."

"Piss off!" snapped Draco. "You're trying to kill us all anyway, what difference does it make?"

Ryu hissed. "I'll kill you!"

"Stop!" shouted Jaci. "You!" she pointed at Draco, "Shut up! And you!" Now she levelled her finger at Ryu. "Back off. You are not releasing radiation in here."

If a dragon could scowl, this one did. Illusory smoke spiraled out of his nose and his tail whipped back and forth so that Maya ducked beneath Chance's desk. Draco just laughed.

"Yeah, well, take a number."

Ryu roared.

"BLOODY DRAGON!" shouted Jaci, still covering her ears. She pointed at the door. "OUT! GET OUT!"

He hissed at her, but Jaci just glared back. After a minute, sulkily, Ryu glided away. He paused and looked back. Hissed.

Jaci tapped her foot, glowering.

Ryu hissed again, but sank away and back into the computer, burying his mind in work and trying to decide on a course of action that would enable him to get his revenge.
“Maya, you can come out from under there now. He’s gone,” Jaci said from somewhere on the other side of the protective wooden barrier of Chance’s desk. “Maya?”

The mechanic in question merely hunkered down in the small space between the two massive drawers on either side of the desk and wrapped her arms around herself to tame her uncontrollable trembling. “He’s not g-gone. You j-just can’t see him. Always there. Like a goddamn g-ghost.”

“Are you serious?” Jaci’s voice said scornfully. “You’re just going to hide?" Then a moment later, concerned---“... That’s not like you.”

Maya shook her head violently. It felt like she was moving it through warm water or syrup. Swish swash. She’d have to stop moving her head around soon or it’d make her sick. “Not gonna be eaten by a d-demon,” she explained carefully, holding her aching head. Her tongue felt thick and it seemed to take more energy than she liked to get the breath she needed to explain, but she needed to tell them. These people just didn’t get it. They should hide too, but they were stupidly standing out in the open where the demon could get them. “Roasted an’ fed. Sharp t-teeth.” She shivered and wrapped her arms even tighter around herself.

“What in the world?” Jaci murmured, and Draco’s malicious, gleeful laugh bubbled through the room. Chance groaned in exasperation and a moment later two sets of footsteps approached Maya’s hiding place. Then the doctor was kneeling down before her.

Maya cringed away from him, her back pressed to the cold wall. It felt good and she straightened her spine, feeling the cool touch of the wall on the back of her neck. Behind Chance, Jaci lowered herself into a crouch and peered over the doc’s shoulder at Maya, her dark eyes worried.

“You okay?” Chance asked, reaching to her carefully and gently taking her wrist and then reaching forward with the other hand to touch her forehead. “You cold? You were okay just a few seconds ago. Damn that Ryu. Hmm, you feel a little warm. Why don’t you come out from under there so I can get a better look at you and you can see that he’s gone. Okay?”

Maya wrenched her hand out of his grasp and her eyes bore into Jaci’s gaze over the doctor’s shoulder. It was to the pilot, and not the medic, that she directed her response. “No fuckin' way girlie! He likes us f-fried. Cooked an’ ate Robin, didn’t he? Well not me, d-damn it! Wood protects me. You should come in too. Be kinda t-tight, but I think we can all fit. If you ain't afraid of gettin' a lil close.” She chuckled weakly, then coughed. “Wood's good. Mahogany's the but this'll do.”

“It’s not wood, you nutcase!” Draco’s disembodied voice called from somewhere in the room. “And unfortunately, Robin’s not dead.”

“Stop lying!” Maya screamed. Always lying, the murderous bastard. She’d kill him, soon as the demon thing left.

Chance held his hands before him and spoke soothingly, as though to a small animal. “He’s not lying Maya. Not this time anyway. Robin’s quite alive, just in decontamination. Do you remember? And look. The desk’s not wood. It’s see-through. Acrylic, I think.”

“Ah,” Maya said, turning slowly to look at it. That was even better than wood. She gave the desk a firm pat. Very sturdy. It should be able to withstand the demon’s strength. But what about the fire? “Polymethyl m-methacrylate,” she said with a sage nod.

“What?” Chance asked, drawing back slightly and gazing at her with his eyebrows drawn together.

“Acrylic glass!” she told him impatiently, giving the desk another good slap to show him what she meant. The doc was a smart man, why was this so hard for him to understand? “Polymethyl methacrylate! C-five, O-two, H-eight!”

“Oh,” Chance said flatly in dismay. He glanced at Jaci over his shoulder and Maya didn’t like the look that passed between them. “Well, we’re just going to help you out of there and get you into bed, okay?” Jaci was rising to her feet and the doctor reached into the protective barrier of the wood to grasp Maya’s arm as he spoke.

“No!” Maya hissed, trying to pull away. But now Jaci came forward and, wedging herself between Chance and the inside of the desk, wrapped her arm around Maya, who found herself unable to resist. Still she tried, digging her heels in as they pulled her from beneath the desk and dragged her toward Med Bay proper. “No no no! Don't fuckin' touch me! G-glass breaks an’ wood burns but acrylic is almost indestructible! He’ll eat us here, we g-gotta hiiiide!”

“He’s not going to eat anyone,” Chance told her patiently as he and Jaci manhandled her onto the bed between Hyke and Draco. “You’ll be okay. Now why don't you just lay down for a little while?“

Draco sneered from his own spot three beds away. His eyes widened in alarm and he stared at a point behind Maya’s shoulder. “Oh look! A dragon! Oh dear!”

Sitting up quickly despite Chance's snarl, Maya whipped around. Chance wasn't there anymore---musta run away, the bastard---but sure enough, the demon-thing crouched on the floor between her bed and Hyke’s, and when it saw Maya looking it uncoiled its sinewy body and one clawed arm of flame slithered up the bed and rested on her arm. Maya screamed and tried to flinch away, but strangely, it flicked one of its own paws and then stabbed a needle-like claw into her arm.

“It burns!” Maya sopped, trying to pull away, but it held her fast and even shoved her back down into the bed. That bitch Jaci even helped it.

The dragon stared down at her with its incomprehensible gaze? “Burns?” it asked in Chance’s voice. “It shouldn’t burn, it’s just a sedative.”

“Burns,” Maya insisted with a whimper.

“What the heck is going on?” Robin’s voice demanded over the intercom.

“Run Robin!” Maya screamed. "It's here!"

The dragon rubbed its fiery forehead and replied with a tone of long suffering, “Maya’s feverish and delirious,” it explained calmly. “Or something.”

“Try crazy,” another dragon commented wryly. It lounged on Draco’s bed next to Maya’s own. She squirmed weakly to try to get away from it, even though she was glad it’d eaten Draco, but it felt like her muscles were made of jelly and she couldn't even sit up.

The first dragon glared at the second. “That too, perhaps. So, I repeat myself. First sign of illness, you get yourself to me. This bug is manifesting itself all kinds of weird ways.”

“Please don’t eat me,” Maya begged, her lower lip quivering and tears welling up in her eyes despite her best efforts to hold them back. “P-please.”

“I rest my case,” the demon said. “First sign.”

“Rest my case too,” the other dragon murmured from its bed. “Out of her mind.”
Chance fell back into his chair with a heavy sigh. His eyes itched horribly and he couldn't concentrate. Not that he was particularly good at that most of the time, but this really wasn't...

"You really look like crap." Jaci said.

"Mhmn. I'm tired, not that I should be this tired. I might have not been completely right about the virus." he admitted carefully. In the middle of already being exhausted he'd been pounced on by this thing while his system was low. He hadn't slept well or much, but he'd slept more than this felt like. It definately felt like flu.


"First sign." he said simply, "You come back here. Keep an eye on your nanites and try not to move around the ship too much." he opened one of the drawers and planted a bottle carefully on the table, portioning out a small amount of liquid into a plastic cup, "This should purge your system of anything that shouldn't be there, but it might not work. And they're not fun."

Jaci lifted it cautiously and peered in. She didn't have a problem with doctors, she was almost the opposite of Draco when it came to that. But purging really wasn't fun. It made you feel nauseous and you had to sit b y the toilet for a long just in case. But they worked to clean you out. Mostly they were given to people who were on something, but antibiotics didn't work on alien viruses.

"I hate these things." but she downed it because her doctor said so, even if he did look half-undead.


"Erm..." Of course doctors didn't normally do that.

Chance dragged himself out of his seat and over to his computer station, loading something up and dragging files and data around. The air felt thick, and his head was full of concrete, but ideas were what he was all about. He was ruled as much by intuition as education.


Now if he pulled out Maya's.... then put Hyke's there, Draco's there..... hmn. He kind of needed his own, but he could do that in a minute with everything else.


Now Draco had a flaw here to account for, and Hyke was unconcious, so hers was the least useful... now with-

"Hey, am I-?"

"Making too much noise? Yes." he turned to face the pilot and smiled. He lit up quite a bit, "I would say I have a plan, but it's not really a plan. Just a stupid idea. About thoughts actually. Or rather the brain."
"Right, then." Jaci said, the doc already dropping back into what he was doing. "Just gimme a holler if you need any help." It was beginning to feel less and less desirable to be anywhere near Medbay with this almost randomly manifesting bug now hindering three of five crew members. But the pilot lingered long enough to move to the decontam-unit and leave Robin a message for whenever he decided to resurface from VR.


I'll be hanging around the habitat for the next few hours. Chance's sick too and he's given me a purger. Page if you need anything.-

Short and sweet.

With that, she headed out and headed up to the mess-hall for a bite to eat. When was the last time she'd actually eaten, anyways? It couldn't have been that long ago; she'd have known if meals had been skipped too often. Ah well, better put better thoughts to better things, or something like that.

The processor spit out some "old-fashioned" egg-drop soup with the little cracker dealies and all and the pilot flopped into a seat to eat, slurping noisily now that it was only her. Only her and the ship she couldn't kill time in; her and the dragon, who'd not been seen since the incident one deck down; her and the quiet hum of circulating nano-tech in her ears. Her and the stillness of a quarantined spaceship. So still.

The mind wandered too much when idle for too long. Jaci didn't like being idle. There was always something to be done, but what when it was no longer safe to browse or sit in the conservatory or work on things on the flight deck?

She fixated on the virus, robotically dumping the now empty bowl to be cleaned and returning to the chair where she crossed arms on the table and dropped her head onto them.

"Ugh, what if Robin gets sick?" she said aloud. "Then no Nibble till the sick doc can find a cure. That'd mean an angry dragon with the whole of Andromeda at its disposal. We can't go anywhere 'cause I need Maya and the others and this blasted beast repaired. And we're stuck in the middle of nowhere anyways. Oh yea, galaxy shmalaxy. And you're talkin' to yourself again, Jaci." She sighed. The fluid Chance'd given was starting to take effect and Jaci knew she'd regret that soup before long.

Miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

That's what he'd said. Adventures were only fun if procedures were followed, to her, and this was rapidly losing its sense of fun.
Draco glared up at the ceiling, his sensitive nose invaded by sickness on all sides; he twitched, his forehead curling in disgust. His eyes darted around, the hum of machines from Robin’s room indicating he was deep in VR, the doc was out cold, snoring away, He couldn’t see Maya and Hyke, so he could assume that they were so far gone into their illnesses that they wouldn’t notice him either. Jaci could be avoided easily, he’d been avoiding this whole crew in their full health. One woman wasn’t so hard in the vastness of this ship. He felt grimy and was, once again, in need of a shave, maybe a haircut would be nice. His eyes fell on his cuffs, the ones pinning him to his place, his nose twitching; there was no subtle way to go about it, he yanked his cuffs tight, taking a breath, the groan of the metal sang sweetly in his ears and with a noisy clang the chains snapped. He swung his feet off the bed and landed lightly on his feet, sneaking up to the slumbering doc and carefully fishing the keys out of his pocket, before stealing off, snagging a bottle of the medication the doc had been shoving down his throat to keep the seizures at bay. He unlocked his cuffs, tossing them aside as he walked to his room, slapping his hand against the access panel. His eyes grazing the room to check if anything was amiss, but nothing was to be out of order, it seemed that no one had been in to disturb his possessions.

He stripped, standing in front of the mirror, staring at himself. He was haggard, dark circles under his eyes, even all the rest he’d gotten hadn’t erased the weeks of constant motion of both sides of him. His body was pale, a lack of sun here in space and years of avoiding the sun, even when he was grounded, his work was carried in darkness. His tattoo stood out starkly against his skin and he traced it for a moment before he flicked on the shower, stepping inside and closing his eyes as he felt sweat, grime, and various bodily oils slick away from him and down to the drain below. He groaned quietly, it was amazing how a shower could remedy even the most wretched of aches.

He took his time there, not any shorter a time than an hour at least, the pounding sensations washing his sore form. He stepped out, fishing for a clean pair of pants and a shirt, throwing them on, sighing in quiet relief, cleanliness was next to perfection. He grabbed a knife twirling it between his fingers and grabbing a chunk of his hair, slicing through it quickly and tossing the chunk to the floor. It took some time, but soon he had, what he considered to be, a decent cut. It was a hack job, but it suited him, some fell across his forehead and some stuck up a bit in the back, the ragged cut suiting his harsh features.

