LupinOne straightened his dress uniform tunic, and hands placed firmly on the edges of the podium, addressed the congregation; “Thank you all for coming,” he said somberly. “We are gathered here to honor a fallen comrade, a fellow pilot taken from us before his time.”
In the third row, No_limit sobbed into Vorlon31’s shoulder, while Singleshot offered him a handkerchief.
“For those of you who knew him, Newtron was an extraordinary man. To list his many qualities would take all night, but to list a few, I remember him as being very tidy; his quarters always ready for inspection. And while Newtron was outspoken on many subjects, he was never argumentative about them and though his safety record may not have been the best in TRI, neither was it the worst. Er, he was a clean person …”
“Ah hmmm,” said Delphince clearing his throat.
“Newtron served with us in New Dawn for more than five years,” continued the commander again, “and in that time it was my personal privilege to fly with him, many times. He could be fearless in the face of the Conflux, sometimes dashing into a swarm-filled sector heedless of what-ever strategy I’d worked out, yet he was always ready for anything.”
“Amen”, said Solarwind.
“Newtron was an asset to New Dawn,” continued LupinOne, “and I for one shall miss his interesting stories and amusing anecdotes.” Turning from the podium, LupinOne nodded to Delphince, the hyper-intelligent porpoise wearing a somber black jacket and tie, who now ascended the dais. There, he put on his reading glasses and set forth his notes;
“Fellow pilots,” began the dolphin, addressing the congregation from his great height. “Recently I had the pleasure of spending some time with Newtron, perhaps coming to know him better than anyone. He was an interesting example of your species; quirky, in a way which exemplified some of the best, and at the same time worst examples of the eccentricities for which you humans are ere too. Ironically, our last conversation was on the very subject of mortality, or rather; immortality.” Delphince cleared his blow hole, and adjusted his tie, “Delphince,” said Newtron recently, “remember when you said that immortality was a practical impossibility?” “Hmm?” I answered distractedly — which was my way with him — “what was the question?” “Immortality,” repeated young Newtron, “you told me it was not practical.” “Did I? Well that sounds like a response I would have given concerning that subject.” Delphince removed his eponymous pince-nez glasses and wiped a salty tear from his eye, “Who would have thought that conversation would have so presaged the events which have culminated in our being here this day? And whatever quirk of the human thought process that led Newtron to ponder his own mortality, on what he could not have known, would be the eve of his own appointment with destiny?”
“To Newtron!” said LupinOne, and everyone gathered raised their beers, “I wish I had gotten to know him better!”
“Here, here!” said the group around the table and drank to the toast.
“To Newtron!” said Delphince, “he had his many quirks, but what human has not?”
“Here, here!” agreed the table as they drank once again.
“To Newtron!” said Ambrosius, “he could always spin a good yarn!”
“Here, here!” said the assembled pilots as they drank once more.
“To Newtron!” said McPlowed, “he was like a brother to me!”
“Here, here!” said the group as they drank once more.
“To Newtron!” said No_limit, “he was a pain in my ass, but I still liked the guy!”
“Here, here!” agreed the group, finishing off their first round of drinks.
“To Newtron!” said Dr. McManus refilling his glass, “For an Octavian, he was still a good man!”
“Here, here!” agreed the other Solrain pilots; who were going to drink anyway.
“To Newtron!” said Samwise, “I always enjoyed watching him running from the flux in those swarm fights!”
“Here, here!” agreed the other pilots, slapping the table in laughter and drinking anyway.
“To Newtron!” said Lordopic, “I never understood how he got into New Dawn!”
“Neither do we!” yelled the rest of the crowd, but it didn’t stop them from drinking.
“To Newtron!” said McPlowed, “One of the best pilots I’ve ever flown with!”
“Here, here,” said the other pilots exchanging puzzled glances but still drinking.
“To Newtron!” added SlimPickns, “he would always take the time to say hi when I was out mining!”
“Here, here!” said the table, refilling their glasses and drinking another toast.
“To Newtron!” said Nocturnus, “the laziest pilot I ever knew!”
“Yeah, that’s right!” agreed everyone around the table and still drank.
“To Newtron!” slurred McPlowed, “A crafty combat pilot in the sim!”
“McP!” said LupinOne, stopping the toast, “Do you even know who we’re drinking to?”
McPlowed squinted blearily through his hair at the company commander, “Sure, Newtron,” he said, then glancing around the table and raising his glass; “Good old Newtron!”
LupinOne fished a picture out of his pocket and showed it to McPlowed, “That’s Newtron,” he said.
McPlowed studied the photograph for a moment as he swayed back and forth in his chair, “Hey, this guy owes me money!” he said.
* * *
“Delphince!” greeted LupinOne, “You wanted to see me?”
The great dolphin, clad in a smart brown smoking jacket and peach ascot, put down his violin and strode across the room, where he took the New Dawn commander’s hands firmly in both of his own, “Indeed Lupin, thank you for coming!”
“Always happy to visit a friend Delphince, especially in light of recent events,”
“Indeed,” intoned the dolphin earnestly, “indeed,”
The New Dawn commander rocked back on his heels and looked around the room. Delphince’s quarters-slash-laboratory had the look of a certain Baker Street flat, an affectation that had required considerable efforts to duplicate on the space station. “So,” began LupinOne, “what did you have on your mind?”
The big dolphin stood very straight and rocked back on his heels as well, he then raised a finely boned finger to his lips and addressed the commander. “Now do not be cross with me Lupin,” he warned with a smile.
The Commander was at a loss as to what he might be about to object to, “Uh, OK,” he beetled his brows at his amphibious friend, “what’s this all about Delphince?”
