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Sfstory Log 094

=========================================================================
Date:         Mon, 12 Apr 1999 22:01:06 -0400
From:         David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)
To:           Superguy (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: Starcruiser Anonymous #22

                           STARCRUISER ANONYMOUS
                          (A Tale Within Sfstory)

                                Episode 22
                          Wherein the Hostilities
                                 Commence
                                    by
                               Dave Menendez

                            -------------------

There was a sense of relief on the bridge as, for the second time anyone
could remember, the _Anonymous_ dropped safely out of overly-hyped space.
For a moment, no one spoke; the bridge crew quietly listened to the hums and
whirs and clicks and beeps and heavy breathing and other bridge noises.
Then someone told Carl to knock it off with his Darth Vader impression.
After all, there was work to be done.
    Commander Gerhardt quickly ordered the usual battery of tests, verifying
the status of the _Anonymous_, checking that they were indeed in the Aroruan
system, and making sure they weren't dangerously close to anything.  As a
matter of taste, Gerhardt also ordered the viewdome set to "outside view",
making the multistory, hemispherical screen approximate what a window might
show if there weren't several kilometers of starship in every direction.
During the transit through overly-hyped space, the viewdome had been set to
a neutral pattern, except when the bridge crew was using it to watch old
Marx Brothers movies.
    As expected, nothing was close enough to show up as more than a dot,
save Arorua itself.  For the bridge crew, the lush planet was a wonderful
change of scenery after years of orbiting Saturn and a few harrowing hours
over Planet Gloom.  Up in the command deck overlooking the rest of the
bridge, Gerhardt leaned back in his chair and waited for the tests to
complete.
    "The tests are complete," Lieutenant Gordon announced as he rushed up
the stairs to confer with the commander personally.  "We may be in danger,"
he added more quietly.
    "Zakavians?" asked Gerhardt.  Arorua _was_ a Zakavian protectorate, he
reasoned.  Some Zakavian presence was to be expected.
    "Right in one, sir," Gordon confirmed.  He called up a tactical display
on a nearby viewscreen and gestured.  "From what we can tell, we're between
two Zakavian fleets.  This closer fleet seems to be fighting a giant robot.
The other fleet appears to have translated in-system shortly after we did.
We can't be certain of how powerful they are, so we're assuming they're
roughly the same as Planet Gloom's defensive forces."  He paused, trying to
find a positive note to end on.  "The planet itself _does_ seem to be
Arorua, though."
    "That's fortunate.  What's our defensive capability?"
    "We're still repairing systems that overloaded during the encounter at
Planet Gloom.  According to the technical staff, the best we can hope for is
point-oh-three percent power on the shields."
    "You mean three percent, right?"
    "Um... no, sir."
    Gerhardt grimaced.  "Will that even protect us from space debris?"
    "I think so.  If it isn't too big or too fast."
    "At least we have that."  Gerhardt began to massage his forehead.  They
were up against multiple alien fleets with no real defenses.  This was _not_
a good time for the Captain to be seeking personal vengeance on the rebels
or whatever it was she was doing.
    "Even without the shields, our hull is pretty strong," Gordon said.
"Space debris shouldn't be-- One moment."  He paused as a message came over
his headset.  Gerhardt took a moment to study the tactical display.  "We're
receiving an audio message from that first fleet," Gordon said at last.
"It's the fleet commander speaking from the _Absurd Physical Harm_."
    "_Absurd Physical Harm_?" Gerhardt repeated quietly.  "Where have I
heard that name before?"  At his gesture, Gordon played the message on the
local speakers.
    ((Unidentified spacecraft,)) the message began, ((This system is claimed
by the Zakavian Empire.  We have no desire to instigate hostilities, but we
must request that you leave immediately.))

    "You think they'll just leave if we tell them to?" Lotekh asked Mselt.
    "It's standard procedure," the fleet commander replied defensively.
    "Has it ever worked?" the prince pressed.
    "Not to my knowledge."
    "Bah," Lotekh grumbled.  "I hate fighting people bigger than I am."

    "I must say," Gordon commented once the message had completed, "I've
never been told 'Get the hell out' so politely before."
    Gerhardt didn't answer.  He was still trying to remember the
significance of the enemy flagship's name.
    "How shall we respond, sir?" Gordon prompted.
    Gerhardt thought a moment, trying to come up with a polite way of
explaining what they were doing in Zakavian space.  Once again, he wished
the Captain were there.  She could do this sort of thing in her sleep.
    "Sir?"
    Right, forget politeness.  "Here's our response," Gerhardt said.  "We
are searching for five missing pilots.  We have evidence they are in this
system."  He paused, as the pieces finally came together in his mind.  "We
_also_ have evidence they were taken by a Zakavian ship called the _Absurd
Physical Harm_.  Do you know anything of this?"

    "They recognized me," Mselt groaned.  "I _knew_ it was a bad idea to
paint the name of the ship on the hull."
    "Let's strike _now_," Lotekh urged, "while they're not ready."
    "Not yet.  I've got another idea."

    ((Regrettably,)) came the reply from the Zakavians, ((my ship _was_
involved in that capture.  It was done under the orders of Captain-General
Rtali, who has since been revealed as a traitor to the Empire.  No doubt the
capture was intended to spark a war between our people.))
    "Oh God," Gerhardt groaned.  "Not intrigue.  I don't want to deal with
intrigue."
    "Response, sir?"
    Gerhardt took a deep breath, and activated the audio pickups.  "We have
no wish for war.  We just want our people returned."
    ((We will be happy to assist you, but we are currently under attack from
Rtali's forces.  Since he is a common foe, perhaps we could work together?))
    "Worse and worse," Gerhardt moaned.  Another deep breath.  Ahh, that's
better.  "Our ship is badly damaged," he told the Zakavians, "so we can't
promise much help, but we will not interfere with your forces."

    "Badly damaged?" Lotekh repeated gleefully.  "That's wonderful!  How
nice of them to tell us!"
    Mselt didn't answer for a moment; he was already thinking of how he was
going to deal with Rtali.  Ampron had proven to be a smaller threat than
imagined, and he effectively had a cease-fire with the Terran starship.
Once he wrapped this up, he would have two down and one to go.

    ((Very well, we will respect your neutrality.  We will continue this
discussion at a more convenient time.))
    The connection closed and Gerhardt let out a sigh of relief.  The
_Anonymous_ was safe from at least _one_ fleet.  Still, he would feel safer
if Captain Harrison would return.  "I hope the Captain's all right," he
muttered.  "Wherever she is."

