Well, something had gone wrong... let's see if they survived!





     "DuQuesne! DuQuesne! C'mon, Blackie, don't do this to me!"


     He was aware of aching pain, pain throughout his body, as though ever fiber of his being had been stretched out, pounded, stretched again, and wrapped around a bed of needles. Muzzily he forced one eye open, seeing Seaton standing… no, floating over him, dark circles under his friend's eyes making him look as though he'd gone rounds with someone twice his size.


     "What… happened?" he forced out, his voice a croak instead of its usual powerful bass.


     At the simple words he saw immense relief wash over Seaton's face and realized how worried the other man had been. "Thank God. What happened!? Don't you remember?"


     DuQuesne forced himself to take a deep breath, although his chest – especially, now that he thought of it, the right side – screamed in protest. "Remember…?"


     Then it all came back in a rush, the launch, the cryptic static-laden message, and the runaway acceleration.  He lunged towards a sitting position, to be stopped by his acceleration harness and the flaming agony of his body. "Son of a –" he swore. "Sabotaged! Someone messed with the main power controls, put a short across the line…" he remembered the timing, "… on a relay hooked to the transponder signals. Once we lost the line, it cut us loose. Big time."


     Seaton nodded in relief. "Okay, your brain's back to firing on all cylinders."


     "Half, anyway." He unstrapped gingerly. "You know, I don't remember strapping in at all."


     "You must've done it when you slid into the couch right when it all went south. Reflex for a pilot – the right one, too." Seaton indicated the interior of the cabin, which showed numerous dents and other minor damage. "Toward the end, the acceleration went really wonky – my guess is that the last few pounds of copper were distributed in patches inside the coating and so the acceleration axis shifted."


     DuQuesne nodded, noticing that the armor shutters over the forward viewport had at least done their job and shut automatically when the high acceleration came on. "Makes sense. Holy moley but I hurt everywhere."


     "So do I, but I'll bet you're worse. You took a fall first. C'mon, let me take a look."


     Just pulling up the shirt made it hurt worse – and DuQuesne felt the fabric sticking in an all-too-telling fashion. Looking down at the acceleration couch, he could see a large red-brown stain on the one side. Seaton sucked in his breath. "Damn that's ugly. How the hell did that happen? You fell on the side of the couch!"


     "Damned if I know. Maybe the acceleration … yeah, look, it's more a scrape and a tear than a cut. Not that that makes it better."


     "Well, we've both got to get back in working shape. I'm so stiff I can barely move."


     "Amylophene for the stiffness might work."


     "Oh, I'll be looking forward to that. Not. First let's get you wrapped up."


     After tending as best they could to DuQuesne's bruised and torn flesh, the two men used the amylophene rub; the chemical stimulated blood flow and, paradoxically, alleviated swelling, among other effects, but it had one very unpleasant side effect: it also increased stimulation to the pain receptors during application. By the time they had finished, both men were white and sweating. DuQuesne just sagged into himself and drifted about the cabin for a few minutes. "Whew! I don't know about you, Rich, but I'm not sure I could take that again." He flexed his arms. "But it did the trick. I can move perfectly well again, except of course my side."


     "Same here, Blackie. I think that makes it time for breakfast."


     The thought of food made DuQuesne's stomach cramp with eagerness. "We must've been out a long time. I feel like I could eat a bear."


     Seaton nodded, starting down the handholds to the galley. "I think we were out something like fifty hours, most of that under acceleration."


     "Damnation. Judging by our prior ratio of acceleration felt and power applied… we might have had an effective acceleration there of something like fifty to a hundred gees."


     Seaton paused, shock in his eyes. "That… over 48 hours? That would put us at something like a quarter to half lightspeed! We'd have passed Pluto and be on our way outsystem!"


     "Yeah. But let's get something to eat first, then we'll put in a new bar and start heading back." DuQuesne thought of something. "Hey, you go put together some sandwiches or something; I'm going to check the secondary bar."