The great porpoise paused for a moment, then spun on his heels and strode across the room. There, he grabbed the corner of a tarpaulin, which was draped over a medium sized object and, with a flourish, whisked it away.
“Oh, my god,” said LupinOne, his eyes growing large. “Delphince, what have you done?”
“I know, I know,” said the embarrassed dolphin; grimacing and blushing pinkly.
“Delphince!” said LupinOne sternly, “You’ve cloned Newtron!”
“Yes, I know I did,” said the dolphin in apologetic tones, and then gushed; “I just could not stop myself, I felt so badly that in the end I may have let the poor man down.”
“Delphince!” repeated the New Dawn commander, about to further chastise his learned colleague, but then LupinOne stopped and found himself starring at the seated figure, “Delphince, what’s wrong with him?”
“Oh,” said the dolphin, turning to look at the slack-jawed Newtron drooling on the carpet, “nothing, I just haven’t downloaded his memories yet.”
“No, no, not that,” replied LupinOne, peering more closely at the Newtron doppelganger, “he looks older,” he said, “a lot older.”
“Hmm,” murmured Delphince flicking a bit of lint off of the Newtron’s forehead, “yes, I must admit I forgot to set the timer. He is a bit well-done.”
LupinOne leaned in and to inspect the clone, “I don’t think that’s all,” said the commander, “you notice his hair is parted on the wrong side too?”
Delphince clasped his hands together and huffed though his blow-hole, “Fine,” he said, “I got him reversed, you caught me, any other criticisms Lupin? I certainly did not expect you to come over here and have you critique my work. I did not have a much time you know, and considering the loss of his POD and his entire body, I was working from limited DNA samples.”
“Delphince,” began LupinOne placatingly, “you of all people should realize how rarely these clone-things work out. I don’t know a single case where everybody was happy about the results.”
“Fine, fine!” said Delphince, who promptly wheeled the seated clone out of the room, “You need not say another word, and I trust you can see yourself out?”
The New Dawn commander stood in the center of the Victorian-styled chambers for a moment, unsure of how to respond to his distraught friend then nodded and let himself out.
“What’s this?” asked LupinOne, holding up a small package.
“It arrived in the mail this morning,” answered Hermex, who was busy typing in the corner, “It was addressed to you personally.”
The New Dawn commander inspected the handwritten address, then tore open the padded envelope and removed a memory disk from within. On the cover was a piece of tape and the words “Newtron” and “Watch in the event of my death.” LupinOne felt his face flush. He wondered if the disk shouldn’t be forwarded to Newtron’s relatives, but then deciding that he owed it to the pilot to honor his wishes and then slipped the disk into his computer.
“LupinOne,” said Newtron from LupinOne’s computer monitor, “Hi this is Newtron, guess I’m dead, oh well.” The New Dawn commander glanced around the office, a bit embarrassed, “I made this recording right after I got back from a recent trip,” continued Newtron, “I figured that even though Delphince didn’t believe me, if I turned up dead then maybe you guys would take this story more seriously.” LupinOne sighed, shook his head slightly and reached for a bottle of aspirin. “Before I get into that story Lupin, I want to remind you of the story I told you concerning the events surrounding your run-in with the super-swarm in Conflux space, what I told you about Khronos turning me into a Sentient and Istvan hiring Liet to shoot me out of space. When you’re done watching this, you might want to have another talk with Tritian concerning everything that happened.”
* * *
“You want an escort?” grumbled the mighty McPlowed as he applied another dollop of oil to the sword he was polishing.
“Not an escort McP,” replied LupinOne as he took a seat on McPlowed’s couch, “I’m taking a road trip and thought the fresh air would do you good.”
The big Scotsman stopped shining the broadsword atop his desk and looked up, “In space?” he asked.
“Well,” sighed LupinOne, “just a figure of speech.”
McPlowed set the polishing cloth aside and folded his hands on top of his desk, “This is about Newtron again isn’t it? By gum, you can’t take responsibility for something like that, it was an accident man.”
The New Dawn commander shrugged expansively, “I’m not arguing about that McPlowed, I just wanted to know if you were up for a trip to GBS station.”
The wealthiest man in TRI space sat back in his chair and ran a finger along the mirrored edge of the sword, his eyes distant. After a moment he rubbed his face with both hands and sighed, “Sure commander,” he said, “I’d love to see the old relic again. When were you planning on leaving?”
“Just as soon as Ambrosius gets here,” answered LupinOne.
“That Quant?” said McPlowed grabbing his sword.
* * *
Dr. McManus leaned forward to inspect Delphince’s work, “Looks a bit young don’t you think?” he commented, “Wasn’t Newtron older than this?”
Delphince slapped a hand to his forehead, “Everyone is a critic!” he exclaimed.
“Well,” said the good doctor straightening up, “I’m sure Newtron was at least ten, maybe fifteen years older looking than this fellow.”
Delphince grabbed a timer off the nearby table, “A million credits worth of apparatus and it is all at the mercy of this cheap Hyperial timer!”
McManus shook his head and clucked softly, “No Del, it just wouldn’t be right. In this body Newtron wouldn’t be old enough to drink, let alone fly a spaceship.”
“What does the apparent age of his body have to do with whether he can fly a spaceship or imbibe alcohol? Has it occurred to you that Newtron might appreciate looking a bit younger? Think of the money he would save on cosmetic surgery in the future.”
Dr. McManus leaned forward again and poked the clone in the cheek, “No, no Delphince, but there are proprieties that must be observed. This one is much too young, practically a boy, it wouldn’t be right.”
