"Get a little closer, Ryo-Ohki. Youíve almost got it."
Ryoukoís orders seemed to echo throughout the bridge as Aeka watched the main viewscreen and observed the events unfolding outside. The cables from Ryo-Ohkiís docking bay had latched on to the strut that connected the port-side engine to the slender main body of the dull green Galaxy Police cruiser. Once the cabbit had a firm grip on the drifting starship, it could maneuver the other vehicle around and position it so that it could connect with the smaller starshipís airlock and transfer the two detectives over. The moment everyone was on board, Ryo-Ohki would head to the nearby planet and drop the police off so that they could begin procedures to recover their starship.
It was the third dead Galaxy Police vessel they had come across in the last ten hours. The first one they had stumbled upon was drifting above the recreation planet Fantasia IX, a planet she and Ryouko had visited to look for Tenchi. Of course, they were obligated to assist the helpless spaceship, although Ryouko had to put up at least a token protest about going out of her way to help the Galaxy Police. To Ryoukoís credit, it had taken little in the way of cajoling to get her to agree to the rescue.
That one had gone easily enough. When Aeka inquired as to what happened, Detective Second Class Psicolpe had told her that he wasnít sure. He had received a Priority Alpha One emergency transmission from headquarters. Within moments after receiving it, the power began to fluctuate on the ship. By the time he realized what was happening, the whole thing had shut down and he was left to drift alone in space, completely powerless. He had been working on trying to recover power when Ryo-Ohki stumbled on him in space.
After they safely delivered him to the planetís surface, they took off once more, only to be confronted with the exact same situation upon entering the next system in their search. Upon discovering yet a second Galaxy Police starship in a similar predicament, Aeka and Ryouko became truly frightened. After all, their beloved Tenchi (and Mihoshi, for that matter) was on a Galaxy Police starship, and if what had happened to these two had happened to her ship as wellÖ
They had hurried and deposited the second officer on the closest civilized planet they could find. By the time they made planetfall, transmissions began coming in that contact had been lost with Galaxy Police headquarters, nor could anyone seem to contact any of their spaceships. Even ground-based facilitiesí systems had lost power. It seemed as though the entire Galaxy Police force had been rendered powerless, literally.
While Aeka and Ryouko waited for more reports to come in, seeing if there were any about Tenchi, they were informed that there had been another Galaxy Police ship in orbit around one of the planetís moons, and no one had been able to contact it since. Since there was a lack of vehicles that could perform the necessary rescue, they asked if Ďthe Royal Princess would be so kind as to help save that poor stranded policeman before he ran out of air or his ship crashed into the moon?í
It was a harder task than it sounded. Every moment they spent (Aeka refused to call the moments wasted) rescuing others was another moment Tenchi might have been in terrible danger. Surely the same fate that had befallen the other police ships had also happened to Mihoshiís. At that very second Tenchi could have been plummeting into a star, or dying from lack of oxygen, or something even worse. But at the same time neither of them could just leave a man to die in space. Besides their own consciences, Tenchi would never have forgiven them if he learned that they had allowed someone to die just so he could be rescued.
Much to Aekaís surprise, it was Ryouko who tried to reassure her that Tenchi was probably all right and that they shouldnít worry needlessly. It was a touching gesture on her part, but even Aeka could see that it was also something Ryouko had said to reassure herself as well. It even helped, a little.
Every moment seemed an eternity as the police ship was slowly rotated into its proper position. It was taking too long. Somewhere, out there, Tenchi was waiting for them. His life was depending on it. She was certain.
"Be safe, Lord Tenchi," she whispered into the vastness of space.
A Tenchi Muyo story
by D.B. Sommer
Disclaimer: Tenchi Muyo!, its characters and settings, © Hitoshi Okuda, AIC / Pioneer LDC, and Viz Communications, Inc.
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Yeesh. This thing is getting bigger than even I thought it would.
The world had been turned upside down.
No. That couldnít be right. A spaceship could be turned upside down, but not an entire world. It had to be something else. Something that actually made sense. What could it be? Maybe if he tried concentrating.
There were mental exercises he had been taught to focus his mind, concentrating on an imaginary point of light in a field of darkness and drawing it closer to himself at a steady, yet constant, pace. Using that method had enabled him to harness and control his innate power. He no longer needed to use the mental exercise for that, but the method was still within him. The field of darkness was easy, the light almost as much. By the time he had drawn it close to him, he was ready to open his eyes and embrace the world once more.
Where confusion had once held sway, now there was peace. Everything made sense now, assuming there was sense in the universe to begin with. The world only appeared upside down because Saíbre Stargrave himself was upside down. And that was because his ship was upside down as well. He could tell from the shattered remains of the bridge around him that appeared just as upright as he. It was an illusion. Gravity told a different tale.
The portion of the world that had seemed to be upside down was that which could be seen outside the hole that now dominated the port side of what had once been the bridge. Stargraveís face had been pointed in that direction when consciousness had returned. Sunlight streamed in from the hole. That was for the best since there wasnít even enough reserve power for the emergency lights. And under the circumstances, being upside down with a big hole in your forward bridge was preferable to hanging upside down in pitch darkness.
Fresh air, with the scent of jasmine and a hint of willow, blew in a gust from the hole. That solved the question as to whether the planet they had landed on had a habitable atmosphere, as the starcharts had suggested. It seemed to be supporting life as well, if the grass that could be seen from the hole was any indication. Two things were going for it. Now it was time for the third: to see if it had allowed them to have a landing they could walk away from.
His comprehension of the situation had taken less then three seconds. As he turned his attention from the outside, he realized that he had been too focused on discovering the reason of why the world had seemed upside down. With all of his concentration on that one fact, he hadnít realized that there was a woman locked in a death grip with his safety restraint, and that his arms were around her as well. Ariana, he remembered. He had grabbed onto her during the turbulence, and she in turn had held onto him. Even the crash had not been enough to break their embrace.
"Are you all right?" Ariana asked while still upside down, keeping her hold on the restraint. Due to both her own physiology and extensive physical training, she could have remained in that position for another twenty minutes before fatigue set in.
"Time to get down," Stargrave told her as an answer to her question. She nodded in agreement. As he loosened his hold in her, she tucked her legs up and curled into a ball. Then she extended them, spinning so that she was now turned right side up and fell the ten feet to the bottom of what was once a ceiling not more than five minutes ago. The maneuver was simple for her as she landed gracefully on her feet, tensed and ready for action the moment she touched the ground.
A few meters behind the captainís chair a similar scene occurred as Onita released his hold on Funuyaki. She too touched down easily enough, though she lacked the smooth grace that Ariana had possessed in her own landing.
Ariana held her hands high as Stargrave loosened his restraint. Unlike her, he halfway fell until Ariana caught him. Only a little bit of air escaped from her lungs despite the eighty-pound weight advantage he had on her. She set him down as gently as a cat would a newborn kitten and looked him over with an equal amount of concern.
