Author's Note: This is a work in progress. I have spent a long time on it, tweaking it here and there, and trying to get it just right. I would really appreciate any feedback you could give me on it, good or bad. I would like to know if you think it's entertaining, or completely off mark.
Garnski once again tried to see the relationship between the diagram in his manual and the mess before him. He should have known that something was wrong when the access cover he had removed was oval instead of triangular, as pictured in the tech book he had been assigned, and now that he was inside the maintenance port things were decidedly askew.
What was suppose to be a simple power relay station appeared to be a major control center for the probe. Instead of finding a simple Phelner fuse to replace he was staring at a mass of wires and circuit boards; of computer chips and processing sub-centers; of everything except what he was suppose to find.
"Book, this is the wrong diagram," he spoke.
"Impossible," replied the book. "This is the relay station of an A-Type 10 probe unit used through out the Empire."
"I don't want the diagram an A-type 10, I want the diagram of a Type 10 probe unit!"
"Then you have requested the wrong manual."
Garnski bit his tongue to quiet his reply. AI's often mistook sarcasm for slander against the Empire, and that could result in the issuing of demerits to one's file. Though last time he had checked, he only had 75 demerits, he wasn't about to push it by throwing out an ill-thought remark.
"I apologize for my mistake. Will you please upload the correct manual?"
"The manual you wish to use is classified level three and must be uploaded directly from the data base to prevent any unauthorized interceptions of it. I will assume, this time, that this well known fact was merely an oversight on your part and not an attempt to make the information accessible to other parties that you are in league with."
Great! Thought Garnski. A simple replacement job and I can't even get that right! He slid out from under the probe unit and walked around to the side hatch, which was hanging open, and peered inside.
"Max, you in there?" he called out. Though not designed for humanoid use, the probe unit was rather large and contained several access tubes through which tech personnel could move.
"I'm suppose to be the assistant, Steve, not the damn tech," replied a metallic voice from within the probe.
"You know, I've been meaning to inform droid support about your faulty command processor, maybe I should do that now."
A sphere, roughly half a meter in diameter, with numerous sensors and antenna, floated out of the probe, its view screen a subtle blue in color. Stenciling on the side of the sphere designated it Maximum 1138, level 5 tech droid.
"That is no longer a valid threat, Steve. You know as well as I do that if they examined me they would find many damaging files in my memory bank about you."
"Not if I wiped it first."
"Try it, fleshy."
"Max, come on, this is both our asses. We're suppose to have this probe repaired before the shift is up and I've got the wrong manual. Can you please find and replace the Phelner fuse?"
"Only if you finish my task."
"Fine, what is it?"
"Tube 3, open panel, splice the yellow wire into the blue, not the green, the blue. Got that?"
"Yeah, no prob."
Steve climbed into the probe and sauntered his way to tube 3, twisting and turning through various cables, pipes, and support beams. He found the panel in question, opened his tool kit, and went to work on it. He trimmed the end off of the yellow wire; trimmed a spot on the joining wire; hooked the two together and was showered with sparks as electricity coursed through him.
Fortunately, for Steve, Max pulled the Phelner fuse at that moment and the flow of electricity died. Staggering out of the probe, his hair now spiked and smoking, his uniform a little crispy, Steve turned and kicked the side of the probe to vent his anger.
"VIOLATION!" screeched a voice from the dark corners of the hangar bay.
It was a voice that sent terror through the hearts of humanoids. It was a voice that chilled the soul. It was a voice that made babies cry, woman weep, and warriors defecate. It was a voice that gave sound to everything wrong in the galaxy, and promoted the empty promise of delivering unerring justice.
"Oh, shit," whispered Steve, slowly turning around to face the source of the voice.
Emerging from the darkness was a form of black so complete that it appeared as empty and cold as space. A two-meter tall cylinder sprouting dozens of appendages, weapons, tools, and sensors, the bot was the most fearsome machine in the Empire.
Judge, jury, and executioner, if the accused had enough demerits, the Imperial Ethics Enforcement Unit was THE LAW of the Empire. It alone had the power and authority to do almost anything it deemed necessary to uphold the standards of the Empire. The only things more powerful and feared were Darklords and the Emperor himself.
"Identify." Ordered the EEU as it held up a tentacle sporting a retinal scanner.
Steve leaned forward, placing his eye against the reader. Immediately a dozen smaller tentacles morphed from the large one, wrapping around Steve's head and holding him firmly in place.
"I am required to warn you that sudden movement could result in the vivisection of your cranium. Please remain motionless while I access the Imperial data base."
"Okay," squeaked Steve.
"Steven Garnski, level 5 tech repair. Please note that your file has been issued twenty-five demerits for the willful damage of Imperial property."
The tentacles withdrew and Steve found himself once again free. "Dully noted, may I return to work now?"
"No? Why does everything keep telling me that today?"
"You are to report to Ethics Officer Lenny at the end of your work shift."
"Why? I mean I've only got like, what, maybe fifty demerits at most…"
"Okay, a little more than I thought, but still, you have to have five hundred before reporting to an Ethics Officer."
"Imperial reclassification directive one-oh-one-three-seven-nine-nine-two. The new amount of demerits deemed necessary for a counseling session is one-hundred-thirty."
"Since oh-one-hundred hours, galactic standard."
"But that was only ten minutes ago! I've been on duty, I haven't had access to the Imperial news net!"
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse."
"But you can't…"
"Questioning of an EEU's judgement is punishable by immediate termination."