A few minutes following, he was clean shaven as well, prowling the ship like some large cat, nosing through the rooms and tilting his head as he heard Jaci in her room, vomiting. Ew. He knocked on her door, just a tap, the girl was sick, she shouldn’t be hunkering in sickness, even if it was just the bathroom, “You ought be getting up to the sick bay, girlie.” He said through the comm, switching it off. It was a matter of time before they found out he was missing anyways, might as well get as many people out of his way as he could. He frowned to himself, really pondering his situation.

He had a few options, he decided, moving up to the flight deck and taking a seat in the pilots chair, throwing a leg over the arm and sprawling there. He could leave the crew to die, screw the consequences, and turn back, however, that dragon thing was looking for an excuse to kill someone, who better than the one who’d fucked up the creature to begin with, no matter how unintentionally. However, if it was true, they had been in space for a hundred and fifty years, people might not even know who they were or what they represented even if he did bring the ship back. He’d never get paid, they’d try to off him for sure, and who knew what they’d come up with in his absence. They could have, bio-engineered dogs that tracked bio-engineered men and killed them. Illogical, but it could happen, humans were well-known for their integrity, no matter how hazardous it may seem to the rest of their world. He didn’t want to take the chance right now, however, this ship was not meant to last forever in space, much less as long as it had already. Now that they were consuming again, he himself ate near twice as much as the rest of them, they were going to start running low on supplies. Going on with their mission wasn’t part of his plan, not by a long shot, but with the appearance of the dragon, it looked like he had little to no choice on what was going to happen soon. He pondered, sighing softly and getting up, moving through the ship, searching for that probe he knew was around here somewhere. He finally found it, and pulled out the flash drive he’d snagged from his room, downloading the data and promptly walking back up to the Med Bay.

He stood outside the door, sighing, this was going to look bad, he thought, swinging the drive by the little cord. He walked in, Doc was still asleep, probably a good thing, he decided, moving to Robin’s containment room, “Hey, kid.” He said, peering through the window. The brat was still deep in VR, it seemed, so he’d have to talk a bit louder. He smirked, flipping on the comm, “HEY HALF-PINT!” He bellowed, startling the doc with a snort in his slumber, making Maya bolt up from her bed and Hyke roll over and groan. Robin whirled, detangling himself from his machinery and moving to the window where Draco stood.

“What do you want?” He snarled, his eyes darting to his wrists and obviously noticing that Draco was up and walking around. “How did you get out?” He backed away, his voice frigid, obviously frightened of the fact that Draco was free.

“I told you tiny, if I wanted to get out badly enough, I would.” Draco hissed, “I got something for you, something that might help you on your little plans.”

“You? Help? Don’t make me laugh.” Robin snarled, pressing himself against the wall.

“If it benefits me, then yes, I will help. Don’t be looking as if I’m fixing to do you in, there’s no benefit in it. If I do, your dragon pet’ll come after me cause you can’t fix the computer. Then where would I be?” He smirked as Robin saw the logic in this and pushed off the wall, now curious, but wary. Draco chortled, “I have the downloaded data from the probe, if you want it, computer man.” He held up the flash drive teasingly, watching Robin’s greedy eyes follow it.

“Give it to me.” He said finally with a sigh, “I’ll see what I can do.”

Draco beamed, though a sinister gleam still held firm in his eyes, “Glad to see we came to an agreement, now I could help you with the computer stuff if...”

“No! You stay away from it or so help me, I’ll kill you with my bare hands.” Robin snarled, bristling at Draco’s words.

Draco held up his hands, his mouth turning up at the corners, “I’d love to see you try half-pint. I’d love to see you try.” And he shoved the drive through before leaving the Med Bay and was gone.

As Robin waited for the memory card to cycle through the sanitization and purification process, a voice came over the intercom.

"Chance? Maya? Robin?" A pause. "Is anybody awake?"

"Uh, Jaci?" asked Robin.

"Robin! Than -- er ...."

The young systems analyst winced at the horrible, retching sound that interrupted whatever Jaci had been about to say. His own stomach rumbled a little in protest and he grabbed for a food packet and water to ease his dry, scratchy throat.

"Sorry 'bout that," said Jaci weakly.

"Um, sure. What's going on?"

"Did you get my note?"

"Note? No -- oh, wait, yeah, here it is."

"Is everybody okay?"

"That slimy piece of worm-shit Gabriel is out."


"He looks different. Hacked off his --"

"How'd he get out?"

"I don't know."

"What did he want?"

"Gave me a memory stick with what he said was probe data --"

"Probe? Shit!"

"Uh, what's going on, Jaci?"

"How'd he fucking know about that?" she muttered. "What'd he tell you that it's for?"

"He didn't. Only said it would help."

"Huh, don't know how it would help you, but Chance needs that stuff, it's info on the virus affecting the Fuzzies."

"The, uh, Fuzzies?"

"Aw, shit, hang on."

There was a slight click as Jaci turned off the intercomm on her end. Robin went to the cycler and hit the cancel keys. He sighed and tapped on the glass. "Chance? Chance!" He banged a little harder. "CHANCE!"

Maya, the closest, rolled over on her side, eyes opening. She screamed and started pulling against the restraints. "Dragons! Dragons! Run, Robin, Run!"

Chance stirred. He flopped his hand against the arm of his chair, needing three tries to sit up and look around.

"Maya?" he asked.

"Chance!" called Robin.

"Robin, what's going on?"

"Geez, Chance, are you okay?"

He sat back and closed his eyes.

"Chance? Hey!" Robin went to the door, but it was still locked from the other side. He cursed and started pounding on the glass again. Maya kept shrieking about dragons, dragons on all sides, waiting to eat her, perched over Hyke and by Chance, and there was one in decontam with him, Robin, didn't he see?

"Robin, you still --"

"Jaci! What the hell is going on?"

"Is that Maya I hear?"


"Crap. How's Chance?"

"Asleep, I think. No, wait, he's moving, he's just not answering."

There was a long pause.



"Was Draco sick?"

He peered through the window again. "Who?"

"The guy who looks like Gabriel but isn't. His real name's Draco."

"Oh. Sorry piece of shit ...."

"Jaci ...?"

"Chance! How are you doing?"

"Not great. I feel like something the cat dragged in after a late night carousing followed by the most intensive --"

"Yeah, okay, you've got a mission, man! Move your ass over to Robin and get that info."

"What information? Hell, Jaci, I can't even get out of this damned chair. Where are you?"

"In my quarters. Been here almost since I left there."

"Are you okay?"

"No, I'm fucking not okay!"

Chance rubbed his eyes. "Are you sick?"

"That or this purger is stronger than you thought. I swear there's not a thing remaining in my stomach, but I can't stop throwing up. Every couple minutes still."

"Fever, chills?"

"Yeah, think so. And I have to keep drinking water to keep from getting dehydrated, and, well, yeah, you can probably see where that's going."

"Are you okay? Uh, besides that, I mean."

"Yeah, but I'm too damned weak to get off the floor."

"Well, I can't do anything about that right now unless --"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you!" snapped Jaci. "Think, Chance! Figure out some way to get that mind working, because Draco found the probe and got the information from it! You've got to get working on this thing again, and hurry! I really don't know how much longer I can try to hock up my toenails."

"What's this probe you're talking about?" asked Robin.

"The probe, the thing that your mother found, it's here and I kinda remember, when my head's cooperating, some stuff in it that Chance needs to see. We all should see, really, but the more important -- crap, one sec."

"Chance?" asked Robin, staring through the glass as the doctor tried on several occassions to get up out of his chair. "You okay?"

"Do I look okay to you?" snarled the doctor. He fell back limply into the chair. "This goddamned thing has a death grip on me." There was quiet for a minute. "Shit, I don't think I've got the strength to walk on over there, Jaci."

The pilot came back on the line: "Dammit, and I can't stop throwing up long enough to get up there. Take me hours, and each minute matters. Robin, where's that blasted dragon, anyway?"

"I don't know. Is he causing trouble again?"

"No, 'least, not that I'm aware of. He can keep an eye on Draco, Robin. If he's not sick, then it's likely that he won't get sick."

"He's not sick? Hmm," mused Chance. "He's been in here as long as Hyke and Maya and me. You know, I think you're right, Jaci! Wow! Do you know what this means?"

"Um, guys?"

They paused and Robin scanned Med-Bay again. "Hyke!"

"Hyke?" asked Chance and Jaci at once.

"Is she --"

"Are you --"

"Awake, yeah, I am. What's going on? Last thing I remember is getting up to grab the sample out of the centrifuge. Why am I tied down?"

"You've been sick," said Jaci. "Unconscious for days."

"But I feel fine. Kinda weak, but okay. Uh, why's Maya looking at me like I've sprouted another head?"

"She's sick," answered Chance. "Same as you, only different. This thing seems to be affecting us all differently."

"Shit," said Jaci. "Shit. Shit. Shitshit!"

Robin and Hyke shared a look.

The pilot sighed. "You're going to have to ask that sonovabitch Draco for help."

Chance groaned, Robin scowled, and Hyke said, "Who?"

"I've got to go. I'll check in later, I --" The line clicked again and Jaci was gone.

The door leading into Med-Bay slid open and a stranger leaned against the doorjam, nonchalantly folding his arms over his chest. His hair was in tatters and the gray tanktop he wore showed a difference in tattoos. He gave them a cocky grin.

"I hear you need me."

Robin turned his back and lay down on his bed. He didn't know if he wanted any part of this.

Chance sighed and pointed to a wheeled stool in the main part of the bay. "Help me into that, please, Draco. You'll need to strap me down so I don't fall out."

"Oooh, tying up the doc, I love this game!"

He grabbed Chance and pulled one arm over his shoulder, helping the shorter man into the chair. Draco knew where all the supplies were, especially the rope he'd previously used and fastened the doctor securely, but leaving his arms free. Chance hardly noticed, head already lolling back against the chair, eyes closed.

"Hey," said Draco, patting his cheeks. "Doc. Chance. Wake up, you have to tell me what you want next."

"The probe data," slurred Chance, "and take me over to Hyke, I need to see her. Grab that tool there, and, oh, damn, I can't hold the thing, you do it. Yeah, hold it over her head, push the green -- no, the green button -- and run the scanner over her body, slowly, no, too slow. Okay, show me what it says."

Hyke, watching all this with worried eyes, said, "I can read it, uh, Draco, let me see."

He turned the device over so that Hyke could see the display. She frowned.

"According to this, my hypothalamus is inflamed. Temp at 105, blood pressure far lower than normal, even for me, and my heart rate is also slow. Huh. According to this I should still be asleep."

"Can you get up?" asked Chance.

"I think so. I mean, I feel fine."

"Draco, release the restraints." He closed his eyes again to think, and woke up blinking groggily. "Eh?"

"Falling asleep on us again, Chance," said Hyke, crouching over him. She showed him the scanner. "Look, your vital signs are almost the same as mine."

Chance rubbed his head. "I can't concentrate. Damn it. Draco, get that probe data, I need --"

"Probe?" asked Hyke. "You mean you guys found the message sent by the Fuss -- oh, crap!" She smacked her forehead. "Of course! Oh my god! Chance! Where did you get that test tube you gave me?"

"I ... had it. What is that stuff?"

"That was a sample of whatever is affecting the aliens! You know the aliens we're going to save? Somehow, when I reanimated the matter, I released the virus." She chewed her lip. "Or it's adapted somehow. Where are your notes from your experiments on Hephaestus?"


"Chance, Chance, you got to think for me. I know jack about human biology, but I can help you find the cure. And if I'm right about this, then I'm in the final stages and we don't have a heckuva lot of time."

"Final stages?" asked Draco.

"And you're not sick!" exclaimed Hyke, stabbing her finger in Draco's chest. His eyes narrowed. She didn't notice. "We've got to test your blood! I know what the virus looks like, we can see if you've got it."

"Hell, no!" I'm not going to be another guinea pig! Forget it!"

"Stop it!" croaked Chance. "We need something fast, and if your blood's the way to find a cure in a hurry, Draco, then we need it. You could save all our lives."

Draco stared from Chance to Hyke to Maya and back to Chance. "I ...."

"Where's the probe data?" asked Hyke. "Watch that first, and then you can make up your mind."

Draco nodded and in a few short minutes Hyke had one of the main screens in Med-Bay operating. The three stood back to watch. Robin stood at his window. This is what they saw and heard:

We are the Fussrapth Thnaphthl Pthpth.

[picture]Bipedal humanoids, stocky build, average height 1.75 meters, weight 45 kilograms. High-domed heads with wide mouths and a double row of sharp teeth. They are furred, resembling cats with their oval, yellow eyes and triangle-shaped ears. Five-fingered hands, retractable claws, longer claws in feet. Tails that curl. They wear a version of overalls, toolbelts at their waists, bare feet. The patterns of color in the fur seem to denote something. The 'cats' that seem older have a more defined, complext pattern.

We are from Jahss.

[picture]Small, green moon orbiting a proto-star, a gas giant approximately forty times the size of Jupiter, one of three moons. The system orbits a binary system. One is a normal, blue-whie star, the other is a black hole. It sucks gas off the star in a whirling stream of matter, swirling around the hole's accretion disk before vanishing beyond the event horizon.

Then the Regnant came.