                                 *   *   *

The once-secret rebel command center was pretty crowded, as those involved
in the rebellion's collapse took a moment to rest their feet and talk with
acquaintances.  Among those taking a break were Captain Harrison, Beth
Gaelen, Horlun SoFah, Anme Rifba, three-fifths of Black Squadron, all of
Green Squadron, a squad of Ship Security, and most of the rebellion itself--
although the latter weren't so much "taking a break" as "sitting quietly
while being watched by people with guns."  The mood was cheerful, but tired.
Defeating the rebellion had involved a lot of walking and running around,
which only Ship Security was really prepared for.
    The security force and the fighter pilots had gone after the rebels
separately and for different reasons, and both groups were surprised to find
the other involved.  Security, in fact, demanded to know _why_ the two
squadrons had gotten involved, as the entire matter was clearly a security
issue, but Hydrospok explained that helping friends and relatives was a
sacred duty that Green Squadron gladly accepted.
    "Besides," added George Daniels, "it's not like we have anything else do
while we're in overly-hyped space."
    "Which we aren't any more," noted the Captain.  "We should be getting
back; I don't want to leave the bridge unattended for too long."
    "I thought you said Commander Gerhardt could handle it," said Dave
Menendez, once again remembering too late just who he was addressing.  "I
mean, he seems like a reasonably competent guy and you don't _have_ to be on
the bridge twenty-four/seven and all.  Uh, sir."  He laughed nervously,
trying to cover up the way he'd just questioned the Captain's decisions to
her face again.
    "You're right," Harrison said, "and I do have confidence in Gerhardt's
ability to handle things, but I doubt he'd appreciate me leaving him all the
hard work."  She glanced over the crowd, noting those she knew personally.
Horlun and Anme were talking quietly off to one side; both seemed
embarrassed to be involved in the affair (for different reasons) and they
were making a valiant attempt to fade into the woodwork.  On the other side
of the room, Stanford and Hydrospok were talking with Beth Gaelen.  Nearby,
Beth's younger brother Roy appeared to be passed out at the mess table.  "Is
he all right?" Harrison asked, gesturing at the fallen pilot.
    Daniels nodded.  "I think he's just tired from all the walking.  And
from worrying about his sister."
    "I see.  He's not going to like my next order, then."
    "Return to our posts?" Daniels guessed.
    "You got it."
    Daniels nodded.  While he woke up Roy, the security force rounded up the
prisoners and prepared to bring them to the Core.  Harrison asked one of
them to show Horlun and Anme back to the residential sectors.  The fighter
pilots decided--over Hydrospok's objections--to follow the security forces
at first, since none of them were sure how to get directly to the hangars
from their present position.  Harrison warned them not to take too long, as
there was no telling what the _Anonymous_ faced in the Aroruan system.
    "For all we know," she said, "we could be under attack right now."

                                 *   *   *

Rtali looked at the figure on the viewscreen distastefully.  He hadn't
expected the Aroruan operation to be sunshine and roses--the simple fact
that his old friend Tvanir commanded the Imperial forces there made things
difficult--but finding an entire battle fleet already in system had been a
major blow to his confidence.  Then the fleet contacted him.  Finding a
fleet was bad enough, discovering that it was commanded by the same captain
who had betrayed his cause to the Empire was positively galling.
    "I'm surprised to see you here, Mselt," he said coldly.  "I figured a
man with your obvious devotion to the Emperor would be given better duties
than baby-sitting the Prince out here in the boondocks."
    That last comment seemed to touch a nerve with Lotekh--the Prince looked
angry enough to try and get at Rtali through the viewscreen--but Mselt
simply raised a hand, silencing whatever retort he might have given.
    "I'm not ashamed of doing my duty," Mselt replied calmly.  "As for
Prince Lotekh, my fleet is accompanying him on a state visit to Arorua."  He
paused.  "I take it from your attitude that you have _not_ come to surrender
yourself to the Empire?"
    "I see you're as perceptive as always, Mselt," said Rtali.  He paused
for effect.  "We've come to liberate Arorua from the Empire."
    Mselt and Lotekh glanced at each other for a moment and burst into
laughter.  Even some of the bridge crew in the background were sniggering.
    "What?" Rtali demanded.  "What is so _funny_?"  He had been wrong, this
was even worse than discovering that Mselt was in charge of the local fleet.
    "Give it up, Rtali," Mselt said at last, wiping a tear from his eye.
"Between my forces and that big ship out there, you don't stand a chance."
    "We shall see."  He cut the transmission and turned to his crew.  "Begin
the attack on the Third Fleet," he commanded, "and send the Fifteenth
Squadron to investigate that big ship."
    "The rogue squadron, sir?"
    "Do I need to repeat my order?"
    "No, sir."
    "You're going to tell them, then?"
    "Yes, sir."
    "So, why aren't you?"
    "I'm, er, talking to _you_, sir."
    Rtali blinked.  "Oh.  Carry on, then."
    "Yes, sir."

                                 *   *   *

There had been a pause in the fighting when the _Anonymous_ appeared, more
out of surprise than any desire for lasting peace.  The Ampron Force, beset
by two Zakavian cruisers and a swarm of angry fighters, took advantage of
that moment to catch their breath.  Dent additionally used the lull in their
opponents' concentration to fire a Plasmic Destructo-Pod at the nearer
cruiser.  The deadly sphere crackled with energy as it shot towards the
_Golden Spider-Duck_, overloading the shields before slamming into the hull.
For a moment, great spider-like arcs of blue energy crawled over the surface
of the ship, leaving darkened windows and silenced guns behind them.  (Not
that the guns were making noise before.  This _is_ space, after all.)  When
the Pod ran out of energy, the _Golden Spider-Duck_ was still largely in one
piece, but it clearly wouldn't be participating in the battle any further.
    The fighter pilots that had been harassing Ampron simultaneously decided
they'd rather be someplace else, and retreated to the remaining cruiser.
    "Good job, Dent," said Vasta, "but don't use the next two just yet.
There are a lot of ships still out there."  Too many, Vasta thought to
himself.  It was madness to expect them to take on an entire fleet alone
with their level of experience.
    ((Hey!)) Dixon called over the intercom.  ((That ship that just jumped
in is the _Anonymous_!))  Vasta nearly choked, and scrambled to check the
tactical display.
    "It's true!" he said.  "Ri'Tala, open a channel to the _Anonymous_!"
    The young prince did not respond.  As near as Vasta could tell, he
didn't even move.
    "Boltar?"
    Prince Boltar remained frozen in his seat.  The others noticed he was
staring at a small, white-furred animal with a big, bushy tail and a cute
little nose and some nasty-looking claws on each of its six legs.  At some
point during the conflict, it had leapt up onto his controls and stayed
there, engaging the prince in a deadly staring contest.
    Dent was the first to act.  "Cave squirrel!" he shouted, drawing his
handgun and lunging at Boltar's console.  The cave squirrel hissed and leapt
away towards McCurry's station.  McCurry was somewhat confused, never having
heard of such a creature before, but he quickly got out of the way.  Dent
wouldn't be acting like that if there weren't a good reason, he reasoned.
Not during a space battle, anyway.
    "Careful," Vasta warned Dent, as he drew his own sidearm.  "If you hit
something important, we all die."  Dent nodded acknowledgement and began
moving towards the deadly creature.  Vasta moved to cover him, trusting
Dixon to keep the robot out of danger while they dealt with the stowaway.
McCurry just backed away, utterly baffled by the experience.
    ((Incoming!)) Dixon shouted, just as the missiles from the _Squat
Crimson Pig_ began striking the robot's shields.  In the confusion, the
squirrel leapt at Dent's neck.  Dent dodged and swung at it with his gun,
missing by mere millimeters.
    "What should we do?" McCurry asked frantically as Dixon tried to dodge
another round of rockets.
    "Activate the Ultimate Defense Barrier," Vasta ordered.  He and Dent
were having difficulty cornering the creature, as the command center didn't
have much in the way of corners.
    "Right."  McCurry scanned the controls on Vasta's console and stabbed at
the first likely candidate.  It beeped cheerfully at him, and then the
universe around them abruptly vanished.
    ((What was _that_?)) Dixon asked.  While she wasn't unhappy that the
missiles she'd been dodging were gone, she was a bit unnerved that the
fleet, the stars, and planet Arorua itself had apparently joined them in
oblivion.
    "The 'Ultimate Defense Barrier'?" McCurry suggested sheepishly.  "Unless
I hit the wrong control..."
    ((Don't worry,)) Dixon told him, ((I'm sure the 'Destroy Everything Else
in Universe' command requires confirmation.))
    "I would hope so.  Otherwise, you'd--wagh!"
    "Sorry," Dent called, chasing the squirrel towards the back of the
command center.  Vasta mirrored his actions, running along the side of the
room in an attempt to catch it between them.  The cave squirrel saw this
coming and leapt towards Boltar, who was still sitting motionless in his
chair.
    "Behind you!" Vasta shouted.  With a start, the prince lashed out with
his paddle, smacking the airborne rodent in the head and redirecting its
trajectory into a wall.  It fell to the ground, stunned.
    Vasta and Dent stopped in mid-step and stared.  Boltar stared back and
took some deep breaths to calm himself.
    "... Nice shot," said Dent.  Boltar nodded weakly.
    "Dent, get that out of here," Vasta ordered.  With that crisis over, he
collapsed in his chair and took a few moments to stretch.  Then he returned
his attention to the larger battle around them.  Judging by the readouts at
his station, it seemed the Barrier had worked.  "If I understand this
correctly," he told the others, "the Barrier will keep us safe, but we're
pretty much blind as long as it's up.  The hyperwave should still work,
though, so we can call for help.  McCurry, go contact the _Anonymous_."
    "Right, Boss."  McCurry sat back at his own console, glad to know what
to do again.
    ((Er, if we're planning to wait for assistance to arrive, you think one
of you could help me out of this thing?)) Dixon asked.  ((All I've got to
look at here are tactical displays and darkness.))
    "Let's see what the response is, first," Vasta said.  He smirked.  "Just
hang in there."
    ((...))