"Iím all right," Stargrave assured her as he took a moment to accurately assess the damage done to his crew and ship.
"Considerable," was the first word that came to his mind. "Complete," was the next. He absently catalogued the damage: no power at all, a ten-foot diameter hole in the bridge and all of the bridge equipment was ruined, the acrid smell of burned circuitry, and the rear portions of his ship were missing, assuming the diagnostic he had run before the crash was accurate. And that was only concerning the mechanical resources that remained.
His living ones did not fare much better. Fera jumped down even more gracefully from her pilotís seat towards the front. Her copilot, Cheng, had been less fortunate since he had been on the part of the bridge that was now a hole. Looking up and to his left, Saíbre saw Onita helping Malgaunt down from his seat, but Streen was dead. His seat had held firm in the crash, too bad the sensor panel hadnít. It had been driven up (down now, actually) and into Streen. His head was still sticking in the broken screen that had tracked Mihoshiís ship the instant it had entered the system. Now neither man nor machine worked at all.
There were others too. Slykes was dead, as Stargrave had expected when the ship had gone out of control in space. Rakham, the gunnery officer, was lying on the floor too, his back twisted at an impossible angle. Moans of pain were coming from Joffryís position on the newly christened floor. A closer look showed a blackened bone sticking out of one of his pant legs. The other was twisted just as badly as Rakhamís back had been. The color of the bone was normal: Joffry was Ankatackian after all. Their outward appearance was like that of many bipedal races, but they were actually a great deal more durable than most with their dense skin and internal tissues. Anyone else, and their legs would probably have been torn off. True, he would be next to useless in the future until his legs were repaired, but with nearly everyone else dead, even the breathing would serve a useful function.
Angstrom, the science officer/numbers man/assistant cook, was alive and appeared unharmed, save for a dark bruise at his temple. Yoost, his chief computer programmer and hacker, was alive and without a mark on him. And naturally, Malgauntís two assistants just had to be alive and well too. Sometimes, the unworthy had all the luck.
Forty-two out of forty-seven of his crew were gone. They had been handpicked by Stargrave himself. The best people at each of their positions in his organization, all dead now. It would take him months, if not years, to recover and get people as good, and as relatively trustworthy, as the ones he had just lost. Years of preparation wasted in a matter of minutes, with so many deadó
A rectangular piece of metal that had broken off one of the consoles moved, and a grayish lump in baggy coveralls appeared. It looked the remains of the bridge over once and said, "Iíve been in worse crashes before."
Forty-one out of forty-seven then. "I should have known youíd survive." Stargrave addressed Autolycus in a droll voice.
"Of course." Autolycus felt a tinge of disappointment at being underestimated. "You donít get to live as long as I have without learning a trick or two on how to survive spaceship crashes."
"A pity most of the crew didnít have your expertise," Malgaunt said as he finished doing his own examination of the remains of the bridge. "Weíd better see if there are any other survivors."
"There arenít," Stargrave assured him. Remorse threatened to overwhelm him looking over the ruins of his ship. "Everything towards the back, everything that was still attached, lost atmosphere when the hull was compromised. We need to find out whatís still functioning."
Ariana and Yoost tended to Joffryís shattered legs while Angstrom placed a couple of larger, and more solid-looking, pieces of debris on top of one another directly under the communications console. He balanced himself carefully, wobbling several times before finding a good spot to balance himself on, and began dismantling one of the panels attached to the base of the console.
"What are you doing?" Stargrave asked.
A panel came away in Angstromís hands. "There are a couple of reserve sets of communication equipment stored under here. Smaller rigs. ARR-80ís if I remember correctly. Slykes kept them here just in case the primary set went down and we needed backup fast. Also, a lot of the parts are compatible with the main console, and we could cannibalize the smaller units to repair the main one."
"They have an independent power supply?" Stargrave asked.
"Yes." Angstrom struggled to pull a rectangular black case from out of the niche in the console. It came free with a pop, a trail of wires playing out from a hole in the back of the case. "So much for this one."
Angstrom tossed the case aside and repeated the process on a second panel. This time he was rewarded with an intact unit. A quick check showed that it was still in working order. "As it stands, this thing can send a signal up to three systems away. But I think I can boost the signal by jury-rigging it to the remains of the primary unit."
"Do it," Stargrave ordered. Now that they had a chance of communicating outside of the system. That meant they wouldnít be stranded in the middle of nowhere for an eternity. With that newfound hope, Stargrave began taking control of the situation. "Weíre going to keep looking for salvageable equipment. I want everything we can possibly use found. Weapons. Food. Something to make a shelter out of. ImportaÖ"
Everyone watched as Stargraveís face grew pale and his lower lip began trembling. He appeared to age ten years in a matter of heartbeats.
Ariana was the first to react. "Whatísó"
"The Shihana!" Stargrave rushed out of the hole in the bridge. Sunlight washed over him. He was temporarily blinded by the glare of the twin suns high in the sky, but he refused to let that stop him as he staggered towards the rear of the ship and looked around in desperation. The area they had landed on was rocky, with tall gray stones that seemed to stick out at semi-regular intervals next to the ship. Saíbreís breathing was ragged, despite what little physical exertion running outside required. He maneuvered around two stones that stood as tall as him before he arrived at the section of the ship he wanted.
It was only once he was outside that the damage to the Rack NíRuin could truly be appreciated. Over half of the ship was missing, and what remained of it might as well not have been there either. Numerous holes, some the size of a quarter to others five feet wide, riddled the hull where pieces of debris from the dreadnought had struck. Scorch marks covered the length of the ship from the burning reentry it had just undergone. And large strips of wood were peeled back, as though a carpenter had come and tried to whittle the starship down to a toothpick.
But none of that mattered to Stargrave. The only thing he cared about was his Shihana and the special container it had been in. It took him a moment to piece together what was left of the ship and figure out where the cylinder should have been. He scanned the top of the upside down vessel, desperately trying to find the attachment.
Eventually he found where it should have been. The part of the ship it had been attached to had not been lost with the rest of the vessel. However, all that remained of the cylinder were four small metal struts, twisted and blackened, signifying where the container with the Shihana had been.
"NOOO!" Stargrave fell to his knees and wailed to the skies above. "Itís gone! Itís gone! All of my dreams! Why?! Why?!"
The others had followed Stargrave as quickly as they could when he had first run outside. Like him, they had been blinded. Unlike him, they waited until their eyes had adjusted before trying to follow. They caught up to him quickly, just in time to see him scream in rage at the skies and curse every deity he could name. Ariana moved to comfort him, but the moment he was aware of her presence, Saíbre lashed out with a backhand. Her hand blocked the blow reflexively. Though it had not connected, it hurt her just as much as if it had.
"It was all for nothing!" Anger was now overriding the hopeless feeling in his breast. "My dreams are finished! Itís gone! The last Shihana in the universe isó"
"ó Approximately forty kilometers southeast," Malgaunt said calmly as he stared at the red and green device that fit squarely in the palm of his hand.