"Yes, sir, at the end of my shift, sir."
"Thank you, citizen." The EEU spun around and floated off through the main exit door.
"Is it gone?" came the trembling voice of Max from under the probe.
"Yeah, it's gone." Steve turned and watched Max float out from beneath the probe and hover in front of him. Max's view screen was now red; a color that Steve had learned ment it was embarrassed.
"Nice joke there, buddy."
"Would sorry be out of the question?"
"We've got ten minutes to finish fixing this thing, I suggest we get started on it and quit screwing around."
"Okay, sounds good to me."
"Then I get to talk to Ethics Officer Lenny."
Lord Barlow was having a bad day. His sonic shower had shut down while he had been washing his hair; his laser sword had a short in it that had resulted in the death of his pet Narvle; his cape had come back from the cleaners with the blood spots still on it from his last tax collection (which had resulted in the ship needing a new chief of laundry); his music cube of the month had yet to catch up with them; and now he was stuck in the turbo-lift.
Barlow dug into the doors of the lift, the bionic enhancements of his suit allowing him to tear into the metal. Exerting little physical strength (the suit did most of it), he had begun to pry the doors open when their motors suddenly kicked in. The doors whooshed opened, catching Barlow's fingers in the slots between the door and the wall.
With a curse he ripped his fingers from their temporary hold and held his hands under his arms. His attention locked on the hapless technician that had been working on the lift, his terrified face reflected in the smooth silver of Barlow's mask.
"Lord Barlow, I'm…" started the technician, never getting to finish.
Barlow stuck his arm out, flat palm facing the man, and unleashed a blast of energy that engulfed the technician and left only a smoldering pile of ash. The pointless waste of life was one of the perks that came with being a Dark Lord, and was promoted by the Emperor as being a sign to the citizens and employees of the Empire. It was also his favorite part of his job, usually providing him with a little zing to brighten his day.
Today, however, it failed to even bring a grin to his covered face. He merely watched with an empty impassiveness as a robotic cleaning unit shot out of the wall and vacuumed up the pile of ashes.
"Deck officer!" boomed Barlow's baritone voice as he strode across the vast bridge of The Collector.
"Yes, my Lord," replied a trembling voice that belonged to a small, shallow looking man.
"I felt a disturbance buffet the ship."
"But, my Lord, there was no…"
Barlow raised his arm.
"…report from the science station! I shall investigate this immediately!" He turned and ran to the science station, a mere ten feet behind him, and demanded to know why he had not been notified that the ship had been buffeted.
"There's been nothing…" was all the science officer could report before Barlow's yellow ray engulfed him.
"Take his place," ordered Barlow of the Deck Officer.
The man dropped into the chair, the pile of warm ashes only slightly uncomfortable, and began manipulating the controls of the science station. His hands moved with incredible speed, whether from fear or skill Barlow did not care, quickly finding that something had indeed intruded in their close proximity.
"I have it my Lord!" he squealed. "A mere hundred kilometers off our starboard."
"What is it?"
"Sensors indicate it's a ship of sometype," he continued adjusting controls. "It didn't come out of hyperspace, it just appeared there!"
"Tarkinson, of all the Deck Officers that have served me in the last three months on this ship, you have been my favorite, and the longest lasting," crooned Barlow, placing an arm around the man's shoulders. "Do you know why?"
"Because I live only to serve?" he guessed, his voice trembling slightly less than his body.
"Because I'm your sister's husband's second cousin?"
"Did relations help Uncle Freelone?"
"No," replied Tarkinson, a vision of the former head chef being vaporized for trying to substitute decaf for regular when the ship's stores had run out. "It didn't matter in the slightest."
"It's because you are very, very quick at pointing out that it is always someone else's mistake causing you incompetence."
"Thank you, my Lord."
"However, since you are the one operating the science station, and you are the one unable to answer my questions, I don't see how I can blame anyone else but you this time."
"I would like to take this moment to point out that the maintenance crew has not preformed the weekly calibration of the ship's sensors, resulting in my inability to get the proper sensor readings to answer your questions."
Barlow shrugged, impressed with the quick thinking of Tarkinson.
Tarkinson smiled sheepishly.
"Helm, set a…" started Barlow.
"Course already set, my Lord," interrupted the Helm Officer.
"Initiating drives," stated the HO, a certain smugness to his voice. Tarkinson's not the only one that can suck up, he thought. When he sees how good I am doing what he wants before he…
The HO never got to finish his thought, a bright yellow flash being the last thing to intrude on his consciousness before he was vaporized.
"I hate that," muttered Barlow. "Tarkinson, get another pilot up here and get us to that ship."
Within seconds The Collector had turned and made a quick warp jump to the location of the mystery ship. Considering the distance, and factors of faster than light travel, The Collector was actually at it's new location before it left it's old one.
"By the Emperor's left hand," hissed Barlow at the sight that greeted them.
The mystery ship was massive, easily ten times the size of The Collector, which was amazing in it self since The Collector was the newest, and largest ship, in the Imperial tax fleet. A deep blue in color, looking like a giant rectangle with rounded edges, the mystery ship was strangely dark, not a single light emanating from it.
It was the proverbial ghost ship.
"Report," ordered Barlow of the new science officer.
"Scanning, my Lord."
As the passing seconds began to grow on the Dark Lord's nerves, Barlow was beginning to think that he would have to summon another science officer when the man finally turned to face him, his head hanging low.
"I am unable to get a reading, my Lord," informed the science officer, his voice full of despair and resignation.