                                 *   *   *

The doors to the bridge's command deck made a soft swishing sound as it
opened.  (It hadn't originally, but Gerhardt had quietly convinced a
technician to tweak it slightly.  The Captain had the irritating habit of
entering a room in complete silence, and Gerhardt had quickly tired of being
startled in front of the bridge crew.)  Gerhardt looked up from the repair
estimates he'd been reviewing and swiveled his chair to see who it was.
"Captain!" he said, springing to his feet.  "Welcome back to the bridge."
    Captain Harrison nodded distractedly and dragged herself over to her
chair.  She looked tired.
    "Are you all right?" Gerhardt asked quietly, once she had taken her
seat.  "You look tired."
    "I've been doing a lot of walking," she said.  "What's our status?"
    "We've reached Arorua."
    "I thought so.  The transition from overly-hyped space isn't
particularly subtle."  She tapped a nearby intercom and asked the page to
bring up some water.
    "How'd the campaign against the rebels go?"
    Harrison shrugged.  "We caught them.  We're not completely sure what to
do with them."  She turned to face Gerhardt.  "Kidnapping is a pretty
serious charge, and breaking into the restricted areas and stockpiling
weapons isn't much better."
    "Not to mention conspiracy to commit treason."
    "Hmm?  Yeah, we could probably get them for that, too, but then we'd
have to set up a judicial system, and... well, Security's arguing with the
civilian leadership over who has jurisdiction...."  She trailed off again
and glanced at a nearby tactical display.  Blink.  "Is that a Zakavian fleet
out there?"
    "Two, actually.  Nobody was hurt, I hope?"
    "Nothing serious.  We were pretty lucky."
    "That's good."
    "Yeah, I--wait, _two_ Zakavian fleets?"
    Gerhardt waved a hand dismissively.  "One's rogue or something, so I
figure they'll fight each other for a while, and then we can deal with the
winner."
    "Well, that _sounds_ reasonable," Harrison said, "but don't you think
the presence of two potentially hostile fleets is a _little_ more important
than my adventures with the rebels?"
    "Your water's here," Gerhardt noted.
    "Don't change the subject."  Harrison accepted the bottle and thanked
the page, then returned her attention to her second in command.  "Have you
spoken with either of them?"
    "The non-rebel ones contacted us and told us to get out, but I mentioned
Blue Squadron and they backed off.  Get this--their flagship is the same
ship that captured Blue Squadron in the first place.  Small universe, eh?"
    "Not from what I hear."
    "Anyway, the other fleet's commander ordered the capture and later went
rogue.  Now he's invading the Aroruan System and the Zakavians want _our_
help to defend themselves."
    Harrison blinked again and suddenly looked more alert.  "What did you
tell them?" she asked quickly.  "Did you promise anything?"
    "Uh, no.  I said we were too damaged to get involved."
    Harrison groaned.  "Gerhardt, can't I leave you in charge of the bridge
for _one_ alien encounter without you giving away our weaknesses?"
    "What--am I supposed to _lie_ to them?"
    "We'll talk about this later."  She drank some of the water and
grimaced.  "Any idea if Blue Squadron's here?"
    "Well," Gerhardt joked, "it turns out they've already left the system."
    Harrison grinned and theatrically smacked her forehead.  "D'oh!"  She
started to say something else but broke off, noticing Lieutenant Gordon
coming up the stairs.  "Yes, Lieutenant?" she asked.
    "We're receiving a message from that giant robot that was fighting the
Zakavians--it put up some kind of shield, and...," he trailed off, realizing
that was an irrelevant point.  "Anyway, the robot's crew claims to be Blue
Squadron."
    Gerhardt glanced at Harrison, but she had already swallowed her water:
no spit take.  (It was too bad, Gerhardt reflected.  That had been a perfect
opportunity for one.  But perhaps his thinking was influenced by one too
many Saturday-morning cartoons.)
    "What fortunate timing," the Captain was saying.  "We were just talking
about them.  Can we confirm it's them?"
    "They gave the right countersign," Gordon said.  "I think it's really
them."
    "That's good enough for now," Harrison agreed.  "Do they require any
assistance?"  Gordon nodded, and Harrison turned to Gerhardt.  "Send the
fighters out to escort Blue Squadron back here."
    Gerhardt winced.  "The Zakavians won't like that--their fleet is between
us and the robot."
    "It is?"  Harrison checked the tactical display.  "You're right, but
there shouldn't be a problem.  They've already broken the truce by attacking
Blue Squadron."
    "Actually, they aren't anymore," Gordon pointed out.  "There's some kind
of shield up, and the Zakavians can't get through."
    "Oh."  Harrison thought for a moment and smirked, the light momentarily
highlighting the scar on her left cheek.  "Well, launch them anyway.  We'll
see what comes up."