[picture]Lizard-like in appearance, two and a half meters tall, bi-pedal, smooth-skinned, covered in bony plates resembling scales. No tail, dark, pupil-less eyes, red-rimmed nostrils. Three fingers on each hand, wearing loose pantaloons of an indeterminate fabric, loose shirts over that, belted at the waist. Boots obscure the feet.

That's what we called them. We never learned their names or where they came from. They brought us here.

[picture]A massive ring-structure is built around a rapidly-spinning black hole. Estimated size is 45 times the mass of Sol. The hole iteself does not appear to be symetrical, more like a squashed circle or ellipse; it bulges at its equator and is flattened at its poles, like a pumpkin. The centrifugal force of the hole's spin, pushing outward, creates the bulge and its flattening. The structure itself, the ring, has a circumference of 5 million kilometers, a thickness of 552 kilometers, and a width of 4000 kilometers, a behemoth of staggering proportions. The ring evidently extracts energy from the hole in some way and the ring rotates around the hole, providing gravity to those living in the ring.

Then the Regnant vanished. We have lived here for many hundreds of generations, carrying out our strange benefactors' work, studying this creation and learning its ways. Now we, too, must seek out replacements in this duty.

[pictures]Images of curving corridors filled with cots, drawn faces, and bustling medics. Hospitals are filled to bursting, overflowing in the main areas of the ring structure. Funerals, small oblong shapes pushed out in a trajectory leading directly into the black hole. Worn, grieving faces. Then the sick: hair falling out in clumps, spiraling patterns fading and disappearing, panting through dry, partched lips, swollen tongues and blue-cloudy eyes. Claws are so soft they bend, tails no longer curl. The ill curl up in circles, their version of the fetal position. Large, small, old, young, the disease does not seem to have any barriers, running amok amongst the people.

We need help. We are not so clever as our predecessors, we follow their instructions, unable to deviate from them for fear of what we do not know. Our doctors cannot find a cure for this debilitating disease. But our mission must not fail.

[pictures]The images change to suited figures tending grayish-white, oblong shapes, resting upon what appear to be padded stools. The figures move between the rows, turning each egg manually, carefully, reverently, before moving to the next. Close to the inner side of the ring, the gravity is heavier and the figures move slowly and determinedly, the rows extending over the arch of the ring in either direction. Thousands and thousands of the eggs.

We have sent out over a dozen of these probes, requesting any and all to come to our aid. At the rate of mutation of the disease, we estimate we have only a few more generations left before we, too, are gone. Help us!

[picture]The recorded message ends, replaced with images recorded by the probe's journey, passing through the dark, then the wormhole, passing through solar systems, past comets and asteroids, avoiding stars and collisions and finally passing through another wormhole and losing the last of its momentum, becoming trapped in the orbit of a dying sun. There the trail ends.

Sniffling caught Robin's attention. Ryu, in his holographic boy-form, sobbed silently, then turned and walked through a wall. Hyke and Chance looked at Draco.

"Holy shit."
Setting aside the gravity of the situation - conviently not realising that he and 'Draco' might soon be the only ones left alive - Robin took a moment to solemnly savour the bizarre nature of his world.

Then he yelped with glee and did a small victory dance around decontam.

"We are living in the space-opera future!"

"We're going to die in it, too," Hyke snapped, uncharacteristically sharp.

"Yeah, sooner or later, true. But I'd rather die of a space-plague than something boring and homegrown." Brought back to earth, Robin shrugged and relit his cigarette, dragging the pillows and duvet off the unused bed to make the floor more comfortable. "Anyway, if anyone still cares about our network, it's coming along."

"You should rest," Chance said, the effort weighing down every word.

"Probably," Robin agreed, before sliding the jack back into his head. "And you should get better, and Nibble should come back, and we should all be nicer to each other."

He switched the intercom volume down low, drowning out the frantic activity outside his little isolated room, and settled down to pick up the work where he'd left off. Once he'd explained to Ryu that, sometimes, it was better to be a little less elegant in your code in order that later you could understand what you'd done, the dragon had turned out to be not a bad help at all. He'd disappeared, though; hidden from the brief scan Robin could be bothered to do. He had little doubt the alien would turn up again later - brooding, when there was action to be taken, didn't seem his thing. In that at least they thought alike.

It was a brief hour later when the dragon came back, in the reptilian virtual skin he liked to wear. "I found your backups," he said, cautiously proud of himself.

"Of what?"

"All your code."

"Oh, those. I thought they'd gotten eaten by the worm."

Ryu shook his massive head smugly. "No, only the outside was damaged, but I managed to fix enough to get in."

Speed-of-light travel is possible, if you are conciousness in optical fibre; before he'd passed the second syllable of 'enough', Ryu and Robin were standing on the edge of a vast, high room, tucked away deep in virtual reality; so far that Robin could barely see the real world. Down here were the bones of his network, the important things that only he should ever see, and he couldn't help feel a twinge of jealousy that Ryu should have mastery, here, equal to his.

Dimly lit by the frenetic glow of passing electrons, the room was weighted with books; shelves upon shelves of tomes; a bibliophobe's worst nightmare given insubstantial flesh. A few here and there showed the tatters of worm's teeth scoring through their leather covers, but the damage was inconsequental. Robin was momentarily taken aback.

"You like doing this, don't you?" He said dryly. "The dungeons-and-dragons visuals."

"Don't you make things real as well?"

Shrugging, he summoned up a search and a catalogue to reassure himself that all was as he'd left it, so long ago. "Don't tend to, raw code works just as well for me. Well, this is neat - we can just resurrect the old shit to patch over the worst-burned places. Thanks for that."

The dragon shrugged. "You're welcome. Oh -" and they were back at today's work-site - "there's something I thought you might want to know." He hesitated in the face of Robin's curious silence. "Those eggs you saw, in that movie. Those are eggs of my kind." His tail lashed unconciously in anger and agitation. "That's where the rest of us are."

Robin took a moment to think this through. "Why've none of them hatched yet? Oh - yeah, they're not in the coronas of stars. So, what, someone's got your kind imprisoned? Why?"

"We are energy," Ryu said unhappily. "Energy that I suppose someone wanted."

"Jesus." Robin sat back, repairs temporarily suspended. "Right, so... the people who have your race imprisoned have called to us for help. My mum hears, moves heaven and earth to build this ship, and sends us off. We - well, that lot out there - then get the same disease as is killing off those that've got you guys under wraps. And... we're approaching their station?"

Ryu focussed on space for a heartbeat. "Not quite. You're on the wrong trajectory, but I can tell you where to go."

"...jesus." Robin was silent for a moment, then gestured in reality to the panic happening in Med. "Better tell that lot when they're not dying, then."
Snakes and vines. On her wrists and around her ankles. The jungles were a dangerous place in India, especially since the Jugantar had declared it kranti maidan—revolution ground--in their efforts to resist India’s inclusion in the South Asian Confederation and the abolishment of the varnas. Her father had always told her to stay away from the jungle, and she’d always listened. But she was here now…

Yes, Maya knew the jungle was a dangerous place to go, but she’d had no idea how dangerous. Armed guerillas she’d expected. But snakes and vines? She musta stepped carelessly; they’d wrapped around her tightly, so that she was stuck flat on her back, staring up through the trees at the bright sun that glared in her eyes like… like Med Bay lights .

She levered herself up as much as she was able to with the snakes and vines pinning her arms and legs down. A clear serpant had sunk its fangs into her forearm and was pumping some kind of clear venom into her vein, drop by poisonous drop. That must be why she’d been asleep, and why she felt so drowsy and weak.

Well, too bad. She was awake now, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to be eaten by some goddamn snake! Especially now that she was feeling stronger by the second. She’d bite the snakes off if she had to, and gnaw through those damn vines. Couldn’t keep her down! And she sure wasn’t gonna stay around for when the dragon-demon thing decided to steal her from the snakes, like stealing candy from a baby. No no no, she wasn’t dragon food, and not snake food either!

“Ungh,” she breathed, drawing her hands into fists and pulling her arms up toward her face with as much strength as she could manage.

“Woah, hey… no Maya, lay down,” Chance said when he caught sight of her sitting up. He was stuck in a chair under the canopy of a great tree, tied there by lots of writhing snakes around his chest.. They musta bit him too; he looked very pale and drowsy, and his head drooped as though it were too heavy for him to hold up.

“Sec, Doc,” she said, pulling again with all her strength. This time the restraints snapped and her hands were free.

“Ah, no, just what we need,” Chance moaned as Maya sat up and began pulling the vines away from her ankles. “Draco!”

Maya’s head shot up and she looked frantically behind her and then to both sides. “Dragon? Where? Where do you see it?”

“Draco!” Chance howled again, but even screaming his warning seemed to tire him.

Maya jumped away from the stone sacrificial slab she’d been tied to and hurried over to Chance’s side. “Don’t worry, Doc,” she soothed him, grabbing fistfuls of snakes and beginning to yank them away. “Dragons ain’t gonna eat us. These puny snakes might work for ‘em, keepin’ us here in the jungle an’ weak for ‘em for when they come back to eat us, but I think I’m immune to their bite or somethin’. Venom ain’t keeping me down anymore. There, you’re free. Now we can go find the ship, kays?”

Chance merely flopped forward without the snakes there. “Draco,” he murmured.

“What’s wrong with you?” Maya asked, catching the doctor before he could fall from his chair and carefully pushing him back so that he was balanced against the backboard.

Chance cleared his throat, lifted his head a little, and with more urgency cried, “Intercom: Draco!”

“What?” the dragon’s disembodied voice snapped.

Maya jumped. “No! What the fuck, Doc, don’t call the goddamn dragon! What you think you’re doin’?”

Chance ignored her. “Maya is free of her restraints and has removed the ropes you so graciously used to tie me to my chair. She is now preparing to take me from the ‘jungle’ before the ‘dragon’ eats us. Would you kindly come ensure she is properly restrained again and… um… sedated?”

The dragon’s voice grumbled, “must I do everything?”, but he sounded like he liked this idea.

“Thank you,” Chance sighed. “How are the rest of you doing?”

“Fucking great,” Jaci snapped, and then there was the horrible sound of retching in the background.

“Same old, same old,” Robin said anxiously. “When can I be let out of here?”

“The fact that you’re in there is the only reason you haven’t contracted this virus yet,” Chance told him. “Hyke? How are you feeling?”

“Great,” Hyke chirruped, but there was fear in her voice.

“We need weapons,” Maya said, looking around. “Maybe some of the guerillas had dropped their knives and guns…” She dug through the damp leaves and mud on the ground. Oh, there was one! It looked kinda like a scalpal…

“Draco!” Chance howled, struggling to sit up all the way and then collapsing sideways out of his chair. “Umph! Ow… Maya, put that down!”

Maya stared at him with the scalpal in her hand. Was the man crazy? “Doc, there are dragons here,” she explained calmly, beginning to dig through the leaves again. “We need to protect ourselves before they get here!”

“Too late, nutcase,” a voice hissed behind her as a scaled, clawed hand closed around her wrist. “Dragon’s here.”

Maya screamed and wrenched her arm away, backing a step away from the dragon and at the same time slashing at its fiery eyes. It was much faster than her, and merely leaned back a little away from the swipe, chuckling.

“Fiesty little loony, aren’t you? Now come to Draco..” He dodged another of her stabs, then blocked her swing at the wrist the next time and twisted sharply so that the scalpal fell to the ground.

Maya howled in pain and anger and, rather than trying to free her awkwardly caught arm, instead pushed herself into him with an enraged cry, making a point of driving her free elbow, her knees and her head into him as she shoved him back. His scaled hide looked tough, but he felt as soft and squishy beneath her blows as any human.

“Ow… umph, come here,” the dragon growled, releasing Maya’s wrist and wrapping both arms around her in a bear hug so that she fell with him as her shove drove him to the ground. They struggled there for a few moments, Maya screaming, cursing, biting, kicking, slapping, spitting, trying to gouge out his eyes with her fingernails and, when that didn’t work, reaching down with one hand to try to grab a fistful of dragon balls.

“Oh no you don’t!” Draco snarled, twisting away just in time. He pinned her to the ground for a moment, but she bucked under him, sending him sideways and away from her. She slammed a knee into his stomach as he went, and for a moment she was free.

She immediately began trench-crawling through the jungle toward the dropped knife.

“What is the problem, Draco?” Chance snapped from his chair.

“She’s really strong!” the dragon whined, grasping after her ankle and pulling her toward him and away from the knife the last minute.

“She’s an ill, five foot tall woman!” Chance said, aghast.

Draco sat on her and pinned both arms down. “It’s like she’s on drugs or something. Woman’s a lunatic.”

“Must be the virus. Just get her restrained and sedated,” Chance growled. “Then replace my ties.”

“Sorry, girlie,” the dragon told Maya, not sounding sorry at all. He pinned both of her arms to her sides with his knees, and then slammed his fist into her temple.

Pain exploded in her head, and Maya fell back limply as the entire jungle seemed to tilt sideways and get darker around the edges.

“Effectively sedated, Doc,” the dragon sneered, lifting her bodily and dropping her back onto the sacrificial slab.
Draco finished strapping Maya down again and pulled the blond up off the floor, dropping him back into the chair unceremoniously. He really did find this all too funny.