     "The repellers? That wasn't affected, was it?"


     "If we're going that fast, they might have had to step up automatically based on demand."


     He got to his board and keyed up the proper inquiry. Numbers popped up on the console, and for a minute he couldn't make sense of them. What the …


     Then it did make sense, and he gave vent to another oath. "Seaton! We've got to get another bar in the secondaries, right away!" Suiting actions to words, he launched himself down the tube towards the storeroom.


     Seaton swam into view a moment later, towing a bag of wrapped sandwiches. "What's the hurry?"


     "The hurry, my friend, is that there's about twenty pounds of copper left on that bar – out of four hundred."


     "What? That's… ridiculous!" His disbelief didn't stop Seaton from pushing DuQuesne out of the way – as, despite his attempts not to show it, Marc was finding it difficult to drag a new bar out of its restraints with the injuries to his side. "There. Let's go check this out. But I'm betting it's the board that's off. That four hundred pound bar should last a long, long time, even if we were going at some chunk of lightspeed."


     But one look at the bar was enough. The thin X coating was translucent and light shone through most of its length. "My… aunt's… cats'… kittens… pants… buttons."


     DuQuesne was too worried to laugh at Seaton's newest expression. "C'mon, open the parallel clamp. I'll get the new one set in place, you hit the switchover and we'll pull the old one to recover the X."


     Seaton nodded and, in a few minutes, the job was done. DuQuesne noted, with a frown, that the demand on the new bar was still very high indeed. "Rich, how many spares of the power bars do we have?"


     "Four of each. So that's three more for the repellors."


     "I think we need to get this crate slowing down as soon as we can."


     Seaton's frown was, if anything, even grimmer than his own. "Right now if not sooner."


     The two men quickly removed one of the huge thousand-pound power bars from the storage area and locked it into the main drive mount, carefully taking the crumbling remains of the first and placing it in the bin for X recovery. "We don't even know exactly what direction we ended up flying, DuQuesne," Seaton pointed out as they returned to the main control room.


     "Doesn't matter right now. Unless we're completely off, most of the acceleration was along the main bar axis as intended, so if I just precisely reverse the alignment of the bar," DuQuesne suited action to words, "and start her running, we should start slowing down. We'll have some residual velocity from those last uncontrolled side thrusts, but it shouldn't be too significant."


     The acceleration at first seemed to be upward, drawing the strapped-in scientists towards the ceiling; however, due to the painstaking attention to detail in all features that had been applied to the Skylark, in a few moments the rest of the ship rotated slowly around the drive unit, returning the apparent acceleration to the more normal down orientation. "I've stepped her up to a full apparent gee, which should be something like ten gees. Once we're both recovered, in a couple days, we can strap in and let her run a lot faster. I figure we can be stopped in a week or so, and then check our distance from the sun."


     "At something like twenty billion miles, if we're guessing our speed right."


     "It'll still be the brightest damn thing in the sky, though."


     Seaton nodded. "True enough. And," he brightened, "on the positive side, we'll be able to be sure no one's around to see our tests!"


     DuQuesne laughed for the first time since the drive had gone wild, and almost regretted it after the sharp pain in his side. "Ouch! That's you, Rich – always seeing the sunny side of life."




     All right, that was just plain nasty. But maybe not as bad as the original.


     As they say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!".


     I might have known you'd have more up your sleeve. We get to see the other side of things?


     Of course. Just like the novels. Most of the time with the heroes, but we have to see the bad guys sometimes. How are the others doing?


     Most of them are doing pretty well – some are downright spectacular. I was spending some of the downtime over at Jasin's –


     Ah yes. Tarellimade Shantrakar, right?


     A grin. Exactly. One of the best products of the immersive simulations ever, and he's come to life exactly as Jasin and the others in that group intended. Some of the others have had issues… but mostly the bugs have been shaken out. A glance at the tank display. Oh, I see!


     Yes. It's beginning.




Your comments or questions welcomed!