All eyes turned towards him. Stargrave returned to his feet and took several slow steps towards Malgaunt, almost afraid that if he approached too fast, the man would disappear, as though he were nothing more than a dream. "What do you mean?"
Malgaunt held up the device, displaying it for all to see, but for Stargrave most of all. "I didnít want to take any chances on our prize becoming Ďmislocatedí somehow, so I took the precaution of placing a tracking device on the adamantine shell of the Shihana. Actually, itís placed on the inside of the keypad locking mechanism. As long as it remains intact, so will the tracking device. And according to this, our little flower is located forty kilometers to the southeast. Forty point three, to be more precise."
"How do we know it wasnít destroyed when it hit the planet?" Onita asked.
"Adamantine is strong enough to withstand orbital reentry," Malgaunt informed him. "The Shihana is intact. All we have to do is recover it."
"First we have to get that transmitter working," Funuyaki corrected. "Recovering the Shihana wonít mean anything if weíre stranded on this rock with no way of getting off. Hell, unless someone thought to tell someone else where we were rendezvousing with Yagdagron, even the few people in the universe that donít want to blow our heads off wonít know where to look for us."
Stargrave shook his head. "Myself and Malgaunt were the only ones who knew we would be in this sector. I didnít inform Captain Yolleth until after we had landed on the station as to where the rendezvous would take place. I didnít want to take any chances with leaks on the Yagdagronís side. She might have informed her fleet where she was after I sent her the coordinates, but I doubt it. She was running under radio silence so as to keep anyone from picking up an errant transmission and somehow stumbling onto us."
"Meaning without that transmitter, we might as well plant the Shihana ourselves," Funuyaki finished. That was the problem when you were trying to maintain a high level of secrecy; you never told anyone anything, and now they were going to pay for it.
With a reluctant nod in Funuyakiís direction, Stargrave found himself agreeing with her. "Angstrom. Get that transmitter working. As for the rest of us, weíre going after the Shihana right now."
"Why bother?" Malgaunt said as he began to make his way back towards the bridge. "Itís not going anywhere. And I want that transmitter working now. Once itís sending our emergency signal, then we can run off and get back our prize."
"Iíd feel better with it in hand," Stargrave said.
"If weíre going to make a forty kilometer trek, I want supplies," Malgaunt countered. "This planet hasnít been that accurately surveyed. All we know is it has a breathable atmosphere, no known intelligent life forms, and no nearby inhabited planets. Thereís no telling what sort of predators are out there, or if the plant or animal life is safe to eat. We donít even know what the weatherís like. The Shihana isnít going anywhere on its own. Weíve got plenty of time to gather supplies together and get to our flower in good enough shape to bring it back."
That was good enough for Onita and especially Funuyaki. The remaining members of the Rack Ní Ruin looked towards their captain for what to do next.
"Very well," Stargrave admitted reluctantly. "Weíll get the transmitter working, salvage what we can, then set out. Do you have an extra locator?"
"Yes," Malgaunt said a bit warily.
Stargrave walked up to Malgaunt and held out his hand. "I want one just in case something happens to the one you have, or something happens to you."
Under a different set of circumstances, or with someone he trusted less, Malgaunt would never have done it. But the stakes were too high not to take risks. He and Stargrave still needed each other, and he trusted the pirate as much as he could anyone, so he gave him the extra locator. It went into the pocket of Stargraveís purple outfit in an instant.
Stargrave rested his hand on Malgauntís shoulder. "We still have a chance to win the grand prize. My thanks, my friend."
"And to you," Malgaunt returned the gesture.
Off to the side, Funuyakiís eyes narrowed slightly. For a moment there, when she thought that Shihana had been destroyed, she held onto the hope that she had at last been cut free of the whole disastrous situation. Without the planet killer, their whole misbegotten mission would have been at an end and she might have been able to salvage something of her own from the situation. But no longer. Once again, the chain on her neck was pulled, reminding her of whom she still answered to, and that she was once more brought back into the folds of the most dangerous of games.
"I wonder what happened to that Galaxy Police officer," Autolycus said as the party made its way back to the bridge to begin salvaging the wreck.
"Sheís dead. Her ship was completely gutted and was leaking radiation. Even if it somehow made it to the planet instead of exploding in deep space, her ship probably broke up in the atmosphere," Ariana said. "And even if it didnít, she wouldnít have survived planetfall."
"We did," Fera reminded her.
The thoughts were scrambled, a chaotic jumble of clashing images and sounds that whirled through the mind at an incomprehensible pace. Only forever and only for a moment the pandemonium lasted, then, through the cacophony, a sort of pattern began to form. A thing that resembled coherence.
[You were thinking about something,] a little voice said at the back of a mind.
Yes, that was right, he had been thinking of something. What was it?
The thoughts came closer together, revealing themselves from the mist. [You were evaluating your life. People tend to do that when confronted with almost certain death situations. Although I think it was actually a first for you, in spite of the numerous times your life has been in mortal danger.]
Right. That was it. His life had flashed right before his eyes. His mother had been there. So had his father, and his little cat that had died a while back. All of the later people that had recently entered his life had introduced themselves towards the end as well. Sasami, Aeka, Ryouko, Mihoshi, Washuu, even Ryo-Ohki. And carrots. There were lots of carrots. He was starting to hate carrots. Working in the fields was hard on his back, and he had never been wild about the vegetable in the first place. Anymore now it had seemed that was all he did was hoe and till, and till and hoe, andó
[Youíre getting off track there, boy. Bring it back in.]
Right. He hadnít dwelled that long on the carrots in the flashback anyhow. There had been bad guys too. Dr. Clay. Kagato. That odd couple of guys that had wanted to lock him up on a spaceship and send him really crappy movies. What were their names again? Dr. Forest and Francis? Frunk? Frenk?
[Forget them. They were a couple of twits anyway. There was actually one, single, important thought in that mostly pointless little review you went though. Towards the end. Try and remember it.]
What were the last thought that had gone through his mind? Something about forgetting to pack extra underwear for his trip?
Worrying about the ĎBí he was getting in Home Economics?
That time he had looked through his fatherís collection of films and stumbled upon the Ďspecialí one that had starred his mother, father, copious amounts of whip cream, and leather? That had been a seriously traumatizing incident. Parents werenít supposed to do THAT sort of thing, or at least their children werenít supposed to see it.
[NOT THAT EITHER! THINK, MAN! THINK!]
Ah, yes. It was coming back to him now. It was something about being wishy-washy.
Something about a choice.
[Yes. Thatís it.]
Something about being wishy-washy and making a choice.
[Yes. Keep going. You almost have it.]
It was about finally making a choice concerning one of the giró
Nope didnít remember it no sir completely lost from the memory forever and wasnít ever going to come back in any way shape or form so it would be best just to drop the subject completely and never consider it again since he was never going to actually think about it and that was that about that.