"Wait..." he didn't grab Draco's wrist so much and rest his hand over it, "Can you bring me my bag?" the soldier snorted and turned back to grab it, "I want to see if I can't come up with a serum." Hyke really didn't have time to wait for him to reach the same stage as her, and with the state the other two girls were in things weren't exactly going to get easy for Robin and Draco in the mean time.

"You can barely string a sentance together." the scientist hopped off of the desk and hovered over close to him. He managed to muster up the effort to drag the second, and at the moment last, dose of chase and held it out to Hyke.

"There's a, uh, catalyst thing, hydroxy... It's got blue." he gave up with the vocabulary. There was no reason he should talk any more articulately now that he normally did.

"This one." Hyke lifted the jar off the shelf, but it wasn't so much a question as a fact. She knew enough biology that mattered, and enough chemistry to understand what he meant.

"Hmn, then some pyrol from over by the desk. You want half... half as much of each of those and then just mix it all up. Shake it or something." Or were you suposed to stir it?

"Okay..." she said a little uncertainly. She was even less certain about it when the instructions resulted in an almost fluoresent shade of blue, "That really doesn't look healthy." The only way it could look more toxic were if it were giving off a pulsing glow.

"No it's perfect," he sat himself up as best he could manage, turning his wrist up, "Give."

"You're going to take this?" Hyke looked at him as though she'd just found her brother about to eat a peanut butter, lemon curd, chocolate spread, and jam sandwich. Even Draco looked less than convinced.

"Less talky more druggy." the blond insisted. She didn't look any happier about it, but hell, he was the doctor right?

He groaned deeply, feeling the itch burning where the needle cut into his arm. When she drew it away he massaged the prick and stretched out his spine. A soothing, cooling sensation slowly spread through his nerves, coaxing his muscles into responding with less complaint. Chance stroked his hair back out of his face and stood up a little unsteadily, turning on his console on the wall and pulling up the files on everyone that was infected as well as Draco's latest tests and the estimate map of the virus.

"Hyke there's a machine over there," not that he pointed or made any kind of gesture to show where 'there' was, "As soon I finish this you start mixing the serum in that. It'll come up here," he tapped the right hand side of the screen, "With the ratios."

Chance smirked just slightly to himself. He could feel the drugs soaking through his system and clearing away the draining ache, leaving him free to think. He started with taking every common trait from the different infections, disregarding anything and everything he recognised as symptomatic. It was a simple drag and drop of figures over his template, correcting and adjusting his model. Then came the points that were non-identical but with minor differences, continuing until the base frame of the virus began to reveal itself to his audience. The more he progressed the less obvious the answers became, but he was good at unpredictable. It was all about comparison and viability. This had to look like this over here, because that's simply what it had to be in order to work.

He tilted his head, stretching out the twinge in his neck. Chance smirked a little bit. Well that was just a little faster than he would have liked, but it couldn't be helped. He wasn't exactly at his best.

"Are you-?" Hyke started.

"Starting now, help her find the drugs Draco." he answered, not bothering to check if the man actually did. Right now he really didn't have the time or patience for bickering.

Of course, once you had your virus all drawn out like that you just had to figure out how to kill it. The easiest way to do that was to take the diagram of Draco's white-cells and immuno response, choose the bits that ... that could be replicated or induced, and .... and whip up a batch of miracle cure.

He paused, staring at the screen blankly for a moment.

"What now?" the soldier said gruffly.

A touch here, a touch there, a line through this and-

"When you're done, give about... um, twenty? To everyone that needs it." he walked back to his chair slowly, holding the arms tightly and leaning forward over it.

And while they were doing that he got the fun part. Which started with falling into his seat and crashing. Again.
The room was black, at first. In the darkness the sound of children sobbing came from all around. The little girl felt around herself and she touched the flesh of another child. It seemed as if there was no meat under its skin, only bone. He, she, it was crying into its hands as it rocked back and forth. Suddenly, light blossomed into being as a door slid open but was swiftly cut off again as another wretched soul was thrown in and the door closed once more.

Time had no meaning in the room of shadows, and Hyke slept, not that she could tell even when she was awake. The moaning of the other children eventually died off as the time must’ve passed. For awhile it had gotten awfully cold, so cold that some of the others hadn’t woken up from it. That was the last time she had seen the light.

The door had whisked open, to the side this time instead of into the ceiling, and two large men had come in and removed the sleepers. The other children cowered in the corner, shielding their eyes from the glare, all except for Hyke and a boy. He demanded to know what was going on, where they were and what they thought they were doing. She thought him very brave, but knew now that it was stupid. A sudden flash further illuminated the room, and the boy fell over, the burn still smoking in his chest.

He was gathered up by one of the men and rudely thrown over his shoulder, and that was it.


The dreams came now, every time she closed her eyes. Ever since she had collapsed in her lab, Hyke had been through never-ending nightmares and even though her body desperately craved rest, she was…afraid of what else she might remember.

Then she heard it, that same clattering that haunted her sleep. Like the thunder of a thousand booted feet, it kept growing louder and louder. A hiss behind her caused her to jump. Pinching her eyes shut, her heart pounding, and her hands trembling, Hyke refused to confront the terror that had gripped her.

“Lady Hyke?” came a disembodied voice, then a tug on her trousers. Sharp metal pincers punctured the fabric as if it wasn’t even there and nipped into the tissue of her shin. “Lady Hyke, your biosigns are highly erratic…Have you slept at all in the last 16 hours?”

The question was ludicrous. Hyke thought, her terror would never ask her about so simple a thing. It would just keep coming, never stopping. The pain, the pain! Hyke’s knees were shaking so hard that they gave out, and she collapsed into the fetal position, trying in vain, to protect herself from a remembered hurt.


Hyke slept again, when she awoke, her class was getting the results of the last round of tests they had taken. The pre-teens looked at the board each one desperately hoping that they had made the top. Figowitz, Fitzgerald, Germaine, Glenn, Haitat, ahh, there she was. Hyke: Chemistry: Organic 100, Metallic 100, Physics 100, Psychological 100, Metaphysics 98. Biomedical 85.

Hyke winced that hurt.

Engineering: Mechanical 98 - wince - Chemical 95 - ouch - Environmental 100 - that’s something at least - Organic 97 - okaay - Civil 99, Electrical 99, Communications 100, Electromechanical 100, Biomechanical 95...the list continued.

Then came the part she feared, roll call.

“Everyone, whose name I call proceed through the door. Everyone else, remain where you are.” The names were read out over the loud speakers and the faces of those called showed immense relief and they proceed through the doors to the common room of their choice. The rest stood rooted in their spots, they knew what was coming.

The twins appeared and the gorillas waved their rods at the children, they knew what to do. One young girl, only 6 maybe, broke down and cried. A rod pointed in her direction and Hyke grabbed her up quickly, but not before it could be fired. Pain lanced throughout her being, and the electricity ricocheted up her spine and spun her to the floor. The six year old, passed out and was roughly tossed into the females by the gorillas hand, he merely booted Hyke in her stomach.

Another door opened and other inhabitants entered. These young adults were mostly in their twenties, and they looked over the children as a rancher looks over his cattle. Not unlike they themselves had been looked at when they were in the children’s place.

“Take your pick, you know the drill.” The gorillas spoke in unison. With that, the tweens charged into the divided children and hauled off their choices.

Hyke was grabbed by a…man, and he hauled her up by her hair, “My, my, aren’t you a pretty thing. You should be good for a few hours…distraction.” his smile haunted her eyes, and she squeezed them shut trying to make them go away.

* * *

Draco looked down at the young woman, curled up beneath a desk in Med-Bay. Restless tosses had knocked a glass sample container onto the floor, where it had shattered, and now she was screaming. He sighed, wondering if he should put her back in her bed, now that it looked like her bout of consciousness were over.

Damn it, what’s wrong with these people? Don’t they realize the trouble they are in? Can’t they figure a way out? They are supposed to be the smartest people in the universe. He thought gloomily. And why won’t the freakin doc wake up? He turned his back but his enhanced hearing caught the skittering of metal on metal. Whipping around he thought he saw, what? Nothing, that’s what. Then it came again, closer this time. Turning delicately around, Draco hoped to catch the thing moving, but once more all was still. Shrugging his shoulders, he scanned the room but again saw nothing.

Turning his back on Hyke again, he readied himself and with a massive lunge spun and caught the, the thing, by two of its legs. Its other six began to stabbing into his hands, so he swung the thing into the table, scattering tools and equipment. He’d hoped to smash it apart, but it merely bounced out of his grip, and skittered down the table. Its eight powerful legs bunched up and it leaped across the room to land upon Hyke’s back.

“I don’t know what you are, but I need her alive, so get away!”

A panel popped up and spun to face him, “Then we have something in common. This is my Lady and I am her tool. My name is Joseph.” the panel bobbed, as if in some sort of bow.

“Wha…” Draco stammered. It was rare that he was lost for words, but the boldness of this little metal monstrosity was astounding. It merely looked at him, not as a foe but as an unknown. It was rare that that occurred to Draco. He was used to fear being in the eyes of his prey.

“Lady Hyke built me to assist her in her medical classes, and she wired into me a Life-scanner. Hooked directly up to her, I might add.”

“You talk awful nice for a stupid machine. But you haven’t explained why you are here.”

“My hardware compels me to her side when her vitals dip below a certain point. Please help my Mistress.” it pleaded.

“Wall, if yaw’re sa goo, why don’ yau fin’ a cu’e?” Chance slurred. Draco merely nodded in agreement. He had heard the doc stirring and the question was not unexpected.

“I am a manifestation of all the medical knowledge that my Lady was able to program into me, however, as my Lady has told me many times, she lacks the ability to program creative thought. Thus I am unable to think beyond my programming, and this virus does not even come close to anything in my records. Therefore, I cannot solve this riddle.” The spider covered up its screen with two legs as if it was ashamed.

“Little more than an automated text book, huh.” Draco muttered darkly while rubbing his hands, the punctures from the spider had been deep, almost into the bones. “Yet you have sharp claws.” opening a drawer in the desk, he withdrew a scalpel and waved it threatening at the spider. “I suppose you are also designed for defense.”

“That assumption would be incorrect.” It drew its two front legs up and the three claws on each one came together into fat points that would prove unsuitable for fighting.

“Incorrect!” Draco raged, “Then how did you manage this?” He waved his hands at the spider.

“You caught me unaware. A survival protocol was hardwired into me and your attack brought it out.”


“Dragons! Dragons with legs!” Maya screamed. “Get it off Hyke!”

“Dra’o, Ma’a” Chance collapsed back into his chair.

“What am I? An errand boy?” Reaching over he sedated Maya again. Looking at the syringe, he noticed that he had to inject more of the stuff than before for it to be effective. She’s getting resistant to it. He thought gloomily. On top of everything else, Chance’s periods of consciousness were coming in shorter intervals and for less time. Then there was Maya becoming resistant to these drugs, and that damn spider.

“What to do, what to do?”

Looking around, Draco sighed. Maya was unconscious ... Hyke was unconscious ... the doctor was unconscious .... Robin was, hmm, was whatever, and nothing had been heard from Jaci in a while. He was seriously the last member standing on the crew. This should have been a good thing. This should have meant he was on his way back to his employer, and for a seriously satisfactory chunk of cash.

Only, now, if he didn't somehow get these people moving again, they were going to die and he'd put a gun to his head before he stayed out here in the middle of nowhere for the foreseeable future. Alone. No, decidedly not a cheery thought. Now what?

He moved into the doctor's office and looked over the files on the computer. The first open document that popped up was Chance's journal. Handy. There were holes, missing spots, as he scrolled through, skimming for anything useful. Oh, bugger! The idiot has been dosing himself with Chase? He drummed his fingers on the desk. There is, he thought with mounting trepidation, one thing I know how to do....

He rose slowly. Do I really want to do this? He ran a hand through his shortened hair, staring at the doc. I'll be risking my life. I've only ever done this once, and that was for a sibling. I ... why am I even considering this? This is crazy! He slammed a fist and then looked back up. But I refuse to just give up and die.

Walking over to the cabinets, Draco gathered his materials. He lifted the doctor from his chair and put him on the bed he'd just recently vacated, then sat backwards in the chair himself and laid his arm beside Chance's, cutting, for the sake of time, the sleeve off the doctor's shirt.

Fuck, I hate needles!

In what seemed to be next to no time, Draco fell forward onto his other arm, drowsy and only semi-conscious as he turned his body into a blood filter. Chance's blood pumped into him; and his into Chance.

Like it or not, he thought groggily, you and I are about to be kin. Heh. Blood-brothers. How quaint.

*          *          *

To Jaci, the door leading to Med-Bay took on something of a sheen, like a mighty, valiant quest finally completed. She sagged against the wall, dizzy and exhausted. Maybe if the damned dragon would stop jiggling the ship she wouldn't be quite so nauseous! But she had no more voice to yell at him -- or it -- or whatever. Stupid dragon ... stupid eggs ... stupid, damned virus ....

She reached the door, or, rather, lurched into the wall next to it and mentally added yet another bruise to her collection. She palmed the lock and staggered inside.

"Dragons! Dragons!" screamed Maya.

Yeah, thought Jaci, I'm with you on the kill all dragons bit. Where is everyone?