The entire bridge crew drew a collective breath. Never had Lord Barlow asked for an explanation of failure. The ship's recording units nearly burned out as their processing units absorbed the moment, one that was already considered historic.
"The ship seems to be made of Bellinium Ninety-seven."
"Are you sure of this?"
"Yes, my Lord." The science officer had deduced that, since his sensors could not penetrate the hull of the mystery ship, it had to be made of Bellinium Ninety-seven. BNS was the only substance that could supposedly block Imperial scanners.
"Could it be that we've found it?" whispered Barlow, unheard by the others.
His mind raced as he thought of what this ment. Bellinium Ninety-seven was the discovery of Doctor Bellinium, who had located a limited supply of the material on a deserted world and used it to build The Outreach, the most ambitious project ever committed to by the Emperor. The Outreach was a colonizing war machine that was to spread the reach of the Empire, but one week into it's mission it had vanished.
His mask, a silver disc that hid his face, and was directly meshed to his hood and cape, fully covered his head, making his huge smile invisible to the bridge crew. Once word of this got to the Emperor he would again be the ruler's favorite Dark Lord, free of tax collecting duty and able to return to doing what he loved best…rebel hunting.
"Launch a Trojan-class probe, I want that ship's hull penetrated so we can confirm what it is!"
Steve woke up with a sore, throbbing head, Max filling his vision as the bot floated above him. Groaning, he sat up and shook his head to clear it, trying to remember what had happen. He had been packing up his tools when he heard the hatch his shut, then there had been a violent force that had slammed him into a bulkhead and blackness.
"Are you okay, Steve?"
"The probe was launched with us in it."
"That's not possible, I listed it out of commission myself."
"Well, err, you see…"
"What did you do, Max?"
"As soon as we finished repairs I listed the probe as active."
"What! How in the hell could you do something so stupid? Well, I guess that's obvious, but why would you do something so stupid?"
"Have you ever heard of a tax ship using a Trojan-class probe? What were the odds?"
"What were the odds that you'd come out of recycling with your memories still intact?"
"The process of wiping a brain's memories then implanting it into a bot for recycling has been around for over a century. They were bound to mess up sooner or later."
"Okay, a billion to one. But that doesn't have…"
"Lesson one; just because the odds are against it doesn't mean it won't happen. Now, how do we get back to our ship?"
"I don't think that would be a good idea."
"A termination order has already been issued for you."
"AWOL. I've been ordered to do it, but of course I can't, what with you being my friend and all. But we have already attached to this other ship, and the probe should be through it's hull any minute. Maybe we can seek sanctuary."
"I don't see how running's going to help."
"Pretend it's your last day and you've got nothing to lose."
"What was that?" asked Steve, squirming through myriad of wiring and tubes to try and make his way to the front of the probe.
"The probe's drill has shattered. Apparently this ship's hull is stronger than Lyllium."
"Nothing's stronger than Lyllium."
"That's a myth, every tech hears that story at the academy."
"It is not a myth, Steve. I was there when they built The Outreach, serving as an engineering tech. Back when I was human."
"Okay, let's assume that it's real. We're magnetically sealed to this ship, but the drilling unit's broken. Now what do we do?"
"They'll probably launch a probe-bot to try an infiltrate The Outreach through one of it's engines. Of course, they will have to self destruct this probe to keep it from falling into enemy hands."
"Oh. Well, can you communicate with the Collector and let somebody know that we're onboard?"
"And of course they'll stop it right away, they wouldn't just blow us up to carry out your termination order."
"Oh, yeah. Well? What are we going to do?"
"One moment, please. I'm scanning my memories of the Outreach…I'm looking for…there it is!"
A high-pitched squeal filled the tiny compartment as Max transmitted a powerful signal to the Outreach, hoping that someone was listening. Steve covered his ears, little good that it did him, the squeal seeming to dig into his head and play hand ball with his brain.
"What the hell was that?" he demanded as soon as it stopped.
"A distress call," informed Max. "And…" he started as a yellow glow engulfed both of them "…it's been answered!"
"Report," ordered Barlow of the science tech monitoring the progression of the probe bot. He was growing very anxious, eager to confirm that they had indeed located the Outreach.
"Sir, the probe bot has become inoperable," reported the tech. "It's drill has broken while trying to breech the hull of the unidentified ship."
"Yes!" screamed Barlow, deducing that the only material that could stand up to Lyllium would be Bellinium. This was it, the proof that he needed to confirm to the Emperor that he had found the Outreach.
"Open a direct line to the Emperor," commanded Barlow.
"But, Sir, he has forbidden you from…" started the communications officer, his sentence lost in the yellow flash that engulfed him.
"Tarkinson, take his place."
The Deck Officer slid onto his second pile of warm ashes for the evening, realizing that he was beginning to enjoy the toasty feeling, and established a hyper-link with the Imperial Palace, dialing directly into the Emperor's private chambers.
The gigantic ten meter by ten meter view screen that slid down from the ceiling already had a picture coming into focus on it, the image clarifying into a richly decorated bedroom covered by finest materials available through out the galaxy. Lush tapestries, heavy curtains, body sized, and fully vibrating, pillows. The room lacked not a single luxury, the entire far wall lined with shelves that held hundreds of sexual devices, a number of which were not designed for humanoid use.
Laying upon the oval bed that was the center of the room, wearing only the natural suit that he was born with, the Emperor was softly stroking the side of a quivering purple mass that was semi-translucent. The mass was subtlety changing shades as the wrinkled hand caressed it, apparently experiencing waves of pleasure.