And, much to Tenchiís relief, he woke up.
"Stupid voice," he muttered to himself. It took a couple of seconds before full consciousness returned and he was oriented enough to move. The first thing he did was try to sit up, which he ended up regretting a moment later. Either he had been hit by something, or something had hit him, in the head. There was a large bump on the top of his skull, but no blood. His initial confusion had passed quickly enough to lead him to conclude that whatever damage he had taken was minor. Perhaps the blow to the head was what had triggered that strange voice in his mind. It was silent now, and that was all that really mattered. Once the initial wave of pain and disorientation passed, Tenchi remembered where he was and what events had led him to his current predicament. And that there was one other person also involved.
"Mihoshi." He began looking around the ruins of the bridge. It was a mess, with computer banks having been ripped from their location, wires sticking out everywhere, glass from the broken lights above scattered on the floor, and the material from Mihoshiís normal mess thrown about into different messes. Even part of the wall next to the rear of the ship had buckled inward, disgorging torn metal and wiring all about that side of the room. Mihoshi had to be all right. If anything had happened to her, when he hadnít been able to help even though he was right there, he would never forgive himself.
A groan came from somewhere to his left. He looked and saw a pair of legs, encased in blue pants, sticking straight up from among a pile of debris. They began wriggling of their own accord, and a soft voice filled with woe said, "Ohh. It feels like Iíve been in a spaceship crash."
"You have," Tenchi said as he made his way over and helped Mihoshi out of the pile. He helped her to her feet, and after she confirmed that the world had stopped spinning for her benefit, they assessed the damage to their craft even as the crew of the Rack Ní Ruin were doing at that moment a hundred kilometers away. The assessment was finished quickly, since little still worked on the entire ship.
After failing to get any but the most basic of systems to work, Mihoshi gave up. "Iíll try to get Yukinojo back on line. He might be able to help." It took her a few moments to hook up what little power remained to get him running again.
The head unit that he used to communicate with the others was in shambles. The left half of the mechanical face was torn off and a series of wires hung down like a clump of yellow Spanish moss. One of the ocular units had fallen out, the eye-like camera hanging like an eyeball with the optical nerve keeping it from falling to the floor. And a greenish fluid would occasionally spurt out the side, shooting several feet away. Both Tenchi and Mihoshi winced at seeing him in such a way.
Static overwhelmed what little Yukinojoís audio program could get out. It took a while for, "I don*ZKT* feel so *ZKT*ood," to come out clear enough for the others to understand.
"You donít look too good, either." It was hard for Mihoshi to rein in the tears she felt coming to the fore. Yukinojo would want her to be strong. It was her duty as a Galaxy Police officer to remain stoic and calm.
"But I canít help myself. WAAAA!"
Tenchi winced as the deluge started, waited until it hit its apex, then relaxed as it began to subside.
"Do*ZKT* shed tears f*ZKT* me," Yukinojo told her.
"How bad is it?" Tenchi asked, feeling a surge of depression threaten to overwhelm him. He had barely known Yukinojo, and he was only a machine, but he seemed so lifelike that the idea of possibly losing the computer was affecting him.
"Too dam*ZKT*d to run a *ZKT*ognistic."
Mihoshi sniffled again, then composed herself as best as she could. There were still some options open to her, but there was something she had to know first. "Is your main memory core intact?"
"Then I think I can save your primary neural net." She went over to one of the computer consoles next to the control panel. She hit a button, but nothing happened. Frustrated, she tried manually opening a compartment that didnít have a manual lever. Digging her fingers in as deeply as she could at a corner of the metal cover of the compartment, she braced her leg against a side and pulled as hard as she could. The air was filled with the sounds of her gasping and groaning, but the metal only moved a handful of millimeters, bending slightly rather than giving way to her pressure. She had paused a moment to catch her breath when Tenchi moved up beside her. It was a difficult fit, but he managed to get his fingers under the corner that Mihoshi had pried up slightly. He mirrored Mihoshi by bracing his leg against the side next to hers. On the count of three, they pulled together, the metal making an audible pop as it came free and allowed access to the contents inside the compartment.
Mihoshi pulled out a box with an intricate layer of wires and a variety of lights on the outside. At the touch of a button, the lights flashed in a three pulse series of yellow, green, and red. Satisfied, Mihoshi went back over to the main console, placed the box on the ground, then rested on her back as she began to unscrew several metal panels on the bottom of the main console.
"What was that thing?" Tenchi asked.
Mihoshi didnít pause in her work as she answered, "Itís a storage interface. Once I retrieve all of the circuit boards with Yukinojoís primary neural net, I can transfer them to this box. We keep these around for emergencies, like if the ship is nearly destroyed and there isnít enough power to keep the primary net running. Now heíll be in his shutdown stage the entire time heís in the box, but heíll be in stasis instead of terminal shutdown. Itís the only way I have of keeping him alive."
A third panel was removed and Mihoshi gave a tiny clap with her hands. "That was easy. I can see the circuit boards now. Iím going to pull them ouOWOWOWOW!"
The sound of a lot of electricity being funneled through a body preceded the smell of singed Mihoshi in the air. Tenchi lunged into the prone girl, feeling a brief surge of amperage course through him before Mihoshiís connection was severed.
A small puff of smoke came from Mihoshiís lips as she sat up and said, "I donít think that was the right panel."
"Iíd hope not."
"The one *ZKT* the left of that boa*ZKT*," Yukinojo got out. He could feel his systems crashing by the minute. If Mihoshi didnít hurry, he would cease to exist.
The instructions enabled her to locate the correct circuit boards and she began removing them one by one. There was only one left when she took paused to take one last look at Yukinojoís damaged head. "This is it, Yukinojo. After I pull out this last circuit, youíll be truly off-line for the first time since you were created. Iíve heard other AIís compare this sort of thing to sleep, so donít worry. Iíll turn you back on as soon as I can, I promise."
Through what higher process remained, Yukinojo managed to say. "If I go to sleep, will I dream of electric sheep?"
"Donít be silly. No one dreams of electric sheep." Mihoshi assured him. She gently ran her head along the intact portions of the head. Her voice was full of emotion. "Go to sleep now. And have pleasant dreams. Youíll be awake before you know it."
It was the same thing her mother used to tell her when she was a little girl and was being tucked into bed late at night. It had seemed appropriate to use now, and after the words had left her mouth, Mihoshi knew she had been right.
The last circuit board came out easily, and Mihoshi placed it in the box. It took several seconds for her to properly set the unit up. Once fully functional, she double-checked it and made certain it was operating correctly. Satisfied that his neural net was intact, she set the case in a safe area of the bridge that had little other than cosmetic damage.
"I think heíll be all right," Mihoshi told Tenchi. "The battery system on that can last up to two months. Weíll be able to get him a new ship by then."
"What do we do now?" he asked.