“Fine!” exclaimed the dolphin, throwing up his hands and then wheeling the seated clone out of the room, “I trust you can find your way out too?”
* * *
Two Solrain and one Quantar spacecraft appeared one after the other inside the Jumpgate, swiveled around and launched in the direction of Saron’s Shoulder. Their arrival spawned a quartet of Conflux — C8’s and 9’s which promptly arrowed in for their mindless suicide runs against the three highly skilled pilots. While the aliens posed the three pilots essentially no risk, it behooved the three fighters to momentarily delay their journey while they dispatched the kraken, least the flux find themselves an overloaded and preoccupied miner to harass. “Why are we doing this again?” radioed McPlowed, still believing his commander was acting own an undeserved guilty conscious.
Fifteen minutes later the trio had docked at the most isolated station in TRI space. GBS was both dark and gloomy and as eerie as a mausoleum; a demonstration of the deficiency of TRI’s energy conservation lighting program. McPlowed and LupinOne left the hangar bay in the direction of the station public house, while Ambrosius remained behind with the ships. As the two pilots strode down the halls, their footfalls echoed through the apparently empty historical municipal relic while ahead, a small station rat scurried for cover; a living testament to the resourcefulness and resiliency of one of humankind’s antediluvian stow-aways.
As they entered the darkened commissary, a solitary figure rose from a table. “Liet,” growled McPlowed, “I should have guessed this was where it was all leading too.”
“We’re here as friends McP,” admonished LupinOne, a restraining hand on the Scotsman’s shoulder, “In fact I asked Liet to meet us.”
McPlowed relaxed slightly, until Liet raised a blaster, “Just a little insurance if you don’t mind?” said the tall, dark pirate.
“Friends Lupin?” said McPlowed, “What’s your idea of enemies Lupin?”
“Relax son,”said a voice from behind the pirate. Liet turned to see the Brotherhood commander standing in the commissary exit, a deadly looking ion pistol in his hand. “We’re just here to talk.”
Liet glared at the three, perhaps even recalculating his odds, then shrugged and set his blaster on the table.
LupinOne stepped forward and indicated the chairs, “Ambrosius is right Liet, sit, we aren’t here for revenge, just answers.”
“I didn’t mean to kill Newtron,” said Liet taking a step back from the nearest chair.
“Liet,” contradicted the New Dawn commander, “you shot him,”
“I shoot people all the time,” complained the famous Ace, “but that’s not the same as killing anybody. Something happened to his POD, what are the odds of that?”
“So it wasn’t his fault, we didn’t come here to argue about that I hope Lupin?” asked McPlowed.
“Well, seeing’s how we came all this way, would you mind telling us who hired you?” asked Ambrosius. “I’m sort of new to this conversation, but I think that information might be pertinent.”
Liet shrugged again, then picked up his drink, “You’ll never believe me,” he said, “so what’s the point?”
“Try us,” said LupinOne reasonably, “lately I’ve been developing a high tolerance for the improbable.”
Liet shook his head ruefully, then smiled and looked over to Ambrosius and his industrial-looking pistol, “Istvan,” he said simply, “do you fluxing believe that?”
“No,” said McPlowed and took a menacing step forward.
“McPlowed,” said LupinOne restrainingly, then turning back to the pirate, “what exactly did he ask you to do?”
Liet looked from the scowling Scotsman back to the New Dawn commander, “He asked me to shoot Newtron down,” he shrugged, “and then shoot him down again and again and again.”
“Why?” asked Ambrosius.
“To bankrupt him he said,” answered Liet.
“No you idiot,” said McPlowed, “he meant why would a fluxing TRI General Manager pay a low-life pirate to grief anybody? And especially a nobody like Newtron?”
Liet glared at McPlowed for a few moments, contempt for the man churning within, but then he seemed to relax slightly and then shook his head, “Well the man didn’t say, and why would he huh?” He looked over to the New Dawn commander, “but if I had to guess I’d say it was blackmail.”
“That fluxing idiot,” said McPlowed with anger, then he turned and walked out of the room.
* * *
“So what’s next?” asked McPlowed, seated on the couch in LupinOne’s office.”Are you ready to let this go?”
The New Dawn commander reached across his desk and picked up an antique pen, then sat back and said, “You know who gave me this pen?”
McPlowed squinted, “Istvan.”
The New Dawn commander nodded somberly, “I did a lot of thinking on the way back from GBS, Delphince was right, Newtron said Istvan had hired Liet to shoot him down and he was right. Newtron told me the same thing but I thought he was delusional. If he was right about that, how many other things was he right about?”
“Newtron was still a kook,” stated McPlowed flatly, “Maybe Liet was right and Newtron was blackmailing Istvan, and Ist just wanted to scare him. Isty had certainly taken plenty of grief from him over the years. There was that whole thing with Rastamon and Newtron kidnapping the GM’s and holding em hostage in Canis. I still can’t believe Newtron got off on an insanity plea; fluxing Wynars my ass. I’d say Newtron got what he deserved.”
“Yeah,” said the New Dawn commander, “still that wasn’t the version of the kidnapping story I got from Newtron.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it wasn’t,” agreed McPlowed with a sarcastic leer, “And I still can’t believe you rehired the guy after that. I’d of spaced him and saved everyone a lot of trouble.”
“He was given a clean bill of health,” replied LupinOne. “But that doesn’t explain Istvan hiring Liet.”
“Well, who could blame him?” asked McPlowed, “I have no problem believing a slacker like Newtron was trying to blackmail him, and he wanted to send a message outside regular channels.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?” asked Lupin, “That Istvan might have something worth being blackmailed over?”