The Emperor happened to glance towards the bridge crew of The Collector, a startled look of surprise coming over his face. He quickly leapt up from the bed, throwing a blanket over the purple mass, and strode towards the camera, the many folds and overlaps of his body bouncing about nauseatingly as he approached.
"Barlow," roared the Emperor, completely unconcerned about his nakedness. "I told you to only call me through proper channels!"
"I beg you forgiveness, My Emperor," started Barlow, bowing in respect to his master. "I have news for you alone."
"Do not think that that night on Anusian Four in any way…"
"Um, err, I found the Outreach, my Master!" he blurted, cutting off the Emperor before he could say any more.
"Are you sure of this, Lord Barlow?" asked the Emperor.
"The Lyllium drill of our Trojan Class Probe shattered while attempting to drill the ship's hull. Nothing can shatter a Lyllium drill, My Lord!"
"Nothing but Lyllium, you twit," countered the Emperor. "Have you launched an infiltrator to try and get inside of this ship you think is the Outreach?"
"Uh, er, well, no. The science officer assured me that…"
"I suggest that you replace that science officer, Barlow," interrupted the Emperor.
"What? NO! I didn't…" protested the science officer, vanishing in Barlow's energy blast.
"Since you see fit to barge in on me without proof," began the Emperor, Barlow dreading where this was going to go. "I order you to find out the identity of this ship beyond a shadow of a doubt. You are not to report to me, or any Imperial source what so ever until you have this information."
This was how Barlow had ended up on tax collecting duty.
"If you deviate from this order in any way, I shall have every EEU in the galaxy hunting for you, and your crew. Am I clear on this?"
"Good. Now, take off and try to redeem yourself."
The screen went blank and ascended back into the ceiling from which it had come, Barlow standing there in silence with his head hung low. He could not believe that he had allowed himself to become so overcome with glee that he had jumped the gun on validating the identity of the ship. It was The Outreach, of that he was certain, but the Emperor lacked faith in him and, in turn, in his proclamation.
Barlow turned to find Tarkinson standing four paces behind him, already having summoned a new science officer to the command deck. Barlow was beginning to feel a slight sense of respect for this man, Tarkinson's actions reminding him of how he had once been just as resourceful in his younger days.
"Sir, while I was preparing to destruct the probe, as is per procedure, I detected a power surge that indicates a teleport took place. I seems that something in The Outreach beamed aboard the renegade tech and his robotic aide."
"Teleported? Then that means that their shields are down!"
"Yes, Sir, it does."
"Organize a boarding party," instructed Barlow, heading towards the turbo lift. "Have them meet me in teleporter room three."
"Uh, My Lord," squeaked Tarkinson, forever cursing himself in the eyes of humanoids through out the galaxy. "I would like to point out that since we can not scan the ship it will be impossible for us to get a target lock with the teleporters. It is quite possible that you may teleport into…part of the ship."
Barlow thought this over for a moment. On the one hand, Tarkinson had questioned his orders, albeit in a round about way. On the other hand, he had just possibly saved Barlow's life, keeping the Dark Lord from teleporting into a solid object. Seeing no other option, Barlow pulled out a coin and flipped it, thinking heads he dies, tails he lives. He caught the coin, slammed it onto the back of his other hand, and peered at the naked ass showing on the coin.
"Tails," hissed Barlow.
"Sir?" asked Tarkinson, not having heard Barlow fully.
"Double the compliment of the boarding party and have the teleporter chief stagger them about at infrequent intervals. Some of them are bound to arrive safely."
"Yes, My Lord," affirmed Tarkinson, running for the communication console.
Steve materialized three feet in the air, dropping like a rock as soon as he solidified and gravity took hold. He hit the deck with a thud, bruising his backside and yelping out in pain. He saw the numerous glowing spots of Max, hovering a few feet away from him, and nothing else. Where ever they had been teleported to, it was in complete darkness.
"Lights," called Max, the room quickly becoming bathed in a soft, pleasing yellow glow that showed they were in the center of a vast control room.
"Where are we?" asked Steve, rising from the deck.
"The bridge of The Outreach."
"Would you rather we teleport back to The Collector? At least here we're safe for the time being."
"And how long will that be?" asked Steve.
"Approximately five minutes, depending on how long it takes the boarding party to find us."
"What boarding party? What are you talking about?"
"Albert is telling me that The Collector is powering up it's teleporters."
"Albert?" inquired Steve, completely lost as to what Max was talking about.
"Albert, the primary AI for The Outreach. His sensors all inform me that a platoon of Zip Troopers is gathering in the main teleporter room."
"Can things possibly get any worse?" wondered Steve, aloud.
A hum filled the ship, the lights dimming slightly as something in another part of the ship began amassing power. Systems through out the bridge came to life, many of the screen displaying a countdown from one minute.
"Uh, what's going on, Max?" asked Steve.
"One moment please," responded Max in a distant voice.
"What? We've got fifty seconds until…until… What the hell's going on?"
"Dimensional jump in forty five seconds," came a voice over the ship's intercom system. It was a pleasant voice, calm and soothing in it's tone, and it instilled a sense of desperate panic in Steve.
"You might want to lay down for this," said Max, gently floating down to the deck and magnetically clamping it self there.
"Dimensional jump in thirty seconds," said the tranquil voice.
"Lay down, Steve," ordered Max. "You are not going to be happy if you do not."
"What. Is. Going. On?" asked Steve again, stressing each word as he laid down on the deck next to Max.