Mihoshi considered that. "Well, one of our professors at the Galaxy Police Survival Training Course, Dr. Lector, said that when youíre stranded on a planet, always preserve dead bodies in case youíre starving and need to eat later. He said donít worry about the flavor either, since most racesí flesh tastes like chicken anyway."
A sweatdrop formed on the back of Tenchiís head. "Ah, even if there were some dead bodies around, I really donít think we need to resort to cannibalism. Iím sure thereís plenty of food on the ship and thereís probably food on this planet too."
"I guess youíre right," Mihoshi admitted. "The next thing weíre supposed to do is set up an emergency beacon so other starships can find us."
Tenchi looked at the main control panel where the communications equipment had been. The emphasis on Ďhadí. "I donít think itís going to work. It looks like itís busted up pretty badly, and thereís hardly any power left on the ship."
"Not to worry. Just follow me." Mihoshi grabbed an emergency light and went through the broken door leading from the bridge, taking the corridor to the right. Tenchi followed close on her heels. The going was difficult since the passageway was littered with broken pieces of debris from the ceiling and walls, leftover gifts from the crash. They had to pick their way over piles of debris, sometimes very carefully due to the assortment of sharp objects that protruded from the piles.
As they made their way down the darkened passageway, the yellow beam dancing across the floor as the light bounced in Mihoshiís hand, Tenchi wondered what she was up to now. Sometimes it seemed she knew what she was doing, but other times, like the cannibalism issue, made him wonder exactly why he was following her lead. The truth was that sometimes being around her was more stressful than finding himself caught between Ryouko and Aeka when it was Ďthat time of the monthí for both of them.
Thoughts turned briefly to that pair, and he hoped they were faring better than he and Mihoshi were, not that that would be a difficult feat. Ultimately, he wondered if he should have been surprised that things had gone the way they had. The duo of the princess and the pirate constantly surprised him óplenty of both good and bad surprisesó but they had a tendency to operate within certain patterns, making them at least a little predictable. Not so with Mihoshi. She was more like the personification of chaos; so tempestuous that even Washuu could not predict her comings and goings. Trying to anticipate what Mihoshi was going to do next was like trying to figure out which way a leaf was going to blow when cast into a tornado. And like the other girls, sometimes the chaos was a refreshing change, but other times it was like being punched in the gut by a three hundred pound gorilla. Mihoshi was a living contradiction, like most of the people that had somehow ended up in his life.
[Which is why you should choose one and get it over with.]
"Shut up!" Tenchi snapped at the returned voice.
Mihoshi turned, shining the light in Tenchiís eyes and blinding him. "I didnít say anything."
"I, ah, I didnít mean you," Tenchi said as lamely as possible.
The tone of his response made Mihoshi look at him curiously. "Are you hearing voices? Sometimes that happens if youíve taken a bump to the head, and youíve got a really big one right on the top there. Maybe youíve got a concussion. Let me check." She moved closer, taking a good look at his eyes. "Ohh. Your pupils were all dilated for a second there. They say thatís a sign of a concussion."
"They were dilated because we were walking around in the dark with only your flashlight to see by," Tenchi pointed out as he shielded his eyes from the glare.
"Oh, right." Mihoshi shone the light back they way they had been originally heading and continued forward. "If you keep having auditory hallucinations, let me know. Thereíre some tranquilizers in the first-aid kit thatíll quiet any voices you might be hearing. Of course, theyíll also pretty much knock out all of your higher brain functions too. And make you drool a lot, but at least the voices will stop. And I can wipe up the drool for you."
"Thanks for the offer. Iíll be sure to let you know," Tenchi said, promising that even if he heard the Lizard King himself begin whispering in his ear and explained how to taste the color yellow, he wasnít going to say a word. Taking heavy medication recommended by Mihoshi was a bad idea, even under the best of times. And the idea of being nothing more than a walking drool bucket appealed to him even less.
Eventually, they arrived at Mihoshiís destination; a plain metal door with a feathered wing emblem in the middle. It took the combined efforts of both to pry the door open, since there was still no power to the self-opening doors in that section of the ship either. Tenchi never thought he would miss the Ďwhooshí sound the doors made and the burst of air that usually accompanied them opening. It was so much easier to just let the blasted things open on their own. And since they were supposed to be powered at all times, the designers had failed to take into account how much effort it would take to manually open them. It was like trying to force open something with a rusty lock.
But the door gave under their combined strength, and they saw the interior of the room. Unlike most of the ship, the room was mostly intact, save for the large cracks along most of the walls. Still, it had fared better than the majority of the ship. Mihoshi began grabbing various boxes, kits, and other odds and ends. The most curious things she grabbed were a set of identical staves that were about seven feet tall and had a series of multi-colored wires dangling from several points along their length. When her arms were full, she began handing things to Tenchi to carry.
"What is this stuff?" Tenchi asked as she plopped a small box with a red cross on the top.
More boxes were placed on top of the first one he held before Mihoshi said, "Emergency supplies. I think this is all we can carry this trip." She fingered her messy outfit. "Thereís some extra clothing here. Let me get changed into my battle uniform, then weíll take it outside."
It didnít take long for Mihoshi to change (after Tenchi had left the room, still holding the multitude of boxes) into her orange and black skin-tight battle uniform. Now that Tenchi thought about it, he wondered if the male members of the Galaxy Police had to wear outfits that were asÖ form fitting as Mihoshiís was. It would be sort of sexist if they didnít, but on the other hand, if some of the policemen he knew had to wear outfits like that, the sight really wouldnít be pretty.
It was only once he was outside that Tenchi was fully able to appreciate the abuse the ship had undergone. The original red coloring of the vehicle was now scorched black. It appeared the engines had been ripped off the vessel, one of them being deposited in the mile long furrow the ship had left when it had made its crash landing. There were holes and rents along the entire length of the ship. A two-meter wide groove rode the length of the ship from bow to stern, most likely from that final shot that had sent the ship on its death-plunge. Armor was peeled back, warped, or melted outright from both near misses of laser fire and from their speedy entry into the planetís atmosphere. It was a miracle they had walked away from their landing at all.
Tenchi took a good look at the planet they had landed on. The area was verdant with plant life. The majority of it was composed of grasses and shrubs, with only a handful of slender trees, or what passed for trees on the planet, decorating the landscape. As far as emergency landing strips went, Mihoshi had made a good choice. The land was level for kilometers around and there were no large obstructions that would have caused additional damage to the ship, not that the amount of damage wasnít appalling to begin with.
Calling the plant life greenery would have been inappropriate. There were a handful of bright reds and exotic purples scattered here and there, but by far the majority of the foliage was a dull yellow that was identical to the coloring of the old wooden pencils Tenchi used when he was in elementary school. The grasses around the ship and in the distance appeared high, much of it coming up to Tenchiís waist and reminding him of pictures he had seen of the African savanna. Wind made waves across the ocean of tall grass, flowing from one direction and continuing unabated until the ripples were out of sight. Tenchi doubted there was any place on Earth, untouched by man, that could have appeared so beautiful. For a moment, a tear threatened to form in his eye.
