Boy's Adventure Tale - Part 11
This is a boy’s adventure tale.
But this is not a boy’s adventure tale prepared by a stuffy old man in a tweed jacket with elbow patches. This is the sort of story that a boy might imagine for himself, filled with action, mystery, a red-hot space queen, and nary a whiff of precious moral instruction.
Well, maybe there is some moral instruction. But this is Reversed Black Maria. Nothing is as it seems, and the thread is–well, who knows? I wouldn’t take any bets right about now.
Boys Adventure Tale Part 11
“Farfar, what’s wrong?” asked Oskar.
His grandfather didn’t answer. Without the slightest change of expression, he struck at Oskar, his knife a green flash of plasma. Oskar rolled aside, almost too late. Farfar’s blade struck the Empress instead, and sank up to the ricasso in her sturdy breast. By now, Oskar knew better than to worry about her. The old man’s misstep bought Oskar the time he needed. Only a short time ago, he might have frozen in terror. He had no idea what was wrong with his grandfather, but right now it didn’t matter. He had learned this much from Inna: act, or die. While Farfar struggled to withdraw the knife from her self-healing suit, Oskar leapt to his feet. With cold calculatedness borne of desperation, he grabbed the exposed zipper fob of his grandfather’s suit, and yanked.
Farfar’s suit went flaccid, and streams of fog erupted from under his neck dam as the air in his helmet gushed out. With a deliberate calm all out of keeping with incipient explosive decompression, he released the knife and carefully tucked the placket of his suit back into place. By the time he pulled up his zipper, blood was bubbling from his mouth. But his blank expression never changed. He reached for the hilt of the knife...
The bridge hatch slid shut, blocking Oskar’s view. A prominent red stud next to the hatch mechanism was marked ‘Emergency Isolate.’ Oskar punched it. The hatch instantly dogged itself tight. He was safe inside the bridge, at least for a moment. With any luck, it was enough time to stop the engines.
But when Oskar dashed to the controls, a complication immediately presented itself. He’d never seen a starship bridge before, except in Rapportspace games, and this one was nothing like those. Instead of neat arrays of holographic buttons labelled in plain Galactic Standard, there was a disorderly constellation of dense displays, and there wasn’t a plain word in sight. Everything was acronyms, codes and numbers. One of the virtual indicators was flashing red. ‘CABIN PRESS: 0000 PA’. Its meaning was obvious. Oskar touched it.
It changed to ‘SELECT PRESS RANGE: DEFAULT/MANUAL/BACK’.
‘Default’ seemed like a good choice for air pressure. Oskar selected it. Air thundered through Galaxia. As soon as the pressure display flashed green, Oskar removed his helmet. The recycled cabin air smelled like a spring breeze. Free of his blood-splattered, halitosis-scented fishbowl, Oskar searched the patchwork of holographic control panels for the engine controls. He found one that appeared to be a navigation display. It displayed their current location: ‘Loop II Region, Polaris Flare Subgroup, GC (212),323,192’–meaningless to Oskar, but clearly remote–but nothing that could be drive controls. He swiped it aside, revealing another cloud of nested holos brimming with arcane controls.
A loud clang announced that the bridge hatch was unlocked.
Oscar whirled just in time to avoid Farfar Hendrik’s knife thrust. The old soldier pivoted on his forward leg to follow through, never breaking his momentum. Oskar only escaped by vaulting over a console. His grandfather’s head appeared above it. Thanks to the bridge’s clear dome, he wore an incongruous gloriole of star–studded clouds. Blank eyes under auburn-grizzled brows locked on Oskar.
His prey was not so easily cowed. “What's wrong with you, Farfar?! It’s me, Oskar!” he shouted, though he knew full well that it was futile. Like the Galaxia, his grandfather was under someone else’s control.
In the blink of an eye, the vista overhead changed.
Galaxia was now in the rosy depths of an emission nebula. Serried formations of shadowy warships were silhouetted against it. Just as Inna had feared, the next ghostride had delivered them into the hands of the enemy.
In the terror of the moment, Oskar took his eyes off his tormentor. When Farfar scrambled over the console it took him by surprise, and he barely managed to catch his grandfather’s hands before he plunged the knife into his chest. They grappled desperately against a backdrop of scarlet nebulosity and blinding sapphire suns. But the tide turned quickly against Oskar. His ankle twisted on the uneven deck, and he toppled backwards. His grandfather was on him, blade raised high for the kill.
Materializing as if from nowhere, a black–clad arm, ropy with hard muscle and flecked with dried blood wrapped around Hendrick's neck. Another strong hand relieved him of his stolen plasma knife.
The Empress! She's alive again!
“Don’t hurt Farfar!” Oskar yelled.
Inna’s face appeared beside his grandfather's, her eyebrows high in surprise. “Farfar?! This is Hendrik?! I understand now. Which arm is his new one?” she asked scratchily. Her vocal cords weren’t quite done rebuilding.