                                 *   *   *

"Let me see if I understand the situation," George Daniels demanded
incredulously.  "We're going to launch fighters with the explicit mission
objective of hanging around outside waiting for people to _shoot_ at us?"
    "Well," Hydrospok said slowly, "that's _one_ way to describe it."
    Daniels sputtered for a moment, unable to find a response.  With an
explosive "Bah!", he stomped off, leaving Hydrospok, Winters, Losar, and Roy
alone at their table.  They had returned to the pilots lounge once their
adventures with the rebels and the subsequent debriefing with Jackson from
Security had ended.  Hydrospok had been called away almost immediately for a
meeting with the other squad leaders and Commander Gerhardt.  He had
returned with Gerhardt's orders and the news that Green Squadron had been
selected to fulfill them.  Hence Daniels's irritation.
    "I don't see why _we're_ the one's doing this," Roy commented while
Winters went to retrieve Daniels.  "Didn't we just risk our lives rescuing
Beth and thwarting the rebellion?"
    "A warrior's life is constantly at risk," said Hydrospok.
    "That doesn't mean some _other_ group of warriors can't be at risk once
in a while," Roy countered.  "Red and Gold squadrons haven't been doing
anything lately."
    "We talked about this at the meeting," Hydrospok explained, "and the
others felt we were best suited for the job."
    "And you didn't object?" asked Roy.
    Hydrospok blinked.  "Object?  Why would I object when the opportunity
for glory is dropped right at our feet?"
    "Or _on_ our feet, as the case may be," added Losar darkly.
    Hydrospok frowned and glanced across the room, where Black Squadron was
having a noisy reunion.  Stanford caught his eye and mimed checking his
watch.  "We'd best be going," he said, rising to his feet.  "Destiny
awaits."
    Roy waited until he was out of earshot before whispering, "It always
makes me nervous when he says that."  Losar smirked, but didn't otherwise
reply.

    Daniels's snit and Losar's ominous pronouncements notwithstanding, Green
Squadron soon worked its way to the hangar and then into space (presumably
after boarding their fighters, as none of the pilots were adept at breathing
vacuum).  Hydrospok had briefed them on the nature of the forces arrayed
against them, so they didn't expect to meet any resistance until they got
closer to the fleet.  While the _Anonymous_ was uncomfortably close to
Mselt's fleet, it was still pretty far away in terms of the distances
fighter pilots were accustomed to.
    Thus, it was something of a surprise to encounter a Zakavian squadron
almost immediately.  It was another, lesser surprise to learn it was part of
Rtali's fleet, meaning there wasn't even an _uneasy_ truce between them.
While Hydrospok called the _Anonymous_ for advice, the two squadrons tracked
each other warily, like sharks tracking each other through space while
piloting fighters.
    The response from the _Anonymous_, properly decoded, amounted to little
more than a suggestion that they "wing it".  Winters suggested that they
head towards Blue Squadron's robot rather than circle endlessly below the
_Anonymous_, and if Rtali's fighters interfered, then so be it.  Hydrospok
wasn't entirely certain he liked this plan, as it meant ignoring a potential
enemy, but it did have the advantage of actually accomplishing something,
which was lacking in their current strategy.  At his order, the five
fighters headed towards the Third Fleet and, slightly beyond it, the black
shield-sphere which concealed Blue Squadron's giant robot.

    "They're moving towards the Third Fleet," reported Raider Six.
    "Yes, I can see that," replied Raider One.  Vtami considered what to do
next.  The Fifteenth Squadron--known as Bestiv's Raiders to themselves and
as the rogue squadron to everyone else--had been ordered to check out the
_Anonymous_, but it wasn't clear whether that involved attacking any
fighters the great ship launched.  That is, it wasn't clear to Vtami; not
all of Bestiv's Raiders shared this uncertainty.
    "I'll take care of 'em," said Raider Three, putting him firmly in the
non-uncertainty-sharing category.  "No problem, just leave 'em to me."
    "You're not going anywhere alone," Vtami reminded him.  "But I do think
we shouldn't let them get too far away."
    "Quite," agreed Raider Five.  "It's obvious they're working with
Mselt--why else would they be going to join his fleet?"
    "Perhaps they're attacking," Raider Six suggested.
    Raider Five laughed.  "With only five fighters?  Don't be an idiot,
Six."
    Vtami tuned out Raider Six's response; it was rarely productive to get
involved in these squabbles.  In the distance, a group of fighters from
Mselt's Third Fleet was closing.  They were either reinforcements for the
Terrans or a counter-attack.  While Vtami was inclined to take a wait and
see approach, Bestiv's Raiders were not a squadron known for their patient
sensibility.
    "We had best strike before yon reinforcements arrive," said Raider Five.
    "Yaargh!" agreed Raider Three, breaking off from the formation and
unleashing a volley of Splattergore missiles at the Terran craft.  The
fighters quickly scattered and moved to return fire.
    That settled it, Vtami thought.  There was no way they could avoid a
fight now.  With a silent apology to Blue Squadron--wherever they
were--Vtami ordered the raiders into the fight.  If they survived, they'd be
getting another lecture on the virtues of not attacking without orders.

    The arrival of Mselt's forces turned what had begun as a stalemate into
a complex, bewildering free-for-all.  (Hydrospok later expressed dismay at
Green Squadron's performance, although he was secretly pleased they held
their own against an actual enemy.  Vtami was just annoyed by the whole
affair.)  In theory, the squadron from Mselt's fleet was allied with Green
Squadron, but between Green Squadron's difficulty telling one Zakavian
fighter from another, Bestiv's Raiders' tendency to attack anything that
moved, and the new squadron's general apathy towards non-aggression pacts,
the alliance didn't last very long.
    All the pilots involved quickly discovered the difficulty of fighting in
a vast, open space with no cover against multiple enemies while attempting
to avoid (a) getting shot, and (b) accidentally hitting a friendly fighter.
The imperial squadron tried clustering together for mutual support, and
discovered that particular tactic's weakness against area-effect attacks.
Bestiv's Raiders gravitated towards an uncoordinated, random style of
attack, although that wasn't the result of any deliberate choice.  Vtami
just focussed obsessively on getting Green Squadron's ace pilot, George
Daniels.
    The revelation of Daniels as Green Squadron's best pilot came as a
surprise to everyone involved.  It was a surprise they would later come to
regret, as the gloating and self-promotion wore on their nerves.  But
Daniels had little time to gloat during the battle itself, as he was busy
dodging and swerving and making sure he didn't crash into anyone.  It was
harder than it looked.
    "Can I get some help here?" he called after a particularly narrow
scrape.
    "We're a little busy right now," was Roy's strained response.  Daniels
knew that was probably true, but he was too occupied to keep track of the
others.  There were three fighters closing on him from three sides, and it
would take some fancy flying to avoid them all.
    Maybe I could play dead, he thought.
    A more skeptical part of his mind pointed out the problems with that
plan, so Daniels instead turned to face the fighter coming from below.  It
was an unexpected move, and it caught that pilot completely off guard.  He
wouldn't be making _that_ mistake again.  A second fighter zipped past him,
and Daniels reflexively blasted the third fighter, which had been following
the other.  Then he realized that the other two pilots had been fighting
each other, and not him.
    ((Thanks for the save,)) quipped the pilot he'd saved, whom Daniels
recognized as the one who'd been following him obsessively.  He'd just saved
the life of his stalker.
    "Rats."
    "Never fear!" came a new voice over the _Anonymous_ pilots channel.
"Black Squadron has come to save you once more!"
    "That _is_ good news," said Hydrospok.  "You take over here, and we'll
go help Blue Squadron."
    "What?  Come back here!"