In the distance there was a loud squawk, and a flock of birds shot out lightning quick from the high grass. They took off, soaring high in the sky and opposite the direction of the crashed ship. That seemed to answer any questions about there being animal life on the planet. Tenchi tried listening for other sounds that might have come from animals, but aside from the ever-fainter squawks, there was nothing. All seemed peaceful for the moment, perhaps as some form of balance due to the loud noise the spaceship had made when it crash-landed.
Mihoshi had only given the land a cursory look before she set her gear down and began planting the long poles into the ground. She had a semi-circle of them done before Tenchi asked what she was doing.
"This is a portable communications array. Itís very powerful and can reach out of the system. Iím going to set it up to transmit a continuous emergency signal with who we are and our coordinates. That way someone can get here quickly, I hope, and rescue us."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Tenchi asked.
"Sure. Go into that red tool box and pull out a pair of ruxeterrs."
"Ah, okay." Tenchi began looking through the box Mihoshi had indicated. He wasnít sure what a pair of ruxeterrs looked like, but he was a man, and if it was a tool, he could identify it. It was a basic instinct with his gender.
Locating the pair of ruxeterrs proved to be a more difficult task than he had anticipated. There were some tools in the box that he was easily able to identify: Pliers, ratchet set, duct tape (that was a universal constant, according to Washuu), bolts, cranks. Other items werenít so easy to identify. There was a wide assortment of various items inside, slender and wide, long and short, one piece and complex with moving parts. His instincts seemed to be failing him as he randomly pulled out a device that had two long cubes attached together by a long wire between them.
Tenchi held out the item for Mihoshi to see. "Is this it?"
Mihoshi let out a gasp and closed the distance between her and Tenchi in a couple of strides. She grabbed one of the cubes and ripped the object out of his hands. The other cube and length of wire sailed over her shoulder. "Tenchi! Thatís a hand-held laser wire. Itís very dangerous and not a toy. If you arenít careful, you could end up slicing off your hand or something more important. Youíve got to take care of dangerous items like this or theyíll cause a lot of trouble."
At first, Mihoshi wasnít sure why Tenchi chose to say nothing, but rather pointed over her shoulder instead. It took a moment to realize that he wanted her to look behind. Perhaps it was something dangerous that only she, as a representative of the Galaxy Police, could handle. She turned and saw nothing out of the ordinary. There were no spaceships, criminals, or wild animals. It was just the tools she had already been using, the cottontail on her uniform, and the rods she had sunk in the ground, except for the one that had been cut in half and was now lying on the ground.
"Oops," Mihoshi said as she realized what she had done. She handed the laser wire back to Tenchi. "Itís a good thing they pack spare rods."
The rest of the work went more quickly as Tenchi helped Mihoshi set up the portable array and program it to send off a continuous SOS signal. Once that was accomplished, they did an inventory of their other supplies. They had about two weeks of emergency rations, a bio-analyzer to tell what vegetation and water was safe to eat, a survival kit, a first aid kit, and an assortment of smaller odds and ends that might be needed later. About the only thing they didnít have were any additional weapons, and that was because the wall to Mihoshiís armory had been the part of the ship that had taken the last hit from the energy blast. Most of the weapons had gone flying out into deep space, and those that were locked down tighter had been crushed when the ship had crashed. It didnít matter that much. Mihoshi still had her sidearm and Tenchi still had the Master Key with him. Between those two items, they felt they had little to worry about in the form of dangerous animals.
Both suns were still high in the sky when Mihoshi dragged out a vehicle from the remains of her docking bay. Tenchi was surprised to see that it had the outward appearance of a motorcycle, aside from the fact it had no tires, but instead two flat squares where they tires should have been.
"What is that?"
"An Oxerat 200 Hoverbike," Mihoshi explained. "Generally we use them for short range reconnaissance work. They move very quietly and can seat two." She patted the long seat a few times, indicating where the passenger would sit behind the pilot. "It even has an antigrav sled that can be hooked up to the back when you need to carry extra mass. Theyíre really quite useful. Most patrol ships have at least one with them nowadays."
"Why did you bother to get it out, though?" Tenchi asked as Mihoshi began going over the hoverbike. He was pretty sure he didnít like the direction the conversation was heading.
The hoverbike hummed gently as Mihoshi began tweaking the engine. "I thought weíd take a look around and get the lay of the land. That way weíll know where we are and what resources are on hand, in case weíre here for a while."
Actually, that made a great deal of sense. Tenchi nodded in approval.
Mihoshi finished hooking up the antigrav sled, which consisted of two long rods that could set up an antigravity field between the two of them, to the back of the bike. Once finished, she said, "Letís get going." She hopped on the bike and indicated that Tenchi should sit behind her.
"Weíre going now?" That seemed a bit abrupt. They had just crashed several hours earlier.
"Even if thereís a rescue ship one system away, itíll still take them at least a day or more to get here. We have plenty of time." Mihoshi twisted the handlebar and the engine began to rev higher and higher.
The resemblance to a more mundane motorcycle again crossed Tenchiís mind. "Well. I guess so." The reluctance in his voice matched his motions as he slowly got on behind Mihoshi. There didnít seem to be any handholds on the sides of the hoverbike, which meant he was going to have to grab onto something else if he wanted to maintain his balance while they were flying. Maybe he wouldnít have to hold on too tightly. Surely Mihoshi would go slowly, since she had a passenger.
"Hold on tight," she said as she stared at the control panel in front of her. How did operating the bike go? There was a switch she had to flip, but which one was it? She randomly chose the one in the middle. She was rewarded with the bike lifting several meters off the ground.
"Now for a little speed," she said to Tenchi from over her shoulder as she gave a quick twist to the speed dial.
Twin screams of terror rang through the air as the hovercyle went from zero to two hundred kilometers per hour in less than five seconds.
The crew of the Rack NíRuin continued going over the remains of the vessel. Yoost and Onita were looking for additional weapons amidst the ruins of the ship. Angstrom was busy trying to put together a working communication unit. Joffry was laid out on the bridge in as comfortable a position as he could, given the condition of the ship and his shattered legs. Funuyaki and Ariana were scouting the area surrounding the ship. Autolycus had been assigned to try to scrounge some food from the debris, and Malgaunt and Stargrave randomly sifted through piles of wreckage trying to find anything of use and having little success.
Fera was off to the side of the ship on her own. The first thing she had done was to try to locate the remains of her room. Upon finding it, she immediately began digging through the mess until she managed to pull three large metal cases out. Once they were free, she removed all the contents, spread them out in an open area next to the ship, and began putting them together using some tools that had been in the boxes. When Stargrave saw what she was building, he gave her permission to continue working on it while the others carried on with their assigned tasks.