Med-Bay was eerily quiet. A low moan coming from one of the corners attracted Jaci's attention first. She saw a foot sticking out from under a desk, and a small, boxy contraption resting nearby. With a couple pauses to heave the nothingness that was in her stomach and wipe tearing eyes, Jaci managed to make her way to Hyke's side.

"Warning!" said the mechanical gadget by Hyke's feet. "Life signs at 52% of standard."

Jaci dragged Hyke out from under the desk, taking care to avoid the broken glass. Still as flushed and hot to the touch as Jaci remembered, Hyke twitched from time to time, muttering in her sleep.

"Phylogenetic implications of ... Type 3 polypeptide ... isolated ... analysis based upon ... unresolved clade ... sister to the Caudata-Anura ...."

"Uh, yeah," muttered Jaci dryly. With a hand on the desk, she left Hyke to her ramblings and hauled herself back up on shaky legs. A brilliantly-colored picture flashed on one of the screens, two figures she dimly remembered from a biology class long ago as DNA strands. Several areas had arrows pointing to them.

ANALYSIS COMPLETE flashed at the bottom. NEGATIVE.

"And whatever that means." She turned back to the console Hyke had been working at, but there was nothing she understood there, either, beside a word or two. She held onto the desk as another wave of nausea shook her, glancing up blearily and seeing, as if from far away, Maya slip her restraints and run at the door.

Blood dripped from the mechanic's wrists and then from her face as she made full-on bodily contact with the door. She screamed and bashed the controls with a fist. Groaning and grumbling, the doors slid about half-way open. Now staring in amazement, Jaci saw the slight woman grab both halves of the door and push them into the wall. In another instant she was gone.

Oh, crap.

"Life signs at 51% and falling ...."

The little computer's voice seemed suddenly very loud.

"Eggs! Data file from the wall, Nibble, where's the --"

Chance sat up. He instantly regretted that little maneuver as his head spun. He closed his eyes for a minute, breathing slowly, running a mental checklist on all the things that seemed wrong with this picture. It's too quiet. I'm not in my chair. I'm awake. My arm hurts ... Oh, god! My arm hurts.

Turning his head, his eyes couldn't at first make sense of the tubes and taped-on needles, but his body reacted to the labored breathing and deathly pale face of the man slumped over beside him.

"Shit! Draco!"


He paused for a second, pressing cloth to the bleeding jabs in his arm. He scanned Med-Bay. "Jaci?"

She freed a hand to give him a half-hearted wave. "Here, Chance. What's going on?"

"Is that some kind of joke?"

Jaci laughed a little. "Please tell me you have good news?"

At least Draco had thought to drag down bandages and Chance wrapped up both their arms while he thought. "I don't know, Jaci, maybe." He stared at the screen. "Latest analysis proved inconclusive, but I just remembered something."

Carefully standing up, Chance gave Draco an almost fond look and made his way back into his office. There, just where he'd left it, was the mysterious box Nibble had found. He pushed back the lid and regarded the data file.

"You, Joshua, or whatever-you-are, come here."

"Life signs at --"

"Shut-up and come here."

Jaci recoiled as the boxy device by Hyke's feet seemingly sprouted legs and scuttled across the floor. "What is that?"

"A textbook," Chance replied distantly. "Jaci, I need you to do something for me."

"Just please tell me you don't need me to walk anywhere?" She tried to smile, but she was just far too tired for humor.

"Actually," the doctor gave her a guilty look, "yes. I need you to go into Hyke's lab and fetch back the sample she was working on. Mine's lost, and I need it."

"What happened in here?"

"If we all live through this," he replied, grabbing the spider-computer, "I'll let you know."

*          *          *

Robin and Ryu took a break in the playground, swinging silently on the swings.

"We've looked everywhere," sighed Robin. "Where can he be?"

Ryu made no reply.

"Where did you find him?"

The blonde-haired boy looked up, feeling Robin's sharp gaze. "What?"

"When you got trapped, in the ship," Robin continued, "how did you and Nibble meet?"

Ryu frowned, thinking. "I was ... exploring, wandering through the circuits." He let his mind wander back to those times, of the mysteries and adventures he'd had, puzzling out this great machine he'd found. "There were so many things to see, and to do. I spent years, of your time, learning them all." He'd unconsciously closed his eyes, and he frowned again, a slight pursing of the lips, a quirk of the brow. "I went through the ship piece by piece, I wanted to see it all, the last bit ... oh!" Eyes flying open, he stared at Robin. "Guidance and navigation!"

"What?" asked Robin. "There's nothing wrong with that. The worm didn't get in."

"That's where he was hiding!" exclaimed Ryu.

In a burst of color that had Robin blinking, Ryu shifted back into his dragon form and dove back into the circuits of the ship. With a sigh, Robin followed.

<Ryu?> he called. <What are you blabbering about?>

Within the star-dragon's imagery, the entrance into the guidance and navigation system was an island fortress, guarded by a magma moat, lava monsters, and a myriad of other protections that had Robin gaping.

<What, were you expecting a siege?>

Ryu laughed. Laughed! He landed on the edge of the cliff and crouched down to all fours. <Get on.>

<I beg your pardon?>

With a flip of his wings, Robin saw a saddle materialize on the dragon's back.

<Get on. It's the only way across.>

<And why are we doing this?>

Ryu's grin faltered a little. <As hard as it is to get in there,> he bobbed his head at the castle, <it's harder to get out.> He lifted his head and trumpeted. <We're coming, Nibble!>

<Oh, for pity's sake!> Robin, gingerly, climbed into the saddle.
Maya didn’t have any weapons. Well, she had her knife, but that wasn't enough. There were a couple dragons loose here in the jungle, and she needed to find and kill them before they wandered out of the deep forest and into a city. Peoples’ lives were at stake; she needed to find something a little more deadly than her switchblade.

The Jugantar were here, somewhere. They had been driven into the jungles some three or four years earlier by the soldiers of the South Asian Confederation, and there they had regrouped, licked their wounds, and begun to set up secret bases from which to launch attacks upon the Confederation-aligned Indian cities which bordered the jungle. The Confederation always said it should just level the entire forest and be done with it, but the Indian people would not have that either; the Jugantar was definitely a serious threat, but not so serious that India was willing to destroy one of its national treasures, a symbol of Indian history and heritage.

Thus was Maya surprised, but not overly so, when she stumbled quite by accident upon a Jugantar base. One moment she was tromping through the woods, knocking aside dangling branches, tripping over roots, and kicking rocks out of her path. The next, as she tore a heavy wall of vines and leaves out of her way and passing into the darkness beyond them, she found herself quite suddenly standing within a heavily fortified bunker.

Immediately, she dropped into a roll and tumbled behind a consol table, sure that any moment now bullets or laserfire would rain down upon her from the base’s occupants. But as she crouched, breathing heavily in fright and murmuring, “Shit shit shit,” over and over again, it gradually became apparent to her that she hadn’t been seen. In fact, as she cautiously rose to her feet and peered over the console table, she realized that there wasn’t even anyone here. The bunker was abandoned.

For a moment she stared at the console beneath her hands in confusion. A Class Z30 weapons console was more than a little overpowered for a Jugantar base; it was the kind of console installed in only the latest ships. But then again, the revolutionaries were known for stealing technology whenever they could and using it for their own ends. She remembered a news story coming over the g-Player a few months back, detailing how a surprisingly small group of Jugantar terrorists had robbed a high security bank and managed to transfer funds to an unknown location before being gunned down by the bank security. If they could get in and out of a Confederation bank, she supposed they should be able to steal a Class Z30 weapons console from a ship.

But still. Weird.

A shiver of excitement and elation crept up her spine and it was all she could do not to giggle in glee there on the spot. If this base had a Class Z30 console just sitting there for anyone to use, surely it would have all kinds of nice weapons she could use to kill dragons!

Sure enough, after she crept out from behind the table and began slapping open various cabinets, palming any access panel she could find, and ripping one out of the wall when it told her ACCESS DENIED, she found not just one weapon, but a whole bunch of them.

She didn’t even know why the Jugantar had some of these weapons. Guns, tasers and knives made sense, but what was with the swords, axes, hammers, and, of all things, frying pan? Still, a wide variety of weapons was better than just one or two, and Maya took her pick at leisure, dropping a switchblade into her pocket and slipping a shorter knife into her boot, grabbing a machine gun and a magazine of actual bullets, and finally, after some consideration, pulling an axe off of the rack to help her cut her way through the jungle.

Armed to the teeth, she wandered back out into the forest, murmuring softly under her breath, "Here dragons, dragons, dragons..."
<Ryu,> Robin broke the digital silence as they soared above a river of sixty-four-bit lava. <There is something I feel I must explain.>

<Go on.>

<While I deeply appreciate your help in repairing my system, and am almost touched - when not being singed - by the care you show for my A.I, they remain my system and my A.I. The visuals you overlay are wierd, but fail to bother me greatly. No, what bothers me is that this wasn't how I left G&N last time I was here. You've been dicking with my security, haven't you?>

<Yes,> the dragon admitted, wings flickering as he danced from updraft to updraft. Behind the layer of cinematic effects, the alien was wading through layers of complicated system that, Robin knew, it would take him a while to fight through. <It wasn't invaded by the worm, so I wanted to keep it safe. Was that wrong?>

<Not as such, no. But this is my system, not yours, and it rankles that there should be anywhere I need your help to go.>

<You weren't around to protect the castle.> Ryu said flatly, landing with a scrabble of claws on a section of blue-grey slate roof. <I did what I had to.>

<Fair enough. But you should know that this is going back the way I set it, once we've finished clearing up.>


<Because it's mine.> Ryu seemed to accept that, busy as he was with firing a bolt of searing code at an animated monster scuttling towards them. Robin swatted irritably at the visualisation before climbing, resigned, into his sorceror-skin, and blasting the nearest roof-access door off its hinges. Once inside the sheltering dark, he paused to summon up a swarm of chittering find- functions, and sent them before him to chart the maze that unfolded in six dimensions; so opaque, this far away from reality, that it seemed the cool medical sterility of decontam was the dream.

Somewhere in here, Nibble was wandering lost and weeping. Levitating absently out of the way of the third spike trap in a row, Robin switched his functions' priority to finding the control room that must lie at the heart of this place. That should make life a little easier.
When Jaci returned with the sample Chance sat her down in his infamous chair to let her rest before turning to work. To start with he shook off a portion of the powder, enclosing it inside a transparent container and pulling his case from inside the wall. Jaci opened her mouth to ask, but he didn’t really hear her and set the box down beside his sample. Okay, so the first sheet in here was a map of…. Yes, that looked mostly like the virus he had drawn on the screen. Of course the serum on there was gibberish, and there was no real work on the cure in the notes he’d brought from Hephaestus. Years enough had gone into identifying the virus and attempting to map the hosting species; they’d never considered the possibility of it leaping to humans.

”Dr. Leith and Mr. Kyle?”

The pun was received with a disapproving look from Mr. McCallum and it was well deserved. It had been an incredibly poor link. Dr. Hughes coughed lightly as though awkward moments were fragile enough to be shattered by them.

“Well, I asked you both here because of Chance of course,” he gestured to the blond teenager, just in case they had forgotten about the sulking heap in the corner, “Now after reading your initial notes on the patient, and in consideration of recent events-“

“He wants to look at my brain.” Chance interrupted, his knees drawn up onto the chair and his arms folded over the top.

“It is hardly as though I am going to open your skull.” Hughes answered, “As a neurologist you abnormal functions intrigue me and it is only natural, and prudent to make a study of them. It could come to help you at a later date.”

“Abnormal functions,” it was Kyle that spoke this time, “Meaning something is wrong or something is different?”

“Merely different. For example-“ Hughes stopped there and smiled. The teenager pushed back the urge to throttle the patronising ass, “What is it that you do Mr McCallum?”

“My son specialises in cryotherapy,” grey eyes turned Hughes as Kyle spoke up again, thoroughly disenchanted with the neurosurgeon. He hoped like hell that his boy didn’t turn into this much of an ego-preening moron, “And I transport people between the Thera planets.”

“A pilot. Well-”

“No. I own ‘Astral Recall’, and if weird is not the same as wrong, there is no reason for me be to be here.”

Chance pressed his fingers to his eye lids and shook his head clear of the dizzy spell. Oh he was going to be almost as fun as Maya later on. He scanned through the sample of Draco’s blood and then a sample of his own. Sure enough Draco’s antibodies were hard at work both in his own system and now in Chance’s. The doctor’s white count wasn’t encouraging however and the soldier’s had taken a hit from the transfusion. Nevertheless it gave him what he needed. Between the two samples and the maps of both the original virus and the new he just had to identify the infection’s weakness. And, of course, design a cocktail to take it down that wouldn’t be too toxic to the patients. Jaci had already been doing enough vomiting for all of them.

”Callum. McCallum.” Shaw planted his hands on the boy’s desk, leaning over it as the blond child finally looked at him, “What did I just say?”

“… My name?”

That twitch in the medic’s shoulder flickered again and his grip on the desk tightened, “Can you recite to me the procedure for cardiac arrest?” He was a patient man, he really was and Chance tried to appreciate his instruction, but he was very hard to listen to and the aquarium display where the windows weren’t was very bright.