    On the other side of the Third Fleet, Roger Vasta absently watched Dixon
work a kink out of her shoulder.  While Ampron hid behind the Ultimate
Defense Barrier, they were safe from enemy attack and Dixon didn't need to
spend every moment strapped into the control frame.  She had chosen to visit
the others in the control room while they waited for help to arrive.  Vasta
steepled his fingers and waited.  The _Anonymous_ was here.  The
reinforcements would arrive.
    "Aren't those reinforcements here yet?" groused Dent.  He had taken to
pacing back and forth and occasionally casting longing glances at the
weapons console.  Unfortunately for him, the Barrier worked both ways.
    "Patience," counseled Vasta.  "Captain Harrison said the reinforcements
would contact us as soon as they arrived."
    "The reinforcements are contacting us," Boltar announced.
    "There, you see?" asked Vasta brightly, but Dent merely grunted
something non-committal.  Vasta repeated himself: "Do you _see_?"
    Dent grudgingly admitted that he did, in fact, see.
    "Good.  Boltar, tell them to draw in close," Vasta ordered.  "We'll
lower the Barrier just long enough for them to get inside.  Then we'll plot
an exit strategy."  Boltar nodded and began relaying the orders to the
rescue party.  The prince seemed to be recovering well after that cave
squirrel unpleasantness.  Good.  Vasta turned to Dixon.  "Some of the enemy
may slip through while the Barrier is down."
    Dixon stood before he could continue.  "I'll be out back, then."
    "Are they ready?" Vasta asked Boltar.
    "They'll be in position soon."
    "Then let's do this."

    The _Squat Crimson Pig_ recognized Green Squadron as reinforcements and
launched fighters to intercept, but the newcomers quickly vanished into
Ampron's protective sphere.  While the rest of the Third Fleet struggled
against Rtali's forces, the _Pig_ quietly watched its target and waited.
When nothing seemed to happen, it fired a round of Megadeathkill blasts to
no apparent effect.  After that, it waited some more.
    Then: a great disturbance, like yet another fleet dropping out of
overly-hyped space.  With an off-white flash, the "fleet" revealed itself as
a ten-kilometer disk of steel and wheat that quickly began folding into a
vaguely-cylindrical shape.
    The EDIT had arrived.


WILL THE RTALI LIBERATE ARORUA FROM THE EMPIRE?
WILL THE EDIT DESTROY ARORUA INSTEAD?
WILL IT RESUME ITS ATTACK ON THE _ANONYMOUS_?
WHAT HAPPENED TO BOB, JEN, MEGAN, AND ORLISS AFTER THEY SNUCK ONTO THE EDIT
    A FEW EPISODES BACK?

The magic eight-ball says to check the next ear-juggling episode of
Starcruiser Anonymous for the answer to that last question.  (The other
answers were hazy, but we plan to ask again later.)
    SFSTORY: The Hands of Fate
--
David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)    |  "In this house, we obey the laws
http://www.personal.psu.edu/dmm264/  |        of thermodynamics!"
=========================================================================
Date:         Wed, 12 May 1999 21:57:57 -0500
From:         David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Starcruiser Anonymous #23

                           STARCRUISER ANONYMOUS
                          (A Tale Within Sfstory)

                                Episode 23
                        Wherein Depressingly Little
                              is Accomplished
                                    by
                               Dave Menendez

                            -------------------

Bob watched the pair of guards with a practiced eye.  They hadn't seemed to
notice him, but it was difficult to tell since their opaque visors concealed
their expressions.  He couldn't risk letting them see him; he wasn't sure
how well guarded the area was.  Security had been light so far, but he
didn't expect that to continue.  Only an idiot would leave something as
important as the EDIT's dimensional induction coordinator completely
unsecured.  The two guards turned into a cross-corridor, and after making
sure no one else was in the area, Bob dropped to the floor.  They never look
up, he thought wryly, with silent thanks to whatever engineer had made the
hallways narrow enough that he could wedge himself up by the ceiling and
tall enough that he could hide between the lights and not be seen.
    Back on his feet, the reptilian bounty hunter quickly moved to a nearby
door and knocked twice, once, and then twice more.  The door slid open and
Jen Kadar looked out.  "We're clear?" she asked.
    Bob considered and rejected a number of sarcastic responses, choosing
simply to nod affirmatively.  "We're almost there," he said, drawing his
datapad and calling up the area map he'd put together from stolen
blueprints.  "The induction coordinator is just ahead."
    Jen squinted at the map.  "Looks like a big target," she said.  "Maybe
we should try something smaller."
    "Like what?  I'd rather not sabotage the engines while we're in
transit."
    "We could sneak into a secondary control center," Jen suggested.
    Bob shook his head.  "Too easy to override.  Hardware problems are
harder to fix."  He checked the map again.  "This way, come on."  Jen nodded
and the two moved on.
    Originally, Bob had planned on the entire group helping to disable the
induction coordinator.  In fact, Megan's ability to pass as Zakavian while
in armor had been a central feature of his plan.  When he mentioned this a
their first planning session onboard the EDIT, Jen had surprised him by
vetoing that idea rather vehemently.

    "You want Megan to infiltrate the guards?" Jen asked, aghast.  "You
can't be serious!  It's _far_ too dangerous for a girl her age!"
    Bob blinked.  After breaking Jen and Orliss out of prison, sneaking onto
the EDIT in a shuttle's garbage bin, and finding a place to hide while they
tried to get the smell out of their clothes, he'd assumed the next challenge
would be getting _Orliss_ to accept his ideas.  Jen's opposition caught him
completely off-guard.
    Orliss, for his part, didn't look too happy with the plan either, but
the young hero-to-be was apparently willing to let Jen raise the objections
for a change.
    Megan just seemed irritated by Jen's intrusion.  She had removed her
black Zakavian combat armor and was passing the time polishing it.  (Bob had
to marvel at the foresight involved in stealing a set of armor _and_ a tube
of armor polish to go with it.)  "Well," she said lightly, "it's a good
thing this is safe for girls _your_ age, then."
    "That's not the point," Jen snapped.
    "Then why mention age at all?"
    Jen glared at her sister a moment before turning her attention back to
Bob.  "Look," she said, "our parents are gonna be mad enough that she's here
to begin with.  If I get her involved any further, they'll kill me."  That
got a derisive snort from Megan and a startled gasp from Orliss.
    "Great galaxy, that's strict!" he said.  "Perhaps you--no, wait.  You
probably meant that metaphorically, didn't you."  Jen nodded.  "Of course
you did.  My sense of justice must have reacted faster than my sense of
idiom."  He grinned weakly and Jen smiled back.  Megan rolled her eyes, but
didn't otherwise comment.
    "Getting back to the point," said Bob, "it seems a waste to have a set
of Zakavian armor and not use it.  Are you sure Megan can't get involved?"
    "Bob," said Megan, "Jen may be a lot of things, but she is _not_ the
boss of my life."
    "Mom and Dad and Tom aren't here," said Jen.  "That puts me in charge.
I'm next in the chain of command."
    "The... chain of command."
    "Yes."
    "You _have_ been hanging out with the fighter squadrons too long."
    "Um, I think we're getting a bit afield," Bob commented.  "I think we
can get through this without causing too much friction in your family--"
Megan grumbled a bit at that "--but that means we'll need another plan.
Maybe the three of us could sneak into something important and break it."
    "That leaves Megan alone," said Orliss.  He raised a hand to stall
another objection from her, and continued.  "We shouldn't be leaving
_anyone_ alone.  I'll stay with her."
    "Very well.  Jen and I will infiltrate the ship while you two keep an
eye out down here."
    "Any objections?" Jen asked Megan.
    "Oh, it's purely your decision," Megan said sweetly.  "I wouldn't
_dream_ of breaking the chain of command."