"You're about to become free of the empire," replied Max, not answering his question at all.
"Dimensional jump in ten seconds," said the relaxing voice.
"Why don't I find any of this reassuring?" wondered Steve.
"Who'd have ever thought that Doc Bellinium would pull this off," stated Max, only confusing Steve more. "Inter-dimensional travel! This is going to be so cool."
"What are you…"
"Dimensional jump drive activated," said the voice, dripping with serendipity.
Three flashes of blue.
Three booms like the passing of a faster than sound air craft.
Very distinct feelings of dropping faster than you were moving.
All of these things were noted by Steve in the second before his awareness shifted once again to blackness, his senses swimming in a void that he thought there would never be any escape from.
Every since he could remember, Davorick had wanted to be a Zip Trooper, fighting the good fights in the name of the Emperor. He had excelled at his studies in school, pushing the thoughts of friends and good times out of his life so that he could dedicate himself to his ideal. He worked out every morning and afternoon, pushing his body to it's fullest limits, insuring that he would be in top physical condition for when he applied for the Imperial Zip Trooper Academy.
Davorick had applied for the academy less than an hour after he had graduated from school, being accepted on the spot. He went through the six months of intensive training, honing his already considerable skills even sharper. He had learned all of the arts of the Zip Trooper, achieving perfection unprecedented in any cadet, graduating from the academy with scores higher than any in it's long history.
Regulations stated that he had to serve six months on a tax collection ship before he could be assigned a position within the true ranks of power. Those in control were eagerly awaiting the close of his tour so that they could put him to proper use, planning on using him in the battle against rebel forces. They had no doubt that he would become their most successful operative, hundreds of plans already formed around his outstanding abilities.
With two days left until his tour was up, Davorick was excitedly awaiting his transfer to the real scenes of action. He knew what was in store for him, where his destiny lay. He was going to ensure that his name went down in the annals of Imperial history as single handedly bringing the rebels to their knees.
All this and a few more seconds of his life flashed before his eyes in the instant that he materialized in empty space. Davorick saw the others of his platoon floating about in empty space like himself, gasping for air in an airless void. One by one, he saw the others begin to pop like the sides of a balloon when faced with no external pressure.
In thousands of alternate universes that had followed this one right up to this point, Davorick became a name more hated than the Emperor's. He had wiped out the rebels, restored Imperial control to it's fullness, and begun a régime more horrid than any other. None of that mattered to this universe, for here, in the realm that they were a part of, Davorick exploded just like his fellow Zip Troopers, all of them having arrived a second after The Outreach made it's dimensional jump.
"Uh, sir," called the new science officer, his readings causing him great alarm.
Barlow simply stood there before the main view port, his head hung low after witnessing the vanishing of The Outreach. He was vaguely aware of the platoon of Zip Troopers teleporting into empty space, then experiencing first hand the effects of zero pressure on a living organism.
"What is it?" asked Tarkinson, letting the Dark Lord sulk.
"There seems to be some sort of spatial anomaly where The Outreach was, it's size corresponding with that of The Outreach."
"What?" asked Barlow, suddenly spinning around to face the two. "What kind of spatial anomaly?"
"Unknown, Sir," informed the science officer. "It's unlike anything in the Imperial data base," he added, not wanting Barlow to think that it was his inability to identify the anomaly that was the problem.
"Can we enter it?" asked Barlow, praying that they still had a chance to follow the vanished ship.
"Uh, yeah," guessed the science officer. "Sure. Why not?"
"Take us in!" yelled Barlow at the helm officer.
"Aye aye, Sir," responded the new helm officer, piloting the ship into the bluish void that had formed in the seconds after The Outreach had vanished.
The Collector moved into the anomaly, bits of Zip Troopers bouncing off the thick duraglass of the view port as they moved through the floating cloud of remains. The front point of The Collector vanished as it entered the anomaly, the rest of the ship following suit as it progressed deeper into the blue hole.
Three flashes of blue.
Three booms like the passing of a faster than sound air craft.
Very distinct feelings of dropping faster than you were moving.
Every living being on The Collector felt their awareness slipping into darkness, even Barlow, and their senses seemed to swim in a thick blackness that was never ending.
They all fell into unconsciousness, their familiar world spinning away from them like a ray of light being sucked into a black hole.
Steve awoke with a start, his eyes opening to see his body stretched out before him, or, more correctly, above him. He was against the rear wall of the bridge, his shoulders and head on the floor with the rest of him leaning against the wall like someone who had been standing on their end and had slid down a little. With a groan he pitched forward, landing on his feet and standing up like a gymnast coming out of a backward tumble.
For a moment he wondered how he had gotten into that position, since there were five consoles between where he had been and where he was now, but decided that he would rather not know. He wound his way back to Max, the robotic unit still clamped to the deck, and it's functional lights dim. He kicked Max lightly, hoping to 'wake up' the bot, but had no success.
Good enough reason, he thought, kicking Max as hard as he could.
Magnetic clamps are far stronger than humans, a fact Steve was painfully reminded of as his foot came to a complete stop with a metallic thud. Cursing in pain, he hopped about on his uninjured foot while holding his injured one. Of all the stupid things he did, why was it always the obvious ones that were so painful?
"I never saw that body!" yelled Max, his panel flashing red as his systems came back on line. "Oh, uh, yeah, um, nice, uh, hell. Never mind."
Max released his magnetic clamps and floated up to face Steve. He snickered slightly at seeing Steve hop around, his impassive scanners telling him what had happened while he had been out.