McPlowed waved dismissively, “Flux, everybody’s got their dirty little secrets, hell, if you knew some of the Shinola I got up to back in the matter-farming days…”
“But Istvan’s a TRI General Manager,” interrupted LupinOne, “and he’s got some problem worth hiring Liet, to do what, scare Newtron? I think getting shot down over and over would be more likely to piss Newtron off, I know it would me.”
“Yeah, well that’s you. Maybe Istvan thought it would work on a coward like Newtron; send him a message.”
“But then Newtron’s POD fails? What are the odds of that? That’s a coincidence on a scale I can’t imagine,” said Lupin.
“Accidents happen, POD’s fail, it’s rare but it’s happened,” McPlowed, “You’d rather believe Istvan has control over the POD system?”
“When was the last time we had a POD failure?” asked the New Dawn commander. “Back during that trouble with the Foundation squad and the super-swarm.”
“So what? You’d rather believe that Istvan is a thousand year old alien who runs the galaxy?” asked McPlowed with a smirk, “Oh, and lets not forget, the other GM’s are aliens too. And that these guys control our economy, the factories and even the fluxing weather. Hey, let’s not forget the flux! Hell, why did Istvan bother hiring Liet? He could’ve gotten one of his pet Sentients to do the job for him.”
“Newtron said the GM’s lost most of their control over the Sentients when Rastamon kidnapped them,” said LupinOne.
“Oh, that’s right,” said McPlowed, “that makes a lot of sense. Super powerful aliens controlling the universe and a second rate pirate and a schizophrenic fluxer foil their plans for galactic domination. If these guys are so powerful how did those bozos figure out what they were up to? And how did they manage to do what TRI Security and a hundred Squads couldn’t? Hell, you said GM Khronos was supposed to have turned Newtron into a Sentient, why didn’t he just turn him into a dead pilot?”
The commander took a while to answer that, “Newtron seemed to think Istvan and the other GM’s didn’t always see eye to eye on things, maybe this was one of those things.”
“So, everything we’ve been told is a lie? That’s what you’re saying?” McPlowed snapped his fingers, “All our history gone! Just like that?”
“Not gone,” mused LupinOne, “but altered to hide the truth. They’d have to write their own version of history to cover their meddling, wouldn’t they?”
“Oh flux,” said McPlowed exasperatedly, “now you sound like Newtron. I can’t believe you’re taking any of this seriously, if this gets out your career as a squad commander is finished. I believe in facts Lupin, not hyperbole. Hundreds of years of history, not to mention common sense, versus the rantings of some nut-job and an incriminating story by a pirate who spends too much time on deserted space stations. Show me one fact, one fact to prove any of this.”
“The POD failure?” suggested LupinOne.
“That was a coincidence,” said McPlowed dismissively, “and an accident.”
“Istvan hiring Liet?”
“Uncorroborated testimony by a known troublemaker,” replied McPlowed with a shrug.
“And Khronos turned Newtron into a Sentient…” murmured LupinOne distractedly.
McPlowed starred at his friend with genuine concern. “Excuse me?” he said, “I said fact, not fantasy. That was the stupidest, craziest story I ever heard that guy tell. And tell me how anyone could turn anybody into a flux?”
LupinOne starred at the carpet and rubbed his chin, “You’ve got to admit, that was some weird Sentient activity a few months back,”
“So?” asked McPlowed, “All Sentient activity is weird. They’re the weirdos of the flux, who knows why they do anything?”
“That one got inside the station, remember?” said Lupin picturing it in his head.
“How could I forget?” replied McPlowed, “sicker cost me millions in repairs.”
“You know, it was like some of those Sentients were actually fighting on our side, they way they kept going after the Balrog gang…”
“Yeah, and marking their territory burning Conflux graffiti into the side of my station,” complained McPlowed.
LupinOne snapped his fingers, “What did you do with those marking?” he asked turning back to his computer.
“Replaced the panels,” McPlowed shrugged, “TRI specialists went over that stuff for weeks, didn’t turn up anything. Why, you develop a sudden interest in alien art?”
LupinOne ignored McPlowed’s comments and called up the directory on his computer, “I’m sure I saved some of those images…” he murmured as he went through page after page of files, “ah, here they are.”
McPlowed got up and came around the desk, leaning over to examine the screen, “Yep, those are the panels we replaced,” he said without heat.
Several pictures appeared on LupinOne’s monitor, showing different angles of the damaged station exterior.
“This one looks a bit like; H-E-L-E-M-E M-N-E-W-T-B-O-N-I-N-A F-L-U-X,” said LupinOne.
“You’re giving it too much credit; I never thought those looked like any Octavian, Quant or especially Solrain letters. Looks like a drunk went crazy with a cutting torch, you guys were just reading words into that.”
“Well,” mused LupinOne, grabbing a pen and notepad, “these last four letters sure look like FLUX.”
“OK,” admitted McPlowed, “Well, the Sentient was a flux, what’s your point? Didn’t the TRI brain-trust go over this?”
“Yeah well, if we allow for the moment that what Newtron’s been saying is true, then we can’t trust TRI to tell us anything relevant,” said LupinOne as he copied the symbols down then circled various groupings. “The first few don’t make much sense, what’s “HELEME” supposed to be? HE LEME, HEL EME, HELEM E?”
Despite himself, McPlowed leaned in closer and taped the screen, “This forth symbol, that looks as much like a P as it does an E,”
“HELPME,” LupinOne jerked back in his chair, “HELP ME,” McPlowed, you’re a genius!” he exclaimed. “What’s next?”