    Things had moved quickly after that, as Jen generally preferred action
to talk.  As she pointed out, they were drawing ever closer to Arorua, and
none of them could guess how much longer they had.  It would be better if
they could disable the EDIT _before_ it blew up another planet.
    "You think this will work?" Jen asked.
    "I hope so," Bob replied.  "If not, we'll probably all be killed."
    "You're as cheerful as always, I see."
    They ducked into a machine room as two guards walked past.  Bob waited
until they were out of sight, and then motioned them forward again.
    "If we make it out," Bob said as they walked, "would you be interested
in joining the ISO?"
    "Really?" Jen gasped.  "I, well, Orliss has been telling me a lot about
the space heroics program over at Interstellar University, and I'd like to
check that out first."
    Bob shrugged.  "No problem.  I just mentioned it because I think you'd
be good at it, and I know how you like blasters and such."
    "I see."
    "And I get a bonus when I can recruit new members."
    "...oh."
    "Actually, I was thinking of asking Megan, too, but I didn't realise
your culture considered her too young."
    "Are we almost there yet?"
    "Pretty much."
    Before them was a heavy set of double doors, and beyond them was the
induction coordinator.  If they could disable it, the EDIT would be unable
to draw its deadly ammunition from the universe of fajita toppings and
create its fearsome Spice Beam.  Bob typed a stolen passcode into the keypad
by the door.  It opened smoothly and Bob ushered Jen inside.  Once inside
the complex, they would need to find something important to break.
    The loudspeaker over their heads crackled to life.  ((ATTENTION,)) it
said, ((ATTENTION.  THE SILENT ALARM IN THE INDUCTION CONTROL COMPLEX HAS
BEEN TRIPPED.  SECURITY, REPORT TO THE INDUCTION CONTROL COMPLEX AT ONCE.))
    "Needlewarp," Bob cried, "we tripped the silent alarm!"
    "Then we'd better hurry," said Jen.  She drew the handgun with blinking
lights she had gotten back on Planet Gloom and rushed forward.  Bob drew his
own weapon and followed, pausing only to slag the access keypad outside the
door.  If they were lucky, it would buy them a few seconds.

    "See anything?" Jen asked.
    "Nothing useful," Bob replied.  Thus far, all they had found were
computer consoles.  Smashing them was pointless, as it would leave the
induction coordinator itself unaffected, and Bob didn't know enough access
codes to do anything destructive with them.
    Except, there was a panel nearly hidden next to the console he'd been
trying.  Perhaps it allowed access to the hardware itself.  Bob started
looking for a release or a catch to get it open.
    "I don't think that you will find anything."
    Bob froze.  That wasn't Jen's voice.
    "Perhaps you should be turning around now, yes?"
    Bob did as the newcomer suggested.  It was a Blargoloid guard, and
evidently a high-ranking one.  His armor was black edged with gold, and he
wore a fancy-looking cap instead of a helmet.  On his left eye was a
mirrored monocle.
    Jen was nearby, under the watchful eyes of a group of guards, all armed
with Kilemov S13 dual-mode blasters.  The remainder were standing behind the
gold-edged one.  From the looks of it, he was the leader of the group.
    "I am Liskviro, fourth degree Master guard, and I am the leader of this
group," the newcomer said in introduction.
    "I'm Bob," said Bob.  "Pleased to meet you."
    "Charmed," said Liskviro, raising an eyebrow.  He stepped forward,
motioning a group of guards to follow.  Jen glanced at Bob, and then sprung
into action, grabbing the blaster from the guard nearest her and smashing
him over the head with it.  She spun to face the other two, but not fast
enough to avoid getting hit with two sleep-o-stun rays.
    "Rats," was her last comment before losing consciousness.
    Liskviro looked at the fallen Terran and stepped closer to Bob.  "I hope
_you_ realise that escape is impossible," he said.  He grabbed Bob's
trenchcoat and stared closely at the fabric.
    "You like it?" Bob asked casually.  "I can tell you where to get one at
a reasonable price.  My brother owns a--"
    "Quiet!" snapped Liskviro.  He released the trenchcoat and turned to a
subordinate.  "He was hiding in cargo sector gamma.  We will need to search
for others."
    The other guard blinked.  "How do you know?"
    "Do you see these fibers?" Liskviro asked, holding up something that
could have been a fiber, or possibly a shadow.  "They could only have come
from the fruit of the shtilo tree, which, you will agree, is quite edible
and therefore stored with the food stock in cargo sector gamma.  Thus we
conclude that he was hiding in cargo sector gamma, unless you see a flaw in
my logic...?"
    "Shtilo fruit?" the guard said, squinting at the alleged fibers.
    "It is quite recognizable.  Do you require a lens?"
    The guard looked at the fibers some more, and then at Bob.  "Were you in
sector gamma?" he asked.
    "I'm not sure," Bob lied smoothly.  "I think it was sector alpha."
    "He's lying," said Liskviro.  "Come, we must hurry before the others
grow suspicious."
    "What others?" the guard asked.
    "Come!" Liskviro ordered.  He pointed at the guards holding Jen.  "You
three take the prisoners to the Captain.  He will decide what to do with
them."  He swept out of the room, and the other guards quickly followed.
    Bob looked at the remaining three guards and then at Jen.  The blond
Terran groaned as she began to regain consciousness.  He'd made it this far
only to be captured.  All told, it was not the smoothest operation he'd been
a part of.

                                 *   *   *

Megan had never realized how much of space adventure consisted of waiting
for things to happen.  It was disheartening to learn the truth of the
matter.  Next time she stowed away on an adventure, she'd have to remember
to bring a book.  A nice, long one, from the looks of it.
    Orliss was sitting by the door, ostensibly to listen for anyone
approaching.  It wasn't clear what they would do if someone _did_ come, but
Orliss insisted on doing it.  Perhaps it entertained him.  To Megan, sitting
in one place and waiting was much the same as sitting in a different place
and waiting.  She could pass the time by polishing her armor again, but it
didn't really need it and she preferred not to use up all the polish before
she even got back to the _Anonymous_.  There was no telling when she'd get a
chance to pick up another tube.
    Megan stood and walked over to the stack of equipment she'd carefully
organized and pulled out her helmet.  The chronometer was still displaying
the time at the Fortress of Gloom; she hadn't figured out how to set it.
She frowned.  It was almost time for "Otaphi Shopping Adventure", one of the
more surreal Caphanite romantic comedies she'd grown fond of during her stay
on Planet Gloom.  In fact, today was the climactic episode and, given that
the availability of Caphanite sitcoms onboard the _Anonymous_ was nil, that
meant she'd likely _never_ know how it turned out.  "As if things weren't
bad enough already," she muttered.
    "Pardon?" Orliss asked from his spot by the door.
    Megan paused, trying to come up with an explanation for her irritation
that wouldn't sound frivolous.  "Just thinking out loud," she said at last.
    Orliss seemed to accept that answer and went back to his waiting.  Megan
didn't really have any activities to return to, so she started pacing.  Jen
and Bob were of doing exciting spy stuff, and she was stuck hiding in a
warehouse.  It wasn't fair.  Neat things were happening all around, and she
kept missing them.  If only something would break up the monotony.
    ((ATTENTION,)) blared the PA system.  ((ATTENTION.  THE SILENT ALARM IN
THE INDUCTION CONTROL COMPLEX HAS BEEN TRIPPED.  SECURITY, REPORT TO THE
INDUCTION CONTROL COMPLEX AT ONCE.))
    It seemed the gods of ironic timing had heard her prayer.  Megan honored
their efforts with the traditional one-fingered salute.
    "I think they've discovered the others," Orliss said nervously.
    "Yeah," Megan agreed, "unless there's another group of saboteurs
onboard."
    "You think there could be?"
    Megan shook her head.  "Never mind.  Any idea what we should do?"  She
didn't have a great deal of faith in Orliss's hero training, but this
mission comprised her entire experience with the subject.  Maybe he'd had a
class that had covered this situation.
    "I think we covered this in class last semester," Orliss said, tapping
his chin, "and I think I was absent that day."
    "You were _absent_?"
    "I had an economics exam that evening and I needed to study."  Megan
smacked her forehead, and Orliss looked a little sheepish.  "If we knew what
the security forces were doing, maybe we could tell how Jen and that bounty
hunter are doing," he suggested.