“His right one.”
“There’s a dressing in your right belt pouch. Get it out.”
Oskar checked. There was a foil packet marked with a red cross in the pouch. “What do I need this for?” he asked.
“To keep him from bleeding out.”
Without warning, Inna lopped off Farfar’s right arm at the shoulder. The old man went limp.
Oskar shrieked. Inna ignored him. She snatched the pouch from his hand and ripped it open. She slapped the smart dressing over Farfar’s spurting wound. It flowed outward of its own accord, and snapped into place, sealing his stump and the sleeve of his suit at the same time. Inna lowered him carefully to the deck.
“The suit triage protocol has kicked in. He’ll be okay for a few hours,” she said.
Oskar reeled. “But why, why did you do that?”
“I’ve seen this before. It’s the only way.”
“There’s no time to explain. We’ve got bigger problems.” She vaulted over the console and plunged into the holoconstellation. Her brow furrowed. “We’ve ridden into a shitstorm. But I think we’re in luck. They’re still hailing on the comm channel.” A strangely modulated voice boomed out of hidden speakers.
“Unit Loki, this is Surt. Deactivate your Casper suite and prepare for boarding. Is the subject under control?”
Inna didn’t answer him. Her frown stretched into a sneer as she worked the Galaxia’s controls.
The speakers came alive again. “Unit Loki, acknowledge. Is the subject under control?”
Inna cracked her knuckles like a champion wargamer. “I’ve always said that I’d kill the next bastard that called me a subject. I’m good to my word.” With a devilish grin and a flourish of her hand, she stabbed a control.
“All units..!” screamed Surt, but he was cut off in mid-sentence when Inna opened fire with every weapon in Galaxia's absurdly powerful arsenal. Before her mighty energy lances small ships vaporized into streaks of incandescent gas, while larger ones broke into cherry-red fragments. In seconds, it was over. Nothing remained of the enemy flotilla except spinning, white-hot debris.
“Promise kept!” Raina exulted. She flipped quickly through the monitors, stopping when something caught her eye. “Ah good. It worked!”
“What worked?” Oskar asked in a tiny voice. He’d never seen anything like her murderous bombardment.
“I deliberately left a survivor. There’s an intact ship out there. I bet he is praying for his engine to spin up, aren’t you, my little friend?”
A woman’s voice replied. “This is the human vessel Alcyone. We surrender,” she said, sounding tired and desperately afraid.
“You don’t want to surrender to me right now. I’m in a take–no–prisoners mood. Luckily for you, I want information more than satisfaction. In exchange for your life, tell me you are working for.”
Her answer came back straightaway, in a quaking voice. “We serve the Vizier of the Starry Hosts.”
Inna laughed. “That shriveled old Arzenekoi hellspawn?! Doesn't he ever give up? You may tell him that I am ravenous. If I ever hear of him again I will hunt him down and eat his hearts, tough and rotten though I’m sure they are. Who is your other employer?”
After a long pause, an answer came, even shakier than before. “We don’t work for anyone else.”
“Liar. The Arzenekoi couldn’t have arranged this without help. For the last time, who else do you work for?”
Oskar finally managed to pick out the ship Inna was talking with, a tiny, spindle-shaped craft. But no sooner did he find it than it winked out of sight, ghostriding to parts unknown.
Inna spat. “Coward. I would have made it quick.”
A strange slurping sound drew Oskar’s attention downward. Farfar’s arm lay at his feet. A clear tendril snaked out of the severed end, looking this way and that like a worm protruding from an apple. It noticed Oskar. With lightning speed, it uncurled to snare his ankle.
Inna’s great booted foot stamped on the tentacle. She ground it into the deck with her heel, and it was severed. One end retracted back into the arm, but the loop around Oskar’s boot shriveled to a curlicue of black thread. When he moved, it crumbled to dust.
“I was right,” Inna said. She gingerly picked up Hendrick's severed arm as if it were a dead animal.
“What the hell is it?” Oskar squeaked.
“A biotech parasite developed by the Ord Lex. We confiscated their labs and caches after the war, but the conspirators must have found one we didn’t know about. They slipped that thing into the tissue lattice when your grandfather’s arm was regrown. It’s been there all along, waiting for the right moment to enslave him. With his knowledge of starships and space operations, he was the perfect choice.”
“So are thousands of other people. Why did they target Farfar?”
“Because of me. It’s no secret that your Aunt Kari and I spend a lot of time together. The conspirators gambled that sooner or later she’d visit her family. The ambush back in Old Oslo was nothing but a ruse to get Hendrick aboard my ship. It worked swimmingly, damn my naïve young soul.”
She pulled a biohazard bag from beneath her console and sealed the arm inside. “Good riddance to bad rubbish. Now, it’s time to save the galaxy," she said, then paused. "Or at least our own skins.”