“Crap,” muttered McPlowed.
“What?” asked LupinOne turning to look up at his big friend.
“Well, I don’t know about the rest of it, but the eighth through the fourteenth characters …” he trailed off.
LupinOne turned back to the screen and circled the characters with his finger, “Uh oh,” he said and sat back in his chair. McPlowed straightened up behind him.
“NEWTRON,” he said and ran a big hand across his face.
Ten minutes later the two men sat side by side in front of the computer. LupinOne set his pen down beside the pad, on which was spelled out; “HELP ME IM NEWTRON IM A FLUX” amid the scratched out characters. McPlowed leaned back, knitted his fingers behind his head and asked, “So what’s next?”
LupinOne leaned forward and tapped a few keys on his computer bringing the large holographic galactic chart to life. “I guess we should start doing our own investigation.” He then picked his pen back up and wrote: “We can’t trust what we’ve heard from TRI, everything Istvan might have had the opportunity to influence is suspect. So we go back to where this all began.”
“Which is where?” asked McPlowed quietly, jerking a thumb at the walls and pointing to his ear.
LupinOne nodded, turned to face the holographic map and pointed to Canis.
* * *
“Well?” asked Delphince testily.
The fearsome Octavian pilot Solarwind ignored the tone in the Solrain dolphin’s voice, “It looks fine,” he said.
“Not too old?” inquired Delphince pacing back and forth, “Not too young?”
Solarwind leaned forward to further inspect the clone, “I’d say he’s just about right.”
“Just about?” asked Delphince, stopping abruptly and starring at the Octavian pilot accusingly.
“I meant its perfect,” said Solarwind placatingly. “What do you want from me? You know these things freak me out.”
“You are sure? You knew Newtron well,” pronounced the dolphin, “if anyone would know it should be you.”
“I didn’t really know him all that well,” said Solarwind raising his hands to fend off the assumption. “But aside from the drool, he looks about right. Now can we get this over with please?”
Delphince, apparently satisfied, nodded and then picking up a gleaming white MRI helmet, set it carefully on the Newtron clone’s head. Delphince then stepped over to his desk and tapped out instructions on the computer keyboard. A quiet hum emanated from the helmet and the clone began violently convulsing; thrashing about against its restraints. “Gad! That gives me the creeps!” said Solarwind, retreating from the activity and shielding his face with his hands.
“What was that?” asked Solarwind.
“Woof, woof, woof!” said the clone, jumping off the table and nuzzling the dolphin’s legs, “Woof!”
“Delphince, what was that?” asked a confused Solarwind.
“Oh no,” said Delphince with a look of horror on his face, “Fluffy?”
“Woof, woof, woof, woof!”
“Delphince!” shouted Solarwind accusingly, “not your old dog?”
“Oh no,” said the dolphin shaking his head in his hands, “I must have gotten the recordings mixed up.”
“Delphince,” yelled Solarwind, “stop petting him!”
“Poor, little fluffy,” cooed the tall dolphin, “Did you miss me?”
“I’m out of here!” shouted Solarwind, turning on his heels and heading for the door.
* * *
They found Ambrosius in the commissary putting together a bag lunch for his journey back to Quantar Core, “Feel like taking another little trip? Asked LupinOne.
“What is it this time,” asked the Brotherhood commander, “family reunion in flux space?”
“Close,” replied McPlowed, “but let’s say we keep it a surprise till we get there?”
“How will I know what to pack?” asked Ambrosius as he read a note LupinOne passed him. “You guys are really serious about this?” The note read: “The walls have eyes and ears and don’t trust radio to be secure either.”
Fifteen minutes later the three men launched from the station and headed for the Jumpgate to The Gyre, with the company of Hermex in a heavy fighter.
Their arrival in Canis spawned a very angry eel and a pair of ill-tempered phocaena, never-the-less, faced with four such illustrious pilots, the flux had very short, very bad days. “I never saw myself in the role of the flux hunter,” began Ambrosius, “but if you’re going to waste your time killing a flux it might as well be one that puts up a decent fight.”
After spending the next few minutes canvassing the sector and checking for trouble behind asteroids, LupinOne took the lead and brought his Barracuda bomber to within a few dozen meters of the old station. McPlowed in another Barracuda and Ambrosius in his signature Typhoon hung back, ready to provide cover. Hermex patrolled farther out, keeping a vigilant eye open for ambush. From his cockpit window Ambrosius looked over to McPlowed and made a gesture indicating “What gives?” McPlowed in turn just produced an exaggerated shrug.
LupinOne inspected the old wreck as thoroughly as he could, pulling to within a meter of the structure at several locations. Finally he maneuvered his ship around and very, very carefully, inched it into the warped remains of the docking tube. Once inside, he settled the Barracuda down and examined the portal in the dim starlight. An eerie experience, so much like the docking tube in the Amananth station, yet twisted, the lenses long since missing from the lights and festooned with multiple micro-asteroid pits. Looking around, LupinOne felt the weight of ancient history descend upon his thoughts. But ten minutes later he was still sitting there, after moving the bomber back and forth and reentering from the other side. The next step would be to don his environmental suit and do a space walk, but the idea of being so vulnerable in such a hazardous sector made his skin crawl.
“Why don’t we just unload a dozen nukes into it,” suggested McPlowed, reading Lupin’s mind. “If that doesn’t do it we’ll go get a dozen more until we knock this thing to pieces.”
“It’s long dead right?” asked Ambrosius, figuring the time for radio silence was at an end, “So it won’t be shielded, one nuke in that tube should pop it like a balloon.”