"What are you laughing at?" demanded Steve, finally able to stand on his foot.
"Hmm. So, where are we?"
"Good question," unanswered Max. "Albert, would you raise the blast shields?"
"Affirmative," replied the soothing voice.
Massive windows became evident at the front and sides of the bridge as thick layers of blast proof shielding retreated into hidden slits. Through the duraglass windows could be seen a vast hangar bay carved out of stone. Intermittent work lights broke up the thick shadows, miscellaneous equipment and crates scattered through out the area.
"Where are we, Albert?" asked Steve, addressing the AI directly.
"In the bridge area of The Outreach," replied the AI.
"Where's The Outreach, Albert?" asked Max, amused at Steve's frustration.
"The Outreach is currently docked in Hangar Prime."
"Why did you bring us here, Albert?" asked Max.
"I was simply following a preprogrammed cycle initiated by Professor Bellinium."
"Where is the Professor, Albert?" asked Steve. "Can he tell us…"
"Powering down for storage," interrupted Albert. "Passengers will be teleported outside of The Outreach for their own continued existence."
"That means he's shutting down life support," informed Max as he and Steve were once engulfed in the yellow flash of transport.
Steve and Max materialized in front of the huge bulk of The Outreach with a small pop, Steve once again three feet off of the floor. He managed to get out a choked curse before dropping to the concrete floor with a bone jarring thud. Still muttering curses, Steve stood up and dusted himself off.
"I'm picking up a faint life sign," said Max, stopping Steve's complaining.
"Uh, no, I don't think so…" answered Max, his synthetic voice trailing off to a murmur.
"Well, what is it?"
"Uh, Steve, I think we should vacate this place," said Max, spinning and heading for the far wall as fast as he could.
A squeaking sound rose up in the air, coming from behind a large stack of crates to the right of The Outreach. Steve peered at the dimly lit stack, thinking that the noise seemed somehow familiar. He was sure he had heard it before, and he was certain that is was nothing he associated with fear. It bugged him that he couldn't remember it exactly, vague images of biology class running through his mind for some reason.
Next to the crates, a huge shadow appeared, the glow of the widely spread lights not touching on that area, and Steve remembered what had made that sound. The biology class had had a mascot, a tiny brown rat that their teacher liked to have them use for certain studies. That rat had made the same squeaking noise as the shadow, but it had not been nearly as loud.
"And the rat wasn't that big!" admonished Steve, the shadow scurrying out into a pool of light.
It was a rat. A very, very big rat! Easily a foot taller than Steve, even down on all fours, with a tail that trailed behind it into the darkness. The rat sniffed at the air, then looked at Steve with jet black eyes, it's whiskers twitching slightly.
Steve's scream echoed through the vast chamber as he ran after Max, on a direct course for the door that he had seen his robot friend heading for. He dared not look back, his fear driving nothing but his survival instinct, which was unfortunate since he would have seen that his scream had scared the rat back into hiding and that he could quit running.
The door had a simple push bar on it, Steve slamming into it without even trying to slow down. He found himself out in bright sunlight, his feet treading empty air, and once again the sensation of falling was upon him. It was a short fall, only a foot, but it was enough to cause him to lose his balance and stumble forward. Green, brown, blue, and white spun around him as he painfully found himself tumbling down a steep hillside, grunting and groaning with each thud as he flipped end over end.
Grass. Trees. Sky. Clouds. They all blurred together as Steve continued rolling head over feet down the hillside, a large patch of grey suddenly filling his vision. The tumbling came to an abrupt halt, the patch of grey being a very large boulder that Steve slammed into with enough force to dislodge it.
Steve sat there on the grass, his head reeling from his lengthy tumble, his senses still seeing the spinning hues of blue, brown, blue, and white. Shaking his head, his vision clearing somewhat, Steve stared after the now rolling boulder that he had knocked free from it's perch on the hillside.
"Oh, no," gasped Steve, seeing where the boulder was heading.
Further down, the hillside evened out as the land became mostly level, a small village nestled there. Surrounded on three sides by sloped hills that Steve was beginning to think might be mountains, the village consisted of numerous wooden buildings and huts, a crowd of people gathered in the center of it as they were apparently having a town meeting of some sort.
The people were all facing a man dressed in flowing black robes who seemed to be addressing them with a great passion. The man's arms flayed about as he shouted, his bushy white hair whipping to and fro as he carried on with his talk. His words were lost to Steve, both by distance and the thunder of the rolling boulder.
It was rolling directly for the town, on a straight course for the lecturing man who was completely oblivious to his impending danger, his back to the boulder. If the people that the man was addressing saw the boulder, they didn't react to it in any way. They held their peace, and their place, their eyes glued to the man, their faces showing terror.
Terror? thought Steve.
Steve clamored to his feet and ran after the boulder, shouting a warning the entire time. He knew that there was nothing that he could do to stop the stone projectile, his only hope that the man would hear his yells and turn to investigate.
At the last possible moment the crowd did react, splitting apart to clear a path for the invading boulder. Confused as to their actions, the man cast about aimlessly, his head finally cocking to one side as if he were just hearing the roar of the tumbling boulder and the shouts of Steve.
The man turned around, his eyes widening in surprise as the boulder bore down on him. He held a large, wooden staff tipped with a round red crystal, and he held the staff out before him as if to ward off the boulder.
With a wet crunching sound the boulder rolled onto the man, coming to a rest on him with only his feet and arms visible from under the mighty rock. The feet twitched for a moment or two, finally stilling as his hand released it's grip on the staff.