    It took a little time for Megan to tune her armor's com-unit to match
the EDIT's security communications network.  What they heard was not
encouraging.  Jen and Bob had been captured and, worse yet, security forces
were headed for the very cargo sector they were hiding in.
    "I think running might be a good idea," said Megan.
    Orliss agreed, and suggested that Megan put on her armor.  "It would be
a shame to lose it, and you might need the protection," he said.  Megan
quickly suited up, and the two grabbed some smaller items they might need
later.  Fortunately, by accident or design they had all packed light.
    Orliss slowly opened the door a crack, and then slowly closed it again.
"The hallway is being searched," he said.
    Megan swore.  ((I'll try the emergency exit.))  She rushed to the other
side of the cargo bay and started moving crates until she could see the DO
NOT BLOCK THIS DOOR sign; the control panel was right below it.  Megan
wasted no time in stabbing OPEN.
    There was a guard right outside, his hand halfway to the control panel
on his side of the door.  ((I thought I was searching this room,)) he said.
    ((There must be a screw-up,)) Megan replied.  ((I've just swept this
room and I didn't find anything.))
    ((What about that guy behind you?))
    Megan glanced behind her and saw Orliss standing right in the center of
the room.  He grinned weakly and waved.  ((He says he got separated from his
tour group a few days ago,)) Megan told the guard.  ((He can't find his
ticket, so we're going to check the logs once we're done looking for the
other spies.))
    ((Are you sure he isn't a spy himself?))
    ((Him?)) Megan took a look.  Orliss was still grinning self-consciously.
((He doesn't look smart enough to be a spy.))
    "Hey!" Orliss protested.
    ((It could be a disguise,)) the guard noted.
    "Yeah!  I could be a spy!"
    Megan gave him the evil eye, but then remembered he couldn't see it
through the helmet.  ((I'll mention that spy thing to my commander,)) she
said to the guard.  ((Thanks.))
    ((No problem.))  The guard half-saluted and went on about his business.
Megan closed the door behind him and pulled off her helmet.
    "'I could be a spy'?" she demanded.  "Did you learn _that_ tactic in
your hero school?"
    Orliss brushed some invisible dust off his shirt collar.  "If there are
guards searching outside both exits, we must find another way out of here."
    Megan had any number of scathing retorts for that, but she reluctantly
decided that escaping with their lives took precedence.  "Maybe we could try
the air ducts."
    They found a grate up towards the ceiling, behind a stack of boxes.  It
was a little high, but the boxes were easily made into a makeshift platform.
Orliss immediately set to work trying to pry the grate off while Megan
sealed the two doors.  It wouldn't hold the Zakavians out for long, but
hopefully they'd be gone soon.  Orliss worked diligently to get the grate
open, but his efforts were stymied by a lack of appropriate tools
    "You wouldn't happen to have an Allen wrench, would you?" he asked.
    Megan shook her head.
    "Perhaps I can pry it off."
    Orliss soon discovered that he could _not_ pry it off.  Megan offered to
give it a try, since her armor had servos to bolster her strength.  At full
power, they traded dexterity for force, but ripping a grate off a wall
doesn't require a lot of subtlety.  Megan started to climb the boxes, but
the combined weight of her, her armor, and Orliss was enough to make the
stack of boxes start wobbling in an alarming fashion.  Orliss quickly leapt
to the floor while Megan set to work on the grate.  It came off without too
much trouble, so Megan stuck her head into the duct to check it out and hit
her head on the opposite side.
    "We've got a problem," she said, glad that she was wearing a helmet.
"The duct's only ten centimeters across."
    To his credit, Orliss kept his cool.  "Very well," he said, "we shall
move on to the next plan."
    "What's that?"
    "I'm not certain yet."

                                 *   *   *

Bob and Jen were taken to the Captain's office, as he didn't trust potential
saboteurs on the bridge.  This was a perplexing rationale, as the office was
only accessible through the bridge, but they chose not to question it.  Best
not to annoy a man whose underlings are poking guns in your back.
    Captain Etsushin didn't look up when they entered.  He continued not to
look up when their escort followed them in and closed the door behind them.
He was scribbling in a notebook and muttering softly.  The three guards,
unfazed by this behavior, stood at parade rest just inside the door.  Bob
applied the old proverb "When in a secret Zakavian superweapon, do as the
Zakavians do" and stood quietly.  There was little to be gained by making a
scene.
    "You think we can get this over with?" demanded Jen, pounding on
Etsushin's desk.  "Some of us have other things--"
    "Silence!" shouted the green-skinned Captain.  The guards winced and
took a step back.  "You do not touch my desk!  Is that understood?  My desk
is inviolate!"
    "Look, fine, I'm not gonna mess with your desk."
    "Silence!  I will not abide shouting in my office!"
    "You're the one shouting," Jen muttered, taken aback by his vehemence.
In spite of himself, Bob nodded in agreement.
    ((She's right,)) one of the guards added.
    Etsushin narrowed his eyes and pointed to the guard next to the one who
had spoken.  "Take that traitor to the brig," he ordered.
    With a shrug, the guard escorted his associate out of the office.
    Etsushin fixed the two fugitives with a look that made Liskviro's seem
positively friendly.  Standing from his chair, he walked around the desk to
come face to face with Jen.  He gave her borrowed uniform an appraising
glance.
    "Tell me," he said, "why is an agent of the Mysterious and Powerful
Guild of Vending Machine Technicians wandering around my induction control
complex?"  Jen started to protest, but Etsushin had already moved on to Bob.
"And you, I don't know who you are or who you work for, but you're certainly
suspicious."
    "How so?" asked the reptilian bounty hunter.
    "Silence!  I do not explain myself to saboteurs!"
    "So I'd noticed."
    For a moment, Etsushin stared at Bob with a rage as hot as a thousand
suns, but then he shook his head and laughed.  A big, deep, belly laugh,
complete with dismissive hand waving.  "Very clever of you, trying to make
me mad and increase my blood pressure so my HEAD would explode."  He laughed
again.
    "Um," Bob started to say.
    "Silence!"  He stabbed a finger at Jen.  "You!  What is the Guild
planning?"
    "How should I know?" Jen asked.
    "You should know because the Guild told you before they sent you here on
the mission you're tying to complete.  Do you expect me to believe the Guild
sent you here without telling you what to do?  Hah!"
    "I'm not _in_ the guild!" Jen protested.  "I never even _heard_ of it
until a few days ago."
    "Silence!"
    "Stop _saying_ that!" Jen shouted, pounding his desk again.
    Etsushin's eyes bugged out.  Bob winced, and the remaining guard took
another step back.  It seemed the shouting match had only begun.