LupinOne considered the alternative; the effort of squeezing into his suit and climbing outside the safety of the bomber, compared to the quick and dirty results of a nuke, “Seriously though, that wouldn’t leave much left to examine would it? But actually, these old ruins are incredibly tough; I doubt a nuke would even scratch it. I hate to say it, but it looks like I’m doing a spacewalk.”
McPlowed groaned audibly, “Does that mean we’re all going too?”
“No, somebody should remain outside just in case,” answered LupinOne, knowing it wouldn’t be him. “Hermex, can we count on you?”
“At your service commander,” replied the Solrain Specialist.
“Well, hell,” answered Ambrosius, “Let me call for some back up as well.”
“Why don’t we see if we can even get inside first?” asked McPlowed, “Wasn’t TRI was supposed to seal this thing up after the Rastamon incident?”
“No, you’re right McPlowed,” agreed LupinOne, “Let me check it out first, you two keep an eye out for more Conflux. Last thing I want is to get caught outside and have a swarm show up or something. If I find anything, you two can fight over who gets to go next.”
Ten minutes later LupinOne was outside his bomber and shuffling through millimeters of electrostatically charged asteroid dust. He carried a large combination probe-pry bar, which he proceeded to jam and twist into every crack and seam he found. After a few minutes his attention was drawn to a relatively clean spot on the side of the tube, which on close inspection contrasted sharply with the dust-caked surfaces surrounding it. A light poke with the probe and a small rectangular hatch popped silently open. He opened the little door with his gloved hand and observed a robust little lever inside, taking a deep breath, he flipped the lever over.
“Whoa!” said Ambrosius, observing from a thousand meters out, “I don’t know what you did, but all the docking lights just came on, and they’re blinking green.”
Even as LupinOne stepped back from the switch, the elevator platform began to move – lowering him and his bomber down into the thin section of station, “I can’t believe this ancient chunk of a ruined station has any power, let alone that something’s working.”
“You sure you want to be doing that?” asked McPlowed.
“I’m committed now,” replied LupinOne, “I’ll let you know what I find inside.” Up, down, left right – they’re all abstract concepts in space, yet the platform was lowering in the direction of the underside of the bomber. In less then a minute, both LupinOne and the bomber had descended far inside the “station”, farther than would have appeared possible from the outside. Flipping on his suit lights, the New Dawn commander was startled to see he and the ship had descended to one space on an enormous turntable, the rotating floor of a giant hangar. “Guys?” LupinOne called, “you’re not going to believe this.” Ten minutes later McPlowed’s and then Ambrosius’s ships were parked on the turntable floor of the dim hanger, alongside LupinOne’s.
“Apparently larger then it looks,” said Ambrosius with uncharacteristic understatement as they looked around the dark, cathedral-like expanse, “I swear the place is a dozen times bigger inside then out; one hell of an illusion. Surprised we didn’t hear more about this.”
“Sure doesn’t look much like TRI tried very hard to lock this place down after they rescued the GM’s,” said McPlowed as he kicked over the remains of refueling cart.
“They did,” said LupinOne. “I was told it was listed as Security-Restricted due to security issues as well as safety concerns,” he shone his light at the floor and bent to examine a fragment of ancient artifact, half buried in the dust, “evidently those restrictions aren’t enforced very well, somebody unlocked this place recently, those look like foot prints going through the dust.”
“Hey, what’s this?” asked Ambrosius as he stooped to inspect a larger object on a darkened corner dais. “It’s a POD.”
The other two picked their way over to join Ambrosius and the three manhandled the bulky casket-shaped spacecraft out into the dim light.
“Well I’ll be,” said McPlowed, “you’re right. How the flux did it get here?”
“This is Newtron’s POD,” said LupinOne as he illuminated the serial number, “and you’re right McPlowed, how did it get to Canis?”
“There’s another one over here,” said McPlowed, pointing to another POD off in the shadows. “What he hell are they doing here?”
Ambrosius turned to LupinOne and McPlowed, “Now that’s a question you should ask our host,” he said, casually pointing into the dark.
The sound of someone stepping through the dust caught their attention and the two men turned as one. “Of course, feel free to ask me anything,” agreed Istvan, emerging into the dim light; blaster in hand. “You know, it is considered impolite not to knock before entering.”
“Istvan?” said LupinOne, taking a step forward despite himself, “what the hell is going on here?”
Istvan shrugged, “I used to live here,” he said, indicating the ruin with a wave of his blaster, “sorry about the mess, it is the maid’s millennium off.”
“Looks like I’d owe that goof-ball Newtron an apology,” admitted McPlowed, “Istvan, what do you think you’re doing”
“I am truly sorry about this Lupin,” said the GM, ignoring McPlowed and with genuine sadness in his voice, “you and Ambrosius have always exemplified the best qualities of the TRI pilots and it has been my pleasure to work with both of you.” Istvan then turned to McPlowed, “You on the other hand, have probably caused me more grief than Newtron ever could. The damage done by your matter-farming exploits have resulted in irreparable harm to the economy. Thankfully I will no longer have to abide such liberties.”
“Well, la-te-fluxin-da,” said McPlowed restrained only by LupinOne’s hands around his shoulders. ”What are you going to do, shoot all three of us?”
“I had hopped it would not come to that,” replied Istvan, to McPlowed, “but it seems you people could not leave things alone. And I would like to point out that I am not normally a violent man.”
With a casual motion LupinOne flung the segment of artifact and hit the GM in the face, simultaneously McPlowed leapt forward; tackling Istvan before he could recover and Ambrosius retrieved the fallen blaster.