Malgaunt saw that Stargrave was beginning to pace again instead of searching for useful items. He could have asked what was troubling the criminal, but there was no point to it. Malgaunt already knew the answer as sure as he was going to take another breath. It was that damned plant. All Stargrave could do was fret about it since it wasnít on hand, and he would probably continue to do so until he either had it or Malgaunt had him clubbed into unconsciousness and chained to a rock. The second alternative was looking more appealing by the moment as Malgauntís own temper was stretched thin.
It was unusual for Stargrave to worry so. The man was usually as relaxed and in control as Malgaunt was, though on the outside Stargrave appeared the more easygoing of the pair. That was one of the things that had impressed Malgaunt into agreeing to the partnership between the two of them, Stargraveís ability to remain calm in a situation. Well, that and the resources he had as the head of a vast criminal organization.
But now he was losing control, and getting worse, not better, in spite of Malgauntís continued reassurances. The marshal couldnít understand the reason why, since they both shared the same risks if things fell through. Maybe Stargrave was simply taking things too personally. If there had been any alcohol that had survived the crash, Malgaunt would have given it to his friend in a second. Instead, he was forced to reassure him again that they could set out to recover the Shihana when the transmitter was working again.
Malgaunt finally broke the silence. "Itíll be over soon. Weíll have the Shihana in hand in a couple of days at the latest."
Stargrave shook his head. "Sooner than that, but every second seems like an eternity to me."
"A watched Glarph never soils," Malgaunt said, invoking the power of the ancient proverb.
"I hate that saying." Stargrave looked at his locator and checked on the position of the Shihana again.
Malgaunt bent down and lifted a large piece of metal. There was the glint of something shiny underneath. "Bring that light under here. I think Iíve found an arc welder." He nodded towards something underneath the metal. The directed light showed that it was what Malgaunt had thought. "Go down and get it while I keep this up in the air."
That was just what he needed. Something to keep Stargrave busy and hopefully more pleasant. Being stranded on the planet with only a handful of people, some of whom had a natural animosity, like ex-police officers and criminals, meant nerves would wear thin quickly. Usually it took at least several days for that sort of thing to happen, but in Stargraveís current mental state, his irritation would only transfer to his crew and then the situation would be very explosive. The sooner they got their hands on the Shihana, the better.
After Stargrave retrieved the arc welder, they headed back to their temporary base of operations: the bridge. It was the most intact portion of the vessel left. From there they would build the transmitter and organize their search for the recovery of the Shihana. Then everything would settle down, and the group would relax until they were lifted off planet by one of their allies.
Ariana returned to the ship and located them on their way back. Once there, she stood next to Stargrave and began informing him of what she had found. Malgaunt felt irritated at being left out. She was directing all of her comments towards Stargrave and pretended Malgaunt wasnít even there. He hoped Funuyaki had found something, so he could rub it in Arianaís face later.
They were more than halfway back to the bridge when they came across Onita and Yoost, who were looking through piles of debris in the hopes of finding some sort of weapon. At present, all they had were the sidearms each person had been wearing at the time of the crash. There was no telling what sort of hostile animals were on the planet, and it was always better to have a big gun and not use it instead of needing a big gun and not having it.
"Status?" Malgaunt asked Onita.
"Three laser pistols and a couple of vibro-knives. Nothing but crap," Onita grunted as he stopped looking and sat down to take a rest.
"Iíve found something." Yoost was about fifteen feet away from the others, at the far side of the room, when he pulled out a long black cylinder with a trigger and scope on the top. "I thought Bereneger kept some funky weapon in his room."
"Hey! Be careful with that," Onita warned. "Thatís a Retree Plasma cannon. Itís got some major firepower, but itís a real delicate instrument."
Yoost laughed contemptuously at Onita. "You GP might be tight asses about procedures, but us here at the Rack NíRuin play things a little faster and looser. Iíll find out if it works." He aimed the plasma cannon at the wall that was next to the outside of the craft.
"Donít do it." Onita got up and took a half step towards him. "It might—"
The rest was cut off as Yoost pulled the trigger and the weapon blew up. The others ducked (save Ariana who threw herself in front of Stargrave) and shielded their eyes from the brightness of the small, yet powerful explosion. Onita was on his feet first despite being closest to the blast.
He looked over Yoostís fallen form. "It might do that to you," he finished
Ariana moved to his side and took a closer look at Yoost. She turned back to Stargrave. "Heís still breathing, but not much."
"Sloppy fool," Stargrave muttered under his breath. Louder, he said, "Can we?" He let the question end there. Ariana would know what he meant.
"Not with the shape weíre in. Probably not even if the ship was working like normal."
"Take care of it then," Stargrave ordered.
Everyone watched as Ariana drew her pistol and put Yoost out of his misery. The smell of charred flesh was overwhelming, so without a backward glance the four people left the chamber and headed for the bridge once more.
The quartet walked a little ways before Malgaunt said, "Well, if there was any one person we could have spared, it was Yoost. There isnít much use for a hacker out here now."
Stargrave didnít bother to look at him. "He was one of mine, not yours. So shut up!"
Ariana sneered while Onita moved protectively towards Malgaunt. There was no need for it; Stargrave said nothing else, and the group continued onward.
Upon arriving at the bridge, they saw that Angstrom had indeed been busy. Wires and batteries were strewn about the floor, concentrated mostly around the communications console. Various systems had been gutted to use for parts in boosting the signal of the reserve transmitter, and the effect made the bridge look even more cluttered than before. However, the news was good.
"I should have it up and running in a couple of hours, no later," Angstrom assured him as Malgaunt offered the arc welder he was carrying. Angstrom nodded in gratitude. The pocket laser he had been using was sufficient for the job, but it took far longer to use to get the same results the larger instrument would offer.
"Once itís up and running, I want you to send a signal on this frequency." Stargrave ran off a set of numbers.
"Thatís a pretty obscure wavelength," Angstrom said. "Not much chance of someone picking it up."
"Itís the Yagdagron military channel. There should be some of their ships listening for it, in case Yolleth wanted to contact them. Although I doubt if theyíll be nearby."
"That might mean a long wait." Everyone turned in surprise to see Autolycus standing slightly behind the captain. No one had realized he had returned to the bridge.
"We canít use any of our standard smuggler frequencies because they might be monitored. And itís not like we want a private vessel coming since weíll be carrying the Shihana with us." Stargrave shook his head. "No. Itís too risky. We canít chance someone finding us here with Shihana. Weíll contact the Yagdagron and complete the mission. Once it is in their hands, then we can rest easy."
Autolycus began to shake his head when Fera entered through the hole of the bridge. "The bikeís complete." She directed her comment to Stargrave.
"Excellent. We canó"
"What bike?" Malgaunt asked, interrupting Stargraveís orders.
Stargrave took a deep breath, then began his explanations. "Fera had made a recent purchase of a kit bikeó"
"An Alto-Vax Retread with the supernitro-injection engine and a 1A Kolp Sensitivity Web in the steering," Fera gushed. "It cost me over ninety thousand space-bucks."