                                 *   *   *

Megan had given up on finding another escape route.  Instead, she was
concerned with how they would handle the Zakavians once they got into the
room.  There were a number of possibilities she could think of, but they all
shared one flaw.  They were all unlikely to work.  Orliss wasn't much help.
He was still convinced that escape was possible.
    "I found it!  We _can_ get... oh, wait."
    "Another closet?"
    "Never mind."
    They would need to think of something soon.  She'd heard guards
gathering outside both doors.  They'd be inside before long.  While Megan
had been able to pass herself off as Zakavian in the past, she didn't think
her act would withstand scrutiny.  Orliss couldn't pass for Zakavian at all.
Their only option might be to hide in some empty boxes and hope the
Zakavians didn't search to thoroughly.
    "A-ha!  I... ah, shazbot."
    "What?"
    "It's a panel painted to _look_ like a door."
    Megan didn't like the idea of hiding.  Hiding was basically waiting, but
with more stress.  Not the most appealing of concepts.  A sudden noise
brought her attention to the main entrance.  There was a small glowing spot
on the door.  With a shower of sparks, it moved and left a trail of melted
metal behind it.
    "They're burning through!" she cried, but Orliss was too deep into a
pile of boxes to hear her.  She looked around.  All the crates they'd found
were full of food--no good for hiding.  Even working together, they'd never
be able to eat fast enough.
    The Zakavians were nearly halfway finished with the door.  She needed
more time!
    "I found it!"
    "Orliss, we don't have time for this.  They're almost through the door."
    "It's not another closet, this time.  I think it's a maintenance shaft."
    A maintenance shaft?  "Let me see that."

    The guards stormed into the room mere seconds after the engineers
finished burning through the door.  To their surprise, they found an empty
room (aside from the dozens of crates and boxes stacked, piled, and
scattered about the room).
    ((What a mess.))
    ((If they ate all the shtilo fruit, I'm not going to be happy.))
    ((I don't see them anywhere.))
    ((You think they escaped?))
    A guard went to check the other exit, but it was still shut and its
controls were destroyed.  They hadn't gotten out that way.
    ((Maybe they're hiding in the boxes?))
    "Perhaps, but I feel there may be a more likely solution."
    The guards didn't ask for an clarification.  They'd get no more
information out of Liskviro until he was ready to give it.  He quietly
walked around the room, absently adjusting his mirrored monocle.  He
stopped, seeing an area where the box-cover was light.
    "What is behind there?" he asked.
    The guards quickly moved the boxes out of the way, revealing a small
access panel.  Behind it lay a vertical maintenance shaft.
    ((They must have escaped through here!))
    Liskviro smiled thinly.  "It does look that way, does it not?"
    The guards started to select two teams to explore the shaft in both
directions.  When offered to join, Liskviro just shook his head.  He had
destinations of his own to reach.  If all went well, he would locate the
remaining saboteur before Captain Etsushin extracted its identity from the
prisoners.

                                 *   *   *

    "Stop saying that!"
    "Silence!"
    "Just shut up!"
    "Silence!"
    "Stop it!  Stop it!"
    "Silence!"

                                 *   *   *

With a soft hiss and a squeak from a long-unused hinge, Orliss cracked the
access panel ever-so-slightly open.  He and Megan had climbed and crawled
their way through a number of the maintenance shafts, and they were both
quite sick of them.  Fortunately, the corridor the panel opened into looked
to be empty.
    "I'm going out," he said.  "Wait here until I give the signal."
    Megan nodded.  She seemed calm, but she had donned her helmet to avoid
having to carry it, so Orliss couldn't read her expression very well.
    With another, louder squeak, Orliss pushed the panel the rest of the way
open and stepped outside.  No one seemed to be coming in either direction,
so he stepped farther into the hall.
    "I've been waiting for you," came a voice from behind.
    Orliss spun around.  Leaning on the wall next to the access panel was a
high-ranking Zakavian guard with gold-edged armor and a nifty cap.  "Who...
what... how...?" he stammered.
    "I am fourth-degree Master Guard Liskviro," the stranger said.  "Perhaps
you are wondering how I deduced your location?"
    Orliss nodded wordlessly.
    "It was quite simple," Liskviro said.  He smiled mirthlessly and stepped
closer to Orliss.  "I suspect that even you will concede its obviousness
once I have explained it.  First, I noted that--urk!"
    Orliss watched, nonplussed, as the Master Guard cut off in mid-sentence
and collapsed to the ground.  In the access panel, Megan hefted her blaster
and gave the "V-for-Victory" sign.
    "A pity you didn't wait until _after_ he explained how he found us,"
Orliss commented.
    ((I'm sorry,)) Megan replied.  ((For a moment, I thought we were being
chased by a large number of armed guards.))
    "Let's find a more defensible spot to argue."
    ((I'm all for that.))
    After a quick, scientific decision that involved a coin toss, they
headed off to the left.  Megan muttered something about Virgil, but refused
to explain any further.  Before long, they came to an important-looking
door.  There were a number of features proclaiming its importance, such as
its size, its elaborate frame, and the way it was labelled SHIELD CONTROL
CENTER.   It did not appear to be locked.
    "Shall we go in?" asked Orliss.  "I suspect that wandering around the
hallways forever will get tiresome."
    ((You think it's locked?))
    "It doesn't appear to be."
    Orliss stepped forward, and the door quietly slid open.  Also, the world
seemed to shudder and a pulse of disorientation swept over them.
    ((What was that?)) asked Megan in alarm.
    "I think we've dropped out of overly-hyped space," Orliss replied.
"I've never felt it so strongly before.  It must be a cheap engine."
    ((That must mean we've arrived at Arorua.  If we don't do something,
they're going to--))
    ((Hey!))
    There was a squadron of guards rushing down the hallway.  Without a
second thought or much of a long-term plan, Orliss shoved himself and Megan
into the empty Shield Control Center, closed the door behind them, locked
it, and lowered the heavy blast shield.  He figured it would take a while
for the Empire to burn through _that_.
    "And so we've traded one hiding spot for another," said Megan, who had
removed her helmet and was stretching her neck.  "I think we've effectively
removed ourselves from the game."
    "Perhaps we will find something of use in here," Orliss suggested.
"There must be _something_ important here, judging by the security measures
and general impressiveness of the doorway."
    Megan shrugged.   "I don't figure they'd put a self-destruct button in
the 'Shield Control Center'."
    As it happens, she was right.


HAVE MEGAN AND ORLISS EFFECTIVELY REMOVED THEMSELVES FROM THE GAME?
WILL THE EDIT DESTROY ARORUA?  AMPRON?  THE _ANONYMOUS_?  SOMETHING THAT
    DOESN'T START WITH "A"?
WILL JEN OUT-SHOUT CAPTAIN ETSUSHIN?
IS THAT REALLY A VICTORY TO BE PROUD OF?
IS ANY OF THIS ACTUALLY GOING TO GET RESOLVED?

The answer for that last question is: Yes!  It all "comes together" in the
next "weight-carrying" episode of Starcruiser Anonymous!  (Except for the
stuff that doesn't.)
    SFSTORY: It Came In Through the Bathroom Window
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