“Well, fortunately, we are,” replied LupinOne as McPlowed hauled the GM to his feet.
The floor show over, the three men, dragging Istvan between them, proceeded to explore the implausible station. The first large chamber they reached, upon leaving the hangar was apparently a sizable storage area.
“Gad,” exclaimed McPlowed, “there’s got to be a gross of Istvans.” The walls were lined with growth tubes, in each floated a younger version of the General Manager, illuminated in a science-fictiony green glow.
“Istvan clones?” asked Ambrosius, “why bother? What was he planning on repopulating the galaxy with himself?”
“No,” answered LupinOne, “just outliving generations of humans and the rest of his race, the ancients who built this station and the one in Amananth.”
“And the Jumpgates too if we start believing Newtron,” added McPlowed.
“Guys,” Ambrosius was looking into the next dimly lit room next door, “Wait till you see this!”
The four moved along into the next room; Istvan moving reluctantly under the prodding of McPlowed. The adjoining room was also dark but some illumination was provided by rows of tubular chambers, each casting the same sickly-green glow, and the first two held naked bodies. Ambrosius shone a light into the next chamber, “I guess cloning is just a one of his interests,” said the Brotherhood commander. The four observed many more large liquid-filled tubes lining the walls; the first two held familiar faces.
“OK, Istvan,” said the commander, laying a firm hand on the GM’s shoulder, “get Newtron and Tritian out of those things.”
They decanted the pirate and the until recently presumed dead New Dawn pilot from the tanks, spilling them out onto the deck, where they sprawled naked, until McPlowed retrieved blankets and clothes from his ship.
“What’s going on here, are they clones, or is this more genetic manipulation?” asked Ambrosius, “We’ve already been through that process so we can use the Jumpgates, what’s the point of these tanks?”
“Fine tuning I think,” said Tritian shaking out his hair and pulling on a pair of pants. “The original treatment didn’t work well enough.”
“The genetic manipulation process, it’s to turn humans into Amananthians isn’t it?” asked LupinOne speculatively, “There aren’t enough Amananthians to control everything. Istvan, Khronos, Scorch, Omega, and Josh couldn’t run the empire themselves, so I’m guessing they figured it would be more economical to convert all of us into them. But Newtron was wrong,” LupinOne continued, “he said Istvan and the other GM’s are immortal, but Delphince said immortality doesn’t really work; the body eventually accumulates too many insults, the DNA breaks down and the body deteriorates. But with Amananthian cloning technology, maybe the GM’s just kept replacing themselves over and over again. They could even alter their appearance a bit so that it wouldn’t be obvious that they were always the same people in the same jobs. But there were still just five of them, not enough to really take over. For that they needed an army, so they manipulated the TRI program to turn us into their soldiers.”
“If you can’t beat ‘em, convert them?” asked McPlowed. “So we’re all like, Amananthians now?” he asked, beginning to accept at least a little, the previously implausible stories Newtron had been telling.
“I don’t think the process changed us completely,” remarked LupinOne looking at Newtron and Tritian, who nodded, “maybe we’re like chimeras.”
“It certainly had not worked very well,” stated Istvan irritatedly, laying the blame on the humans for his failure to have conquered them. “Despite reconfiguration, your brains are still too small,” continued Istvan, enjoying the insult, “too primitive.”
They propped Newtron up against a bulkhead and he sat there in a crumpled pile, slack-jawed, and drooled on the floor.
“So what’s wrong with him?” asked LupinOne peering closely at the previously departed pilot.
“Istvan,” remarked Tritian leaning over and nodding over at the GM, “trying to reload the program over and over again,” he pointed towards the other end of the room, where inset into the cathedral-like ceiling, five large parabolas cast a soft pink radiance down upon an oblong dais, and five bronze throne-like control chairs atop the dais
“Duh,” said Newtron while dribbling green drool down his chest.
“Well, his vocabulary’s improved,” commented McPlowed.
“McP!” chastised LupinOne.
Ambrosius knelt down in front of the folded up Newtron, “I’ve seen this kind of thing before,” he said, “I think I know what to do.” And with that he smacked Newtron in the side of the head.
“Ambrosius!” shouted LupinOne.
But even as the Brotherhood commander sheepishly got up from the floor, Newtron’s eyes seem to refocus and he blinked quickly a few times. He looked around in confusion before becoming aware of the four men standing around him. He wiped the spittle from his chin, “Oh, hello,” he greeted them in bewilderment, “sorry about the mess.”
“You’ll never make it out of here alive,” said Istvan from the back of the room, “I’ve called Sentients to greet you when you launch.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said a voice from the darkened mezzanine above. The figure moved into the light and his features resolved from the gloom. “Thought I’d follow along and see what I was set up for.”
“Liet!” hissed Istvan as he recognized the speaker, “fine, at least I will be rid of all of you troublemakers in one fell swoop.”
LupinOne exchanged glances with McPlowed and Ambrosius, “Well, it’s a good thing we brought all those nukes,” he said.
“Did I mention that on observing your arrival, I have disabled the POD system?” remarked Istvan with a leer, “And do not delude yourselves, without my cooperation you will never re-enable it.
“Well, that will certainly add to the excitement,” agreed McPlowed.
“I say one of us takes Istvan along for a ride, if we die, so does he,” said Ambrosius.
“That wouldn’t really bother him though, would it?” asked LupinOne, waving toward the bottled Istvan clones.
“So what do we do with this one?” Ambrosius poked the GM with the blaster, “Even if we get past the Sentients, nobody’s going to believe any of this. We’ll have to bring TRI security back here, and if you guys are right the other GM’s will have them in their back pocket. We could easily be the next ones in the tanks,” he waved at the row of tubes.