Steve skidded to a stop along side the boulder, appalled at the death he had just caused. He pushed against the boulder, trying valiantly to move it from atop the old man, though he knew that there was no hope. The man was surely dead, his life taken by the crushing weight of the boulder that Steve had knocked lose.
Grunting with exertion, Steve put his back against he boulder and tried to push with his legs. His reward was a sharp pain in his leg as he got a charley horse, crying out as he stomped about to try and dispel the pain. He halted his stomping, noting that the villagers were slowly approaching him, looks of fear and apprehension on their faces.
"Uh, hi," offered Steve, certain he was about to be strung up for killing the village leader. "Um, look, I know this is no excuse, but…"
"What is your name?" asked a burley looking man. The man wore simple clothes made of animal hides, sewn together with thick leather string, and had an air about him that suggested he was a rugged outdoorsman.
"Uh, Steve," offered Steve, meekly. "Steve Garnski."
The man grabbed Steve's wrist and pulled him away from the boulder, holding Steve's hand up in the air as he twilled him about before the gathered populace.
"All hail Steve of Garnski!" shouted the man, cheers erupting from the crowd.
The people rushed in, anxious to at least touch the man that was their savior. Steve was patted on the back and shoulders, the people shouting thanks at him as he was led further from the boulder. Food was thrust into his hands, his arms soon cradling breads, meats, and fruits, all the time the people blessing him for his courage.
"I am Kendle," announced the man that had first approached Steve. "Warrior protector to the village of Le' Mon."
"Lemon?" asked Steve, not clearly hearing what Kendle had said.
"Le' Mon," repeated Kendle. "None have been able to stand to the power of the Wizard Fengul."
"You have freed our village from his ruthless control," continued Kendle, directing the laden downed Steve towards the only two story structure in the village. "Surely you are tired after using your magic to strike down the evil Fengul."
"Actually, I'm more in pain than…"
"You will stay here, in my inn, and rest until the night's festival to celebrate our soon to be won freedom."
"I thought you just said I freed you?" asked Steve as Kendle pushed him through the door of the inn.
The interior was thick with smoke from a large, central spit that had a roaring fire going in it. Heavy wooden tables and chairs were situated around the room, a small part of which was taken up by a counter that served as a bar. It looked like most taverns that Steve had seen, but very archaic in design.
"From the wizard, yes," said Kendle, directing Steve to a set of stairs at the rear of the tavern. "But not from his pet."
The two walked up the creaking stairs, arriving at a short hallway that had four doors running off of it. Kendle opened the closest door and entered, motioning for Steve to follow him.
"What pet?" asked Steve. "What are you talking about? I just killed a man!"
"Yes, and I'm sure that the King's reward will be bountiful once you have slain Seglidesh."
Steve dropped the items he had been carrying onto the bed and turned to face Kendle. He crossed his arms and put on his 'I want some answers, and I want them now' look. "Who is Seglidesh?"
"Who is Seglidesh," laughed Kendle, stepping out of the room. "You don't see many wizards with a sense of humor."
Kendle closed the door, his heavy foot falls trailing off as he pounded down the stairs. From his window, an open square with shutters, Steve could hear Kendle talking to the crowd gathered around the inn.
"Tonight we celebrate the end of Fengul," boomed Kendle's deep voice. "Send word to King Midon, tell him that his pleas for help have finally been answered by a wizard powerful enough to stop Fengul!"
The crowd cheered with frenzy.
"Tomorrow, Steve of Garnski shall trek to the cave of Seglidesh and slay the great dragon once and for all!"
"Dragon?" said Steve to no one. "What in the hell is a dragon?"
Barlow was the first to awake, his sophisticated Dark Lord suit administering a stimuli to his system to speed his recovery. He rose from the deck of The Collector, growling slightly as he spied the rest of the bridge crew piled against the rear bridge wall in a tangled heap.
"Tarkinson!" he bellowed, the man snapping awake instantly and prying himself from the tangled others.
"Yes, My Lord," replied Tarkinson, running to Barlow's side.
"You have one minute to revive the crew and find out where we are."
Tarkinson ran to the science station, barking out orders to the ship's computer system. In thirty seconds a fine mist was spraying throughout the air vents, a medical booster mixed and distributed by the computer to wake everyone. As the rest of the crew groggily got their feet, Tarkinson was concentrating on the multitude of scans he was running.
"Well?" asked Barlow.
"We are lost, My Lord," answered Tarkinson, his head hung low.
"Then the legends were true," exclaimed Barlow. His mind reeled at the implications, dark purposes for Bellinium's Dimensional Drive already springing to mind. "Scan for any traces of The Outreach. I want to know where that ship went."
The science officer had finally revived and had staggered over to his console as he tried to shake off the effects of the dimensional jump. Tarkinson helped the man set down, thrilled to be away from the responsibility of finding The Outreach. The computer finally beeped, letting them know that it had managed to find the trail of The Outreach.
"There is an energy signature, My Lord," said the science officer. "It leads towards the third planet of this system."
"Excellent. Set a course for that planet," ordered Barlow. "Establish standard orbit."
The Collector was quickly in orbit of the third planet, a luscious looking world covered in hues of blue, green, and brown. Swirling clouds blanketed most of it from view, the spinning mass quite a majestic sight. Barlow could not recall having ever seen a world with such apparent, natural resources. It would make an excellent addition to the Imperial Territory once they returned to their own dimension.