"You know itís illegal to own one of those." It was Onita who had interrupted Stargrave this time.
"Are you going to arrest me?" Fera asked.
"Ah, no," Onita said hesitantly, unsure of what she meant by that.
"Then shut up!" Fera snarled.
Stargrave turned to Ariana and said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, "Shoot the next person that interrupts me." Ariana drew her pistol, keeping it at a ready position at her side.
Now once again in command of the situation, Saíbre Stargrave began for the fourth time, "Due to the fact it was a recent purchase, it was still in its component parts in its cases. Since the cases were made of osmium steel, and Feraís quarters were still in the part of the ship after it crashed, it was intact. Sheís been building it since she dug the cases out of the wreckage. I deemed it more important than any salvaging she could have done. Now that itís complete, and in working order, I intend to go out with her and retrieve the Shihana."
"Not if you want it brought back, youíre not," Fera said, her voice not inviting a discussion of the matter as she crossed her arms and looked expectantly at her captain.
"Whatís that supposed to mean?" Stargrave asked. Feraís insolence affected his stressed nerves far more than it had before.
Stating it as a matter of fact, Fera said, "Even with the drag rig on, thereís no way I can accommodate a passenger as well as the Shihana. So if you go with me, it stays right where it is."
Stargrave considered that. "I suppose I can fly it if I had to." It had been at least five years since he had last driven a hoverbike, and he hadnít been very good at it even then, but he thought he could manage.
"Not my bike, you donít," Feraís fur bristled and she bared her fangs in Stargraveís direction.
Ariana leveled her pistol at Fera. "Heís your captain. Youíll damn well do what he says, even if it means learning to crap in a litter box like the rest of your kind."
Feraís muscles tensed at the derogatory insult leveled at her and her race. Despite a superficial resemblance, Katasanís were not related to housecats and took offense to anyone that implied it. She prepared to rush forward and rip out Arianaís throat, unmindful of the weapon leveled at her.
A clapping near the hole on the bridge caught everyoneís attention. Fera switched targets to the newcomer, while Arianaís pistol swiveled in that direction.
"If you shoot her, can I have the bike?" Funuyaki asked as she leaned lackadaisically against the torn wood and metal of the hole.
"Enough!" Malgaunt said. His lieutenantís distraction had given him enough time to assess the situation and take control of it himself. Stargrave was obviously more stressed out than the marshal had assumed, if he had this little control over his subordinates. He needed to take a page from Malgauntís own book. Onita and Funuyaki were still obedient to his every command, in spite of the stress of the situation, like true subordinates were supposed to be.
The remaining members of the crew of the Rack NíRuin looked suspiciously at Malgaunt, but said nothing. Even Stargrave remained silent. That was to whom Malgaunt directed his attention towards.
"Feraís the one that should go and retrieve the Shihana. The bikeís the fastest way to get it here, and sheís the ideal one for the job. If that bike of hers has a sensitivity web that highly attuned, none but the most skilled of riders could probably keep from wrecking it, and somehow I doubt if youíve been hot-dogging it lately." Malgaunt saw the acceptance start to creep up on Stargraveís face. A little more should do it and then victory would be Malgauntís. "Sheís the best flyer among us, and we really need you here to keep giving orders to the others." He hoped Stargrave had a clear enough head to pick up on the all too accurate implication: ĎYour crew wonít take orders from me.í
After another moment of consideration, Stargrave nodded his head. "Youíre correct. Fera should fly out alone and retrieve the prize. Now give her your locator."
Malgauntís head jerked slightly. "Why mine?"
"Because she needs it to locate the Shihana, and I want to keep mine." And to show the others that I still hold the reigns of command, was the added implication to that order. Malgaunt picked up on the inference and went with it. If Stargrave felt the urge to save face, it meant he was still thinking with a clear mind.
He handed his locator to Fera, who turned on her heel the moment it touched her hand and exited the vessel.
Almost as soon as Fera left, Malgaunt noticed Stargrave become depressed at having his plans thwarted. As Malgaunt expected, a dark look overcame Stargraveís features as well. He was brooding. Malgaunt had spent enough time with the pirate captain to know that the dark mood would start coloring everything he did. Steps would have to be taken to try to shake, or at least distract, Stargrave out of his mood. Malgaunt made small talk with Funuyaki and Onita until he thought of something that might work.
The Marshal made his way over with his subordinates in tow. "That Ariana seems to be very competent, even for your crew." He pointed over to where the person in question was separating the items they had salvaged into different groups depending of their use.
Malgauntís plan worked as Stargrave brightened a little. He enjoyed bragging about his crew, or at least the more useful members of it. "Ah, Ariana. Yes. She was quite the find. Would you like to hear how I came across her and she came under my command?"
Upon hearing her name, Ariana made her way over to the small group. She was interested in hearing how her captain would tell the tale. It gave her a certain amount of pride that Stargrave felt like bragging about her, and was interested in hearing how he would tell the story.
Stargrave gave his first mate a tight smile and began. "My dear, sweet, faithful Ariana was won by me in a card game."
"Oh?" Malgaunt said. Onita and Funuyaki wore puzzled expressions.
"Ariana is from Andarea, as you might have been able to tell by her slight accent. Itís a small out-of-the-way planet that has several treaties with the Jurai, though is not actually a part of it. Andareaís world government is a male-dominated monarchic system. Women are treated as little more than property. Valuable property, but property all the same. And the most valuable of all are the highborn ladies, such as Ariana here."
"How come?" Onita asked.
Stargrave bit off the sharp reply on his tongue. He hated being interrupted, but he wanted to finish his tale more than wasting time with the reprimand. "Because they are taught the combat arts almost from the moment they can walk. They receive extensive training in most personal arms and hand-to-hand fighting. You see, among the males of the nobility, certain forms of assassination are viewed as an acceptable means of advancement. Not bombs or poisons, mind you, but rather up-close and personal methods, such as blades, pistols, and even bare hands. Since paying for standard bodyguards around the clock costs a small fortune, itís simply more economical for a nobleman to pay a one-time bride price for a well-trained noblewoman and marry her. That way they stay at the side of their man at all times. Quite practical, when you stop and think about it. And since noblemen are allowed to have multiple wives, they can have twenty-four hour protection, as well as the fringe benefits that apply when one is married to a beautiful bodyguard." Stargrave gave a smile at the joke. He failed to notice Arianaís own downcast look in his direction.
"As for Ariana herself, she was bought and married to a rather wealthy lord named Bethlamu who had this gambling problem. Namely he didnít know when to quit when his luck went bad. I was involved in such a game, winning quite soundly, and legitimately I might add, when Bethlamu ran out of funds. Instead of walking away, he offered to put up Ariana as collateral. I could see the pompous snob was unworthy of her protection at a glance. It was my duty to rescue her. I accepted and won her, of course. The poor fool didnít