“And this station has camouflage technology that enables it to appear completely dead,” added Tritian, “that’s what happened the last time security was here. They went over this place with a fine-toothed comb and didn’t see anything but a crumbling wreck. Ambrosius is right, I appreciate that you guys rescued me and Newtron, but now you’re in the crapper with us.”
A dry sarcastic chuckle wafted over the group, it came from Istvan, who had remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout the proceedings. Now he stepped back from Ambrosius, “The pirate is correct, this changes nothing,” he said with a shrug, “we have other facilities and the temporary loss of one would be insignificant, and I would like to stress the wood temporary. I am expected to deliver a progress report at a predetermined time, when I fail to keep that appointment, my brothers will immediately assume we have been compromised and switch to an alternative, and more draconian strategy. The victory you believe you have achieved will be extremely short lived and only initiate our contingency plan one designed to mitigate damage in the event of this nature of security breach. You can not know when I am supposed to report, or the exact content of said report.” The Amananthian looked directly at LupinOne, “We have been in control since the beginning of TRI development, and in a thousand years you are not the first humans to violate our defenses. We have dealt with human interference many times before,” he smiled wickedly, “cooperate,” he said turning to Ambrosius, “hand me the blaster, and I will see to it that you are not harmed. Perhaps we can even come to an arrangement regarding your future involvement in our plans; we always have need of competent, knowledgeable humans.”
McPlowed appeared to be ignoring Istvan’s exposition, instead, he was standing before one of the tanks, and then turned to the dais, “You know, I’m getting an idea,” he mused softly.
Observing McPlowed, Ambrosius smiled broadly, “I like the way this man thinks,” he said. “Say Tritian, you know how to operate this thing?” he said, pointing at the mind control dais.
As a wicked grin spread across his face, Tritian said; “Luckily for us, Istvan’s brain is just the right size.”
* * *
“Delphince!” said LupinOne, greeting the hyper-intelligent dolphin walking by his office, “just the pilot I wanted to see, come in, sit down.”
“Lupin, understand you, commander Ambrosius and McPlowed had some adventure with Sentients in Canis?” Asked Delphince as he sat, “interesting place for an excursion commander,” he commented.
“And productive,” supplied LupinOne, “Delphince, we found Newtron; I wanted to be the first to tell you.”
“You… found Newtron?” asked Delphince, a look of stunned disbelief on his face; “I do not understand, how could you find Newtron? He is dead, you found his body?”
“No,” replied the New Dawn commander, “He’s alive and well, though he’ll be in recovery for a while. I knew you were taking his disappearance badly, I just wanted you to know everything turned out all right.”
“Yes…wonderful news commander…” Delphince shook his big head slowly, “But how …how is such a thing possible? You found him? Where did you find him?”
LupinOne shrugged, “We found his POD floating in Canis. Anyway, now you …”
“But that makes no sense what-so-ever,” interjected the dolphin quickly. “How could his POD have wound up in Canis? And how did you know to look there? Why would his POD travel to a remote sector instead of to one of a dozen stations? I do not understand, what about …”
“Delphince!” interrupted the commander, “It’s not important. What is important is that we found him, and he’s safe.”
Delphince slowly relaxed his posture, then nodded gently, “Safe… yes Lupin, that is good news, good news indeed.”
“And now you don’t have to clone him,” added LupinOne.
The big dolphin seemed to slowly collapse back into the couch, then he looked up at the commander, “Perhaps that is just as well,” he said sheepishly, “I have been having some difficulty with the procedure.”
“I can only imagine,” commented LupinOne.
Delphince looked askance at the carpet and sat up as a new thought occurred to him, “As it happens, I did encounter something abnormal during the cloning procedure that you might find interesting. Lupin, do you mind if I use your computer to access my files?”
“Not at all,” said LupinOne, abandoning his seat behind the desk for the dolphin to use.
“I was filtering out the canine component from Newtron’s memory files,” he cast an embarrassed look up at LupinOne standing next to his shoulder, “don’t ask…” he said simply, “Anyway, I was deleting some files from Newtron’s memory recordings and I came across this string of code,” said Delphince finished typing and indicated the computer monitor which was filled with lines of machine-code.
“My god,” said LupinOne as he scanned the screen, “how much of this is there?”
“Thousands of pages, perhaps gigabytes of information,” said Delphince clinically, “I would say I found the basis for Newtron’s mental problems; his brain was full.”
The New Dawn commander shook his head as he scrolled through the pages, “Any idea what all this stuff is?”
“Yes indeed,” answered Delphince, “alien.”
* * *
“What’s this?” asked LupinOne as Hermex handed him an invoice.
“Facility Maintenance Services,” replied Hermex casually, “authorization for plumber’s overtime; concerning some big blockage they’re working under Delphince’s apartment.”
LupinOne put the invoice down and reached for the antacid bottle.
* * *
“I’m sending those files you requested to your computer,” said the voice over the intercom.
“Thank you Doris. Could you also send me my calendar for the next month? I may need to rearrange my schedule.”
“Yes GM Istvan,” said the administrative assistant, “I’ll have that for you in a moment.”
“Thank you Doris, You’re a dear.”
“Newtron!” hissed Tritian, carrying a tray full of food, “Watch those contractions.”
Inset into the cathedral-like ceiling of the darkened room, five large parabolas cast a soft pink radiance down upon an oblong dais, and seated in a bronze throne-like control chair atop the dais, Newtron nodded solemnly.