Inter-dimensional conquest would soon become the next big thing in Imperial expansion, of that Barlow was sure. Once he managed to capture The Outreach and return to his own dimension, the Emperor would have to listen to him…and reward him!
"Location of The Outreach?" asked Barlow.
"Unknown, My Lord," replied the science officer quickly. He figured that if he could answer Barlow's questions fast enough, pointing out that…
Tarkinson dusted off the pile of ashes left from the science officer and sat himself down at the console. He began going over the previous readings, his own set of scans confirming them. The Outreach was nowhere that he could detect, apparently hidden from their sensors by some science beyond their understanding.
"The energy signature enters the planet's atmosphere, then disperses, My Lord," informed Tarkinson. "There are no signs of it on the planet's surface, nor of it re-entering the planet's atmosphere."
"Launch every probe droid that we have!" screamed Barlow, barely containing the rage that was swelling within him. "I want them to report absolutely anything that could possibly be an indication of The Outreach's whereabouts!"
Barlow strolled to the main view port, his hand clasped behind his back as he looked down on the world they orbited. He would not quit until he located The Outreach and had it under his control, the Emperor had left him no other choice. A ship as powerful as The Outreach would be an excellent prize, one could even use it to…. One could even use it to over throw the Emperor, mused Barlow.
Steve jumped nearly a foot into the air at the sudden banging on his door, smacking his head on the top of the window that he had been leaning out of. Rubbing his head, he walked over to the door and yanked it open, ready to tear into whoever was standing there. His curses caught in his throat as his eyes locked onto a massive chest, the knocker at least a foot or two taller than he. Steve slowly craned his head up, locking eyes with a chiseled jaw that just oozed hero.
"About time," said the mighty warrior, barging into the room. The man was nothing short of a walking muscle, numerous weapons and pouches strapped to him.
"Can I help you?" asked Steve, meekly.
"Shut the door."
Steve closed the door, his mind conjuring up all sort of images of his demise at the hands of this fighter. The stench of testosterone filled the tiny room, with a touch of bravado thrown in for good measure. From the warrior's stance it was obvious that he was a well experienced killer, able to weld the weapons that he carried with skill.
"You, uh, don't work for Fengul, do you?" asked Steve.
"Boy, you are a coward, aren't you?" asked the warrior, his voice changing as he spoke. The mighty image of the man shimmered briefly then faded away to reveal Max floating a few feet in the air.
"Max!" cried Steve, glad to see his robotic friend.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Calm down, would you, Fleshy," said Max, floating about the room and scanning it with his sensors. "Boy, are these digs primitive."
"Max, do you have any idea what's going on? They said I killed a guy named Fengul, a wizard. What ever in the hell that is."
"A magic user. A mage. A practitioner of the mystical arts."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Oh, yeah, I forgot," replied Max, adding to Steve's confusion. "You see, there are certain legends from way back. Stuff that most people don't have access to, but that a properly motivated droid can learn about."
"And this is leading up to?"
"What you are expected to do tomorrow," replied Max.
"I heard them talking about that, out there," said Steve, pointing towards the open window. "They were talking about something called a dragon."
"Yeah, I know. I've been mingling with them. Whether you like it or not, they think that you are some great, dragon slaying wizard, come to rescue them."
"What in the hell's a dragon?"
"Uh, Sir?" broached Tarkinson, backing away from a glow of blue light that was beginning to shimmer before him. "I think we have something here."
"What is…" Barlow trailed off as he spun around to see what Tarkinson was babbling about, the blue glow solidifying into the sparkling shape of a man.
"Greetings, travelers," spoke the hologram. "I am Doctor Bellinium, and I welcome you to Greytion. This planet is minus ten on the Imperial Tech Rating Scale, and as such, I have decided to protect it from being corrupted. Your probe droids are, at this very moment, being destroyed."
"It is true, my Lord," confirmed the newest Science Officer.
"Since you are of the Empire, I can only assume that you have finally duplicated my inter-dimensional jump drive, and are currently assimilating new worlds in the name of the Emperor. I am happy to inform you that that will not happen to this world."
"You dare to oppose the rule of the Emperor!" snarled Barlow, pulling his laser sword and igniting its confined beam of green energy. "I'll see you dead for such arrogance."
Barlow's blade swung back and forth through the hologram, fuzzing the image for a brief second after each pass, his curses drowning out the swishing sounds his sword made. After a few minutes, realizing how futile his actions were, Barlow halted his attack, glaring at the holographic form, which was standing with its arms crossed, its expression one of disdain.
"If you are quite through," spoke Doctor Bellinium. "This is exactly the reason I will not allow the Empire to acquire this world. You have one minute to break orbit, or I will be forced to destroy your ship."
"You wouldn't dare," growled Barlow.
"I would, Dark Lord, do anything to protect my home world."
"This mud ball is not your home world, Bellinium. You owe your allegiance to the Emperor! Without his support you…"
"Would never have escaped his evil and despicable rule," interrupted Bellinium.
"I will see you hang in a torture cylinder for years on end," snarled Barlow.
"You now have thirty seconds to break orbit," stated Bellinium.
Barlow crossed his arms and glared at the holographic image with contempt. "You do not have the power to carry out your threat."
The hologram looked at its watch. "Twenty seconds."
"I laugh at your boast."
"Ten seconds," informed Bellinium, at the proper moment.
"I will use your head for a bowling ball."
"Ah, well, time's up," said Bellinium. "Enjoy your ride."
And with that last statement the hologram winked out.