“Check for arrest, check breathing, check for DNR, begin chest compressions.”


The eight-year-old took a deep breath and thought for a moment, “then… defib? And adrenaline…”

“Pay. Attention.

Ouw. He pinched his wrist tightly to distract from the headache snowballing in his head, but concentration wasn’t a problem for once. Chance selected the last ingredient for his antivirus; synthed clones of Draco’s antibodies. Combined with the other chemicals for symptoms it should flush out the space-bug for once and for all. How long it took and how much help it would be to Hyke he couldn’t be sure, but he gave her the first dose and the second to Draco, waiting on a second batch before giving any to himself and Jaci. The remainder of the first he would hang onto until the second was ready, just in case he decided that Draco or Hyke needed another dose.
The LCD screen came to life and with it, her parents faces. Other people were in the background, waving at the camera that recorded the postcard. It was so strange seeing them with light grey hair, their bronze-red skin beginning to wrinkle, while she was just turning seventeen standard. They'd aged so much and she was still clinging to youth. They began to talk.

"Wira! We got a letter from Hermes saying you'd passed; congratulations, hun! We're so proud of you. We tried to get this card together and sent before you two took off again, so we hope you can reply back before then." Her mother started, shifting to her dad next. "Hey, hun, everybody misses you here at the colony and everyone says hi. Be sure to let us know when you'll be in the system next! We've got your plants ready for when that ol' man gets off your back and you can fly on your own."

Jaci laughed at this, remembering her fathers jesting mood when Hermes had officially decided to train her. The video continued, this time, with one of the old nurses from the NanoTech facility.

"Hi, Wira! Remember me?" The woman said, waving to the camera and flashing a grandma's smile. "It's Anna. Anna Grieg? Of course you remember me. I took care of you at the labs when you were with us. Anyways, your parents just invited me to put my two-cents into this little postcard and I just wanted to say hi and congratulations on your accreditation. Your parents seem very pleased and we all look forward to seeing you again when next you're in the system." Again the people rotated and a younger man than the others, maybe in his thirty's or forty's took the hot seat. He gave a shy wave and hello.

"Hey, Jaci, not sure if you'll recognize me now, it's been so long. We met about, mm, I wanna say twenty years ago, just before you joined up with those space-jocks..."

It took a moment as the man went on, giving the usual greetings and praise that others before and after had given before the name came to her. Indeed, they had met just before the old military pilot had taken her as an apprentice. Mark, Merrick, something like that.

"...Anyways, just saying hi and enjoying your family's hospitality and hope to see you again sometime. Good luck with your new career!"

More faces came and went, giving their own pleasant spiel before the vid-card ended with her parents again. "Well, babe, we miss you and wish you the best of luck. Write soon! And we love you." The video ended and Jaci clicked off the monitor, leaning back in her seat.

"My, you've got quite the family." Hermes chimed in unexpectedly, startling the brazillian and nearly falling out of her chair.

"Geez, Hermes, you scared me!" She cried and looked around at the aged old pilot who crossed his arms and stared back, grinning fiendishly.

"Serves you right for neglecting your duties. You missed some filters on the portside. Head up and get'm done." Well, so much for an easy afternoon...

"...n you sit up for me, Jaci?" Chance was saying. She must have fallen asleep at some point; her stomach still churned in its emptiness and still threatened to pull out her insides, or so it felt. The woman gave a groggy groan and pushed up in the chair, one hand pressing at her stomach.

"Find what you're looking for, then?" She asked hoarsely. The doc' nodded and presented a a needle filled with some fluid of some sort. "Ugh, 'bout time." Jaci joked, forcing a smile and holding out an arm. It was past time to be rid of this infernal thing and high time to be moving on. The pilot took her "flu"-shot and leaned back again in the chair, eyes closing once again and fighting down the wearisome nausea till this miracle cure could take effect. Somebody better hit the snooze.
The world was seen through a blurry, unfocused glaze, sounds seemed like they’d been put on slow to his ears, he couldn’t fight his way to consciousness unless he strained, what the hell had he been thinking? Why, dear gods above, why had he done it? He groaned, his head was pounding and he tried to sit up, but the protest from... someone, he couldn’t tell, pushed him back down like... like.... like he was normal. He growled in his throat, the urge to hit whatever had pushed he down was strong, but his exhaustion wouldn’t let him raise his fist. Someone said something and hands on his face, a light in his eyes and another growl slid out of his chest. “... the hell off me...” The weakness in his voice made the sound nearly unrecognizable as he struggled to get up again.

“Draco, you’re weak, please lay down.” Chance’s voice, he thought. Bah, what did the doc know anyways? He forced his body to listen to him and opened his eyes, which felt like they weighed a hundred pounds, his body swaying, “Draco, please, if you fall, you’re not getting back up on the bed.” He warned and Draco had to fall back as he couldn’t support himself much.

He cursed colourfully, which, really, was only a slurred mish-mosh of syllables, but the doc obviously understood as he stuck a pillow under his head. Draco blinked lazily, forcing his eyes open again to look at the doc, he was looking better since the infusion, where as Draco was afflicted. Damn. He leaned back, breathing slowly, his eyes closing, but he forced himself to stay awake, “Anything, Doc?” He murmured, his eyes opening just a slit.

“There’s a cure in your veins now.” Chance replied smoothly, “Let’s hope it works.”

“It’s tough to kill me.” Draco said with a faint, tired smirk, very self-confident in his abilities, and his body.

Chance made a noise, it might have been a laugh, but Draco couldn’t tell, stupid virus.

It wasn’t such a struggle to keep his eyes open anymore, and he had better use of his body, he could flex his fingers and hum in the back of his throat. He could feel his lips now, and function his mouth, it wasn’t so blurry anymore and he could focus on the doc’s face, “Hey doc, how’s the prognosis?” He slurred quietly.

“Good, your recovery rate is a lot better than Hyke’s.” He said, checking Draco’s eyes and checking his reflexes, “Slower than, well, what must be normal to you, but pretty good compared to a humans.”

Draco snorted, “Thanks doc.” He muttered, pushing himself to sit up and stretching, “Damn, I need another shower.” He murmured, sniffing himself and wrinkling his nose, “God.” He breathed, tipping forward and bracing his hands in front of him, “You so owe me.” He growled softly as the haze began to clear and he was able to focus. He’d never been sick a day in his life, he supposed that it would take something ridiculous like this to make him this off his game. Fortunately for him, his immune system was battling this virus like.... like... well, something fierce. God he must be sick, not being able to come up with an appropriate simile for his virus.

Chance chuckled quietly, “Maybe a bit.” He said, as Draco gave the other a look before rocking back and pulling his feet up.

“Don’t be getting mushy Doc.” Draco muttered, “Might have to hit you and that wouldn’t be good for either of us. I’ll end up falling off and you’ll end up asleep again.”

Chance laughed, but moved out of range, “That would be terrible.” He said, “How do you feel?”

“Like shit.”

“Other than that?” Chance inquired.

“Like shit.” Draco said, looking at the other, “Did you not hear me the first time?”

“Well, I did, but...”

“No, I feel like shit. Worse than those seizures, at least those I could black out during.” He glanced at Chance, giving the other a heavy sigh, “I can see clearly, I don’t feel as sleepy, I ache, here, here, and here, my head feels fuzzy, like I’ve drunk too much almost, I think my speech is slurred, and I’m not nearly as mean I as I should be.” He rattled off like he’d done it a million times before. Certain things had a tendency to never go away, letting the doc know what might be wrong was one of those things. “But I’m awake, I can move, and my body’s starting to recover. My strength is returning as we speak, and I should be able to be up and moving in roughly...” He thought about it a moment, “Since I had to think about it, an hour.” He looked at the doc, “Huzzah for super-advanced immunity. What’d you give me?”

Chance flashed the other a small smile, “An antidote.”

“Oh, so you did find something. Good, good.” Draco said, lacing his arms over his head. He winced, wrinkling his nose, “That can wait after I shower.” He murmured, folding his hands over his abdomen instead.

“Oh, when you’re feeling up to it...” Chance glanced at the door, “Um, Maya’s run off... she’s a tad delusional, so...” He looked at Draco again, “I might need you to fetch her.”

Draco frowned, “Of course, send me to get the crazy chick, who could rip me of my manhood if I’m not careful, thanks doc. If something happens, your ass is sewing it back on. And making sure it works.” He glared at the blonde who gave him a wide-eyed stare before returning to check on Hyke.

“I dosed her with the antidote too, but I think she might need more of it, she’s not responding well.

“ ‘Zat so?” Draco said, already plotting how he could take down Maya while keeping her hands away from his bits, their last tussle had given him some insight on her strength. Ideally it would be him knocking her out cold, but if she was more resistant to his blows, then he might have to pin her down and deliver a few of them to get her down. If she’d found weapons, that would also be a problem, knives were scarier than fists, guns were scarier than knives, lasers would suck even more. If she was armed he’d have to disarm her, then he could lay her out. Yes, he would fetch her soon enough, just not now, he was comfortable, and for now, he’d bask in his comfort.

The elevator doors slid apart and the old man accompanying her stepped to the side to reveal a humongous vessel. Granted it was only the third time Hyke had seen a spaceship, but even so it was huge. The oblong thing sat in its cradle and a huge other “thing” was crawling along the hull. It appeared to be replacing a panel of some sort…

“So, what do you think of the Andromeda?”

“That’s it? The thing is huge!” exclaimed Hyke.

“She’s 298 meters long, 106 meters tall, and 148 meters wide. All in all, we thought her small for the mission she’s about to embark upon.”

“Small huh?” Hyke grunted. “It looks fraggin’ huge. So tell me, what is that walker thing?” pointing to it.

“Oh, that. Well you’ll meet our pilot later, I’m sure she can tell you all you want to know about it.”

“That didn’t answer my question.”

“Yes well,” he clapped his hands together, “Questions later, okay?”

“Sure, whatever…” glancing back, Hyke saw the thing stand up and move off across the ship.

“Ahh! Robin! Could you come here for a moment?” A young man with deep black hair strolled over.

“Sure Doc, what’s up?”

“I just wanted you to meet the newest member of the crew of the Andromeda.” The old man leaned over and whispered into his ear. “Mostly on your information of course, but as soon as I’d met her, I knew she would be perfect for the job.” Hyke, of course, was not meant to hear any of this, but thanks to one of her “little” friends - this time a small beetle that doubled as a hearing aid - she heard every word.

“So, you’re the one that I keep getting told about that is some sort of super-computer-geek, huh?”

“That’s me. Ya know, I built Nibble?” He was obviously boasting about his A.I. thought Hyke.

“That’s what I hear.”

“From what I hear, though, you have a few toys of your own?” he inquired.

“Joseph. Shoulder.” with those words the silver belt that Hyke wore retracted its legs and a small protrusion appeared on one end. The thing then climbed up her front until it perched upon her shoulder, whereupon a panel popped out of its back, and two beady eyes glowed green.

“Wow!” Robin was surprised, who knew this, this girl could build something like that. He of course, knew who she was, but she had never gotten to know him better than his cybername <zero>. “What all can it do?”

“Well, I,” Hyke placed one hand upon her chest and struck a pose, “am a genius, but even geniuses have problems, and mine focused on the…medical aspects of school.”

“So, My Lady built me.” the soft tenor cut it.

“It speaks?” the old man was clearly shocked, he had seen the thing before but it had never spoken.

Twitching a back leg, Joseph answered, “My Lady built me as a receptacle for the knowledge contained in her texts.”

“So you cheated?”

“Only when I needed to.”

Robin looked away while a shadow crossed his face, “Why?” he demanded.

“If you knew the punishments for not being the best, you would do whatever it took to win.” Hyke looked away, her every contour radiating shame.

Doctor Abramowitz is going to have fun with this one, thought Denens, she has more secrets than the government. Wondering if she would really pass the tests, Dr. Denens said to the two teenagers, “Well, Hyke it’s time to go meet another member of the staff here.”


Hyke was shivering under the desk by the time Chance got around to her. She had cut herself on some of the broken glass, but she wasn’t bleeding all that badly. The spider, thing, had left him earlier, and returned to his, hmpf, his vigil upon Hyke’s left shoulder. Tying a strand of rubber tubing around Hyke’s upper arm, the Doc was momentarily distracted by the spider‘s sudden rush from one shoulder to another. Chance swiftly withdrew his hand as he had cut his finger upon a chunk of broken glass.

Chance undid the tourniquet and removed the needle from Hyke’s arm, hopefully she would soon be coming around to the world of the living. Meanwhile the spider beeped at him as it sat upon her shoulder.


Hyke’s room aboard the Andromeda was fully moved into and she felt it time to explore the ship in its fullest. She started with the cargo bays and moved through them, familiarizing herself with the locations of all the stuff that she might need in the coming voyage. Then she moved up to weapons, or she would’ve if it hadn’t been locked. Shrugging her shoulders she turned and went off to explore engineering.

Inside that maze of mechanical entities, she found that whatever it was that powered the ship was completely out of her depth. There were basic parts that she recognized, but for the most part it was brand-spanking new. She told her little memory book Mems, to record a message that she needed to talk to the engineer, Maya was it? before she departed.

She wandered for a while in the hydroponics farm, touching the various plants, enjoying the shade the trees cast, and feeling the simulated breeze ripple her blouse and shift her hair. It was down, normally she had it in a tight bun, but with her new life she was toying with the idea of an “image makeover.” Plus, she liked it when it drew Robin’s attention, which it did whenever it was down.

Sighing, she levered herself up from the bench she had been sitting upon and headed up one more deck. She swiftly found it empty, and her lab. It had been lived in for a several days as she had worked to accustom herself to the workings of the ship. She had poured over schematics, blueprints and all manner of documents that pertained to the vessel and her crew. The ship, the Andromeda, she corrected herself, was supposed to be exceedingly fast, and if she did manage to get into a situation where force was required, was heavily armed.

Turing aside from the blackened panels and the mountains of as-of-yet-unread information, Hyke skipped the next deck and went to the bridge. She had just settled into her panel when all hell broke loose. Alarms started ringing and sirens screamed at her. Furiously, Hyke stabbed at the panel trying to figure out what was going on. She had just barely managed to realize that the auto-destruct had been initialized when the pilot rushed onto the bridge with Robin following right behind. Was something going on between those two, wondered Hyke.

“Hang on to your pants, folks.” came Jaci’s voice over the comm.

The bay doors started opening ever so slowly, revealing the monstrosities on the other side and the scattering of stars that could be seen through them. Hyke caught herself holding her breath as Jaci whipped the Andromeda around asteroids that could’ve mashed the ship and not even have noticed. Coming awfully close to one particular ‘roid, Hyke gasped and pressed her hand to her mouth to keep from screaming.

Then they were out.

I don't like this place! Nibble thought, not for the first time.

The gray, stony walls went on and on in all directions, dark and cold, the air heavy and moist. Creepy. Definitely creepy. A small sound from above his head made him jump, but when he looked there was nothing there. He rubbed his arms and moved on.

Having no idea where he was, his only choices were to try and find a way out or to somewhere else, or wait around until something decided to try and eat him or someone else found him. He'd decided to look around, learning to double-check each step, each little indentation on the wall as ceilings fell or the floor dropped away or walls inexplicably smashed together. And those were the easy ones. He couldn't seem to move through the walls, although random creatures and plants seemed to have no difficulty. He was barefoot now, having lost both shoes in a corridor where the floor had turned to quick-sand, and bleeding from a dozen or more bites and scratches and other things. Calling for help only brought more monsters, so he tried to sneak his way along as quietly as possible.

Wait. Crap! I think I've been here before!

He paused, staring at the rusty-red smear on the T-shaped intersection directly ahead. If he was right, then there should be a body still lying just to the left of that corner. He started to tip-toe forward, and then paused again, hearing a schlurping-crunching noise followed by the sound of something being dragged, first closer, and then further away.

He crept forward, millimeter by millimeter, to peer warily around the corner. He zipped back, leaning against the wall, one hand over his mouth to keep from gagging. The monster he'd squewered, back when he still had his sword, was now being ripped apart and eaten by two more. So now he had to decide whether to wait and hope they went away, go back, or take his chances down the other side. He didn't want to go back, he'd only barely made it past the lake and the giant crocodile. Just the mouth of the thing was larger than Nibble was tall. It's teeth were as long as his arms. No-no! Definitely not going back.

He rubbed a dirty arm across his tired face. I don't think I can out-run those things, and my sword got broke. What do I do?

Leaning around the corner again, Nibble watched the vaguely dog-like monsters bicker over their meal. It was possible he could get down the other way without being noticed, there was another turn that way, and every minute he delayed was another chance that the monsters would start sniffing around for more food.

Shaking and trying not to breathe, Nibble tip-toed to the other side of the passage, darted up the corridor from the 'dogs,' and slipped in what he thought was a puddle of goo. The monsters looked up at his startled cry, mouths dripping open, tongues lolling, red eyes flashing evilly in the dark. Forgetting the whateveritwas eating the skin on the bottom of his foot, Nibble ran!

He hadn't been down this passage yet and the dogs gained on him with every agonizing step. And then the bottom went out of his world. Putting his arms in front of his face as he fell, Nibble screamed.

*          *          *

Ryu held off the slimy mud-puddle as Robin forced the lock on the control room.

"There! Come on, Ryu!"

Blasting the creature with some more dragonfire, Ryu dashed after Robin, slamming the door after. Robin dropped the wood bar in the slats as a final measure. Then he glared at Ryu.

The dragon slumped back into his human boy image and sat down against a wall, panting, one hand pressing on a bleeding gash on his thigh. "I don't remember it being quite this bad, before."

"Uh-huh," Robin grunted, changing out of his wizard robes. "Lights."

Both boys were drenched in sweat, injured, and very, very tired. Under the bright, flourescent glow of the reassuringly modern lights, they took stock of one another grimly. But Robin shook himself back to the matter at hand, hands pushing his hair back, and strode over to the bank of computer terminals. In seconds, the computer hummed to life, the main screen lighting up.


Robin typed in his password.


"Sonofabitch! Ryu!"

The blonde looked up from manufacturing a bandage out of his shirt. "What?"

"What's the password?"


"Yeah, you stupid dragon, the password!" He gestured to the glowing screen behind him.

"Insults are not necessary," replied Ryu. "And I don't know."

"Do you mean 'I don't know' is the password or that you really don't know what the password is?"


"Never mind! Shit!" He sat down and raked a hand through his hair. He typed in a half-dozen words, all failures. "Fuck! Guess I'm just going to have to hardwire this thing."

Ryu limped over. "Can I help?"

"Don't you think you've 'helped' enough?"

"There's no need to be rude." He stepped up to the desk and Robin ducked underneath.

"Aw, dammitall! This is going to take forever!" came Robin's voice, slightly muffled.

"This looks like your ship's kind of stuff," said Ryu quietly. "I wonder ...." Placing one hand out flat on the keyboard, Ryu stretched his awareness out into the machine. "Ah!"

Robin banged his head on the underside of the desk as Ryu shouted. He scrambled out. There was no sign of the dragon. "Ryu?"

Ryu banged on the invisible wall in front of himself. "Uh ... Robin?"

"How did you get in there?" demanded Robin, staring up at the screen.

The dragon shrugged, scratching his head sheepishly. "I don't know. Where am I?"

"Can you come back?"

Watching Ryu bump around in his invisible prison was rather a lot like watching a really good mime. Only with sound effects.

"I take it that's a no?"

The dragon-boy stomped a foot and crossed his arms over his chest. "Apparently."

"Talk about poetic justice," muttered Robin. "Well, can you do anything?"

"Like what?"

"I don't know! Pull a rabbit out of a hat?"

"Why would you -- fine, I'll try." Holding out his palm, Ryu envisioned a tall, black tophat, with a satin ribbon around the brim and -- "Oh, look! I got a hat and," he reached inside, "a rabbit!" He looked out at Robin. "What do I do with it? Ow!" The white rabbit kicked, digging several scratches the length of Ryu's arm. He dropped the critter. "It scratched me!"

Robin laughed. "Okay, how about making yourself a door so you can -- wait! If you're in the computer, then can you tell me what the password is?"


The word flickered across the front of his glass prison cell.


"Wait, what?"

Robin was already typing. <HERMES>

"Ahh!" Ryu lurched out of the wall, tumbling to a halt on the floor beside Robin.

"Welcome back."

"Um, okay, thanks. I think."

Robin typed: <END PROGRAM>








Abruptly, the room around them vanished, becoming nothing but circuits and hardware.

"That's more like it!" said Robin.


Ryu held out his arms, catching the AI as he plummetted from out of nowhere.

"Ryu? Ryu!" He hugged his old friend, and then screamed, "Robin!"
Robin laughed, wincing from the force of Nibble's flying hug. "Wow, you look good," he said, managing sarcasm through a smile.

The bloodied and barefoot A.I boy stuck his tongue out. "So do you," he replied cheekily. "Anyway we have to go the monsters know where I am let's get out of here..."

"Monsters?" Robin looked quizzically at Ryu, then sighed as he understood what the crazy digitised demons he'd been fighting were. "Oh, I see. Goddam overactive security daemons... could be they got corrupted too, I never checked to see. Well, you're right. Give's a minute, this exec's secure but we're prey as soon as we leave."

"What're you doing?" Ryu watched with open curiosity as Robin waved his hands and shot pointed glares and occasionally said or sang a few curt commands; interacting with the code once his visuals had been removed looked pleasingly surreal to the alien.

Robin paused, gripping a fistful of distorted aether to hold it from squirming out of place before he could finish. "Making us a backdoor. Should deliver us to int-com, that's pretty safe." He thought for a second. "If you want pretty overlays, it's a secret passage to the road a ways outside the castle."

Ryu shook his head, and took Nibble's hand as the hurridly-coded door swung open behind Robin. "I'll be fine," he said stubbornly, looking into the no-space of the network's wormhole, wondering how dimensions and sensations he didn't have could be comprehensible to a mere human. The mere human led the way, leaping carelessly into the rough-hewn passage, and shouting the door out of existance behind them. All three felt the exhaustion hit them as the immediate danger began to fade; even light-speed travel seems slow when you're taking it at a plod. As they went, the virtual began to thin around them, from the deep opacity of the bone-level code to the shallowness of a user interface, so transparent it hung like a veil over a reality that was almost a surprise to see again. At last, the passage dissolved into the lightest and simplest of layers of virtual: internal communications.

"Nibble? Ryu?"


Robin paused and looked back, feeling like a zombie, trying absently to calculate when he'd last properly slept. "Can you guys do me a favour, and work out what still needs patching up? I've got some daemons lying around that should help - Nibble, you know Megatron and Bee, right? - so don't get into anything heavy, just compile me a list of things to fix. I crave a cigarette like no man has ever craved any addictive substance and then I'm going to sleep. Oh," he added, as an afterthought, "don't enable any user logins except mine, okay? Whatever anyone says they're not allowed in yet. Also, it's good to see you back, Nibs."

The boy grinned, and hugged him again. Robin winced, and shut his eyes against the distortion when he pulled the plug out of his tender port. Despite his need, he managed only half the cigarette before sleep claimed him.
Except for the comforting cool weight of the weapons in her hands and pockets, there was very little pleasure to be found for Maya in the jungle at high noon. It was dark, still---the thick cover of the leaves overhead blocked her upward gaze toward the obscured sun---but so very, very hot. The air before her seemed to writhe in discomfort as wave after wave of warmth rolled through the forest. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were a dry heat, but it wasn’t; Maya’s clothing clung to her breasts, back and thighs uncomfortably as the humidity glazed her skin in a film of salt and moisture.

Even worse than the heat were the mosquitoes. They had been buzzing around her incessantly for the last hour, sometimes just on the edge of her vision, filling her ears with a rising and falling drone which muffled all sound and left her feeling disoriented and irritated. Worse, they were pricking her skin all over with their tiny, needle-like bites. It was starting become more than annoying; her skin felt like it was on fire, like every nerve single nerve had been connected directly to the sharp little mouth of one of those blood-suckers. At first she’d slap her arm or her leg to get them off, but it felt like they were all over her now and although she couldn’t see the little bastards---or their bites marks, for that matter---she sure as hell knew they were there.

Everything would be better if she could just find the damn dragons. But she had yet to see the flash of a fiery tail through the choking press of leaves or hear the telltale sizzling hiss of demonic speech in the distance. She knew they were here somewhere, but the jungle was so expansive and there were so many places for her to search and for the dragons to hide.

Not that she thought they were hiding. Some deep, fearful part of her---the part that wasn’t carrying two switchblades, a butterfly-knife, an axe, and a machine gun---was terrified that she was too late, that the dragons had already made their way out of the jungle into a city, and were laying waste to innocent, defenseless citizens. She’d wander out into the open, only to find millions of charred and eviscerated corpses littering the streets, and two still-ravenous dragons waiting to satiate their abominable hunger on her flesh as well…

The idea of her people dying, screaming, as great gouts of flame and smoke rolled over them filled her with a blazing fury that lent extra strength to her already tireless rampage through the jungle. Gritting her teeth in rage, she swung her axe in a great arc, nearly cleaving a thorny tree in half at its base as though it were a dragon itself. The axehead bit sharply into its trunk with a shocking metallic crunch that reverberated up Maya’s entire arm, and the entire tree began to fall sideways with a great screech like that of twisting, tearing steel. Finally it collapsed to the forest floor with a clamorous crash.

Maya only paused for a second in surprise at the out-of-place sound, before stepping over the felled tree and renewing her pursuit of the dragons.

It wasn’t until an hour later that she found one. By then, strength was pumping through her veins so rapidly and powerfully she felt as though she would burst apart any minute and step out of her own flushed, sweat-soaked, screaming skin as a new and infinitely powerful being. It was as though she, Maya, was disconnected from her body; it hurt and felt uncomfortably warm and sticky, but the stinging of the mosquitoes, the suffocating press of the humid air, and the unrelenting oppression of the heat simply could not halt the strength pouring through her limbs.

Thus, when she spotted a massive fiery shape slither behind a tree as she was coming up upon the derelict Jugantar base once again after nearly completing a patrol of the perimeter of the forest, she shouted in victory and with inhuman speed dodged around the tree and leapt, snarling, upon the monster.

The dragon hissed in surprise as the five-foot-tall Indian woman appeared practically out of nowhere and pounced upon it, but even with Maya’s increased strength, she didn’t seem to be able to bypass its demonic protections. Instead of connecting with scales and muscle, Maya passed through air, collapsing on the hard forest floor beneath the monster.

“What are you doing?” the creature demanded, stepping on her briefly as it maneuvered its bulk away from the fierce little human. Maya noted in shock that its taloned foot seemed to pass through her flesh, painlessly, as though it were made of nothing more than light and carmine dust.

That little confusing revelation didn’t stop her from raising her machine gun, however, and unloading the entire magazine into the apparition’s slightly wavering, razor-fanged face.

“Diiiiiiiie!” she howled, although the spray of bullets practically drowned out her voice.

The dragon didn’t seem at all fazed by the rain of bullets into its body. It neither deflected, nor seemed to take damage from them, but instead seemed to simply allow them to pass through its flesh just as Maya herself had done but a moment before. The gunfire reverberated through the forest, and many of the bullets seemed to actually ricochet off of the trees, so that one missed Maya’s head by a centimeter and another grazed her upper arm before burying itself in the forest floor.

The dragon hissed at her and lowered its great head to pin her with a feral glare. “You shouldn’t do that,” it snarled. “You’re going to pierce the hull or hurt yourself. Look, you’re already bleeding.”

That statement made absolutely no sense to Maya. Hull? What hull? And why did the demon care whether or not she would hurt herself? It must have been taunting her; that was the only explanation she could think of.

Snarling, she dropped the now-useless machine gun and reached for her axe. Swinging it wildly despite the screaming protest in her arm, she tried to cleave the monster’s head off, but was not at all surprised when the weapon simply passed harmlessly through the dragon’s flesh.

If dragons could look confused, this one certainly did. Rather than addressing her this time, it cocked its head slightly and spoke to the trees. “Robin, I think there might be something wrong with your crewmate.”

“Leave Robin alone!” Maya screamed. “He’s just a kid!”

“What?” Robin’s voice reverberated through the trees. He sounded slightly static-y, as though he were speaking over an intercom system. “Maya?”

The dragon stared doubtfully down at the woman. “If that’s what you call her,” it said.

“Run Robin!” Maya yelled at the top of her lungs. “I think it might be too much for me to take, and there’s still another one running around!”

All of the dragon’s focus was suddenly back on Maya. “Another one?” it demanded, swinging its great head down toward her face again. “You’ve seen another like me? Here?”

“Ignore her,” Robin said wearily. “She’s sick and delusional. That’s why she’s in the Med Bay.”

The dragon was still scrutinizing Maya closely. “But she’s not in Med Bay.”


“And I’m scared she might ruin the hull.”

Beginning to feel terrified of the dragon and this impossible, nonsensical conversation, Maya began scooting slowly back away from the monster, taking the axe with her. There had to be another way to kill it... she had to get back to the Jugantar base…

Robin’s voice groaned. “Not in the Med Bay? Where is she? She’s supposed to be in the Med Bay. And how, pray tell, might she ruin the hull? Please tell me she’s not about to blow up Engineering… Talk to me here!”

The dragon glanced around. “Um… she’s beside the lift. Outside the doors to the Weapon’s Deck.”

Shit,” Robin said. “Ryu, can you keep her from going in there? She really really really needs to not get in there. There are weapons in there.”

“Oh, she already has weapons. That’s why I’m afraid she might ruin the hull.”

“Doc!” Robin called.

“Yes?” Chance’s voice joined the conversation. He sounded a little more energetic than he had seemed when Maya had last seemed him. “What do you need?”

“Maya… is outside… the Weapon’s Deck. Armed, might I add. Ryu’s with her.”

“Oh great, that’s just great,” Chance growled. “Well, at least we know where she is. Ryu, can you watch her, and tell us where she goes and what she’s doing? We’re going to have to catch her.”

“Yes,” Ryu said. “She’s crawling away from me, toward the doors to the Weapon’s Deck.”

Maya paused in her trench crawl to look fearfully over her shoulder. “The Jugantar have a class Z30 weapons consol table in their base,” she explained to the disembodied voices. “I can’t seem to kill this thing with any of the weapon’s I’ve got, but maybe I can blow it up…”

“No no no no!” Chance shouted over the intercom. “Stay away from that console. You don’t want to do that!”

“Ryu, can you keep her from getting in there?” Robin asked desperately.

The dragon started stalking toward the woman. “If I do to her what I did to you, I think I can…”

There was a curse over the intercom. “No!” Chance said in exasperation. “Do not douse my patient with radiation!”

The dragon stopped. “Then I can’t stop her. But I’ll watch her for you. She’s getting to her feet and now she’s palmed the door to the Weapon’s Deck.”

She’s in my Weapon’s Deck?!” Draco’s voice thundered through the trees.

“Dragons!” Maya screamed, darting through the doors into the darkness of the Jugantar base.
Chance wasn't all that hapy about leaving the task of hunting Maya to Draco, though it was more to do with the possibility of his recovering patient getting shot in the face then the supersoldier doing something a bit too heavy-handed. However the doctor wasn't in the mind to pick up a weapon again any time soon. Right now he wasn't in the mood for doing anything other than dosing himself up with pain killers and going to sleep. It wasn't that bad a headache, just insistant and draining. His mind kept flashing information up into the forefront of his mind only for him to turn around and wonder what his third birthday had to do with editting Hyke's medical file. It wasn't the first time he'd had such a reaction. All he had to do was wait it out and he'd be well enough again. It just wasn't easy getting your head down when his brain felt like it was being squashed by his skull.

"Be careful with Maya, 'kay? It'd be nice to have med-bay all to myself again,"

"McCallum," Dr. Monroe opened his office door to let the young man step in and take a seat, "I hear that you're on your way out for a cryo tour."

"Yeah. I think I want to do front work, so I want to have a try and check it out," as Monroe had expected Chance's words were spoken leisurely and at a relaxed pace, much the same way that he walked. They didn't have the same pacing that another man might have pronounced them with.

"Well I finished looking over the recordings you sent me and I've been in touch with a colleague on the Cassandra studies."

"I'm psychic?" the trainee interrupted with a smirk.

"We believe you are a grade E intuitive intellect characterised by redundant structuring and enhanced reception to auditory stimuli." Monroe watched as the youth blinked and then visibly started untangling the sentance inside his head. Intuitive intellect was the most obvious part: doctors couldn't call people with psionic talents psychics simply because no-one took the word seriously. As for the grade intuitive intellect was catagorised into classes with E being the guy down the bar who can correctly guess forty to forty-five cards in a deck, and A being your car-throwing, mind reading kind of gal.

"Redundant structuring?" Chance leaned back against Monroe's desk, his hands still in his back pockets.

"Your brain doesn't show any signs of psionic development, it's just working in a similar way to some of Cassandra subjects. Simply? Your loaf is a few slices short of levitating toasters." at this level it meant that while the blond thought faster than his concious efforts could keep up. He often leapt to correct conclusions not on guess-work, but by inductive reasoning his subconcious couldn't be bothered to fill him in on.

"So I'm not psychic. Nice metaphor by the way."

"I do try. No, it would require extreme genetic manipulation to push you any closer to even a grade D. In any case it certainly isn't anything to worry about. It did get you selected for the medical academy after all. What I will do though is compile a list of unsuitable treatments and staple it into your file. That way we won't have any more incidents like the Nurse Hamilton."

"What about the sound?"

Monroe shrugged, "Some people respond better to certain stimuli. You recognise visual images very quickly and have a tendancy to forget what you've seen where. You do however like music. It stirrs your neurochemistry up and essentially raises your IQ by a dozen or two points. Which of course is no use to you what so ever until they decide to translate patient records into jazz."
Draco shoved his way out of the med bay, waving off Chance’s request, huffing and growling the whole way down to his Weapons Deck, there was no way that bitch would have her way down there. He growled, instantly falling into his predator’s stalk as he slid his way towards his bedroom, checking around, just in case. To his relief, she hadn’t gotten everything deadly and dangerous, which left him with a few options. He selected a pair of brass knuckles and donned some discreet armour, mostly to protect himself incase she decided to go for his more... sensitive areas. Once he felt he could take on the raving psycho he snuck out, towards his Weapons Deck, taking off his shoes for quieter feet and the element of surprise.

The doors were open and the lights were on and no Maya in sight, from his vantage point anyways. He clenched his fists, the dull gleam of metal-encased fists against his solid steel frame he knew was intimidating, seeing enough people pause in fear tended to make him a bit cocky about his fear factor. He slipped into the room, hearing the crash of metal and noise, he moved towards it, hearing the mechanic cursing and hitting things was a sure sign that he’d found her.

He slid up along the rows, growling softly as he watched her try and tear apart the weapons console, “Oh no you don’t.” He hissed, launching himself at her and tackling her to the ground as she shrieked in his ears. Hypersensitive hearing did not lend oneself to like being screamed at and he recoiled, clutching his ears.

He saw the light go on in her eyes and she opened her mouth to screech again, but he swept her feet out from under before she could do so, knocking the breath from her lungs. He leapt on her, covering her mouth as she began flailing wildly, nailing him twice in his sides and once in his crotch, which hurt, but not quite as much as it could have. He bared his teeth as she bared hers, pulling out one of her knives and throwing it at him. He dodged, backing up as Maya began flinging knives at him, trying to back him up into a corner before he could get away. However, she was delusional, and he was back to himself, so really she wouldn’t be too much of a problem... He leapt to the side as she pulled out the battle axe, and swung at him. He growled, narrowing his eyes, “You better not break that girly or I’ll bust your head like a melon.”

Perhaps he shouldn’t have said that as she screamed loudly and he was forced to retreat her fierce screams of, “Dragon, Dragon!” and her wild swings with his axe. He ducked and dodged, finally getting under her enough to grab the handle of the axe and jam it back into her chest, sending her sprawling as he tossed it away with a clang and a skid across the floor. He banged his fists together, the knuckles clanging as he moved towards her and she pulled out a gun. He swore, flinging himself to the side and rolling as the ‘click’ of an empty cartridge met his ears.

“Funny, girlie, real funny.” He said, swinging back to his feet and moving to her as she turned and ran, throwing the gun at him, which he knocked away with a flick of his wrist. She whirled, and he nearly ran into her, as it were, he got a gash down his chest, nothing too deep, but enough to sting and cut his shirt open. She narrowed her eyes at him and he returned the look in kind, blocking her next swing with his knuckles, sending his other fist flying at her, which she dodged with a grace he didn’t know she possessed. Another blade appeared in her hand, (where had this wretch of a woman learn to fight?) and he barely dodged another gash to his side, “Son of a bitch!”

“You vile beast!” She howled at him, lunging at him and he was barely able to twist away, catching the blade in his shoulder as he did so, but grabbed her hand, holding her in place. “Let me go you hideous dragon!” She hissed, her arm pulling back for a go with her free hand and blade.

He caught her again, placing her hands in one of his and began pounding Maya with his armor-plated knuckles, once, she only screamed again in rage and drove the knife deeper, twice, she was stunned, but aimed a kick at his bits, which he angled so she hit his thigh instead. A third time, she stayed still a bit longer, and her knees gave way a bit, but she struck home with her blow to his crotch, however, he hardly felt it, she was so out of it and he’d hit her so hard. Finally, after waiting long enough, she collapsed, out cold, against him. He shoved her off, letting her hit the floor, ignoring the dull clang of her head against the metal of the floor. “Damn bitch.” He growled at her pulling the knife from his shoulder and tossing it away with hiss. He had half a mind to drag her to the Med Bay by her hair, but he refrained, grabbing her collar instead and tucking her beneath his good arm, uncaring of what he hit her against on the way there, so it was likely that she would have other bruises welling up when he got there. He dropped her on the floor, grumbling mutinously and glaring at her and the doc for making him fetch her.

“Good lord, what did you do to her...” And Chance saw what was on his hands, “Tell me you didn’t hit her with those.” He said faintly, examining her as best he could from where Draco’d dropped her.

“Only in the head.” Draco replied, shrugging and pulling his shirt off. He examined his wounds detachedly, “Hey doc, I think I might need a couple stitches.”

Chance, in the meantime was trying to haul Maya up onto the bed as best he could, “I’d love to help you,” He grunted, getting her up, “But I’m a bit busy since you hit out mechanic in the head with brass knuckles.”

“It was only three times. And I didn’t hit her hard enough to cause damage, just enough to,” He tapped his head, “Put her lights out.”

“Well she’s still bleeding, so obviously there is damage!” Chance hissed.

Draco shrugged again, “It’s only blood.” Chance growled loudly at Draco, who only grinned devillishly, “She tried to take m’bits again. I wasn’t going to let her turn me into you, doc.” He hopped up, grabbing a length of rope and tying her hands tightly and then to the bed, securing it and doing the same to her feet so she was twisted, her feet tied to one side and her hands tied to the other so she wouldn’t be getting out easily in the slightest.

Chance tried to protest, but Draco glared at him and mentioned losing bits again, and her knowing where both his room was and where the Weapons Deck was and his gestures to his wounds made him fall silent. “If she has brain damage,”

“Which she doesn’t.”

“Then its you’ve possibly put us all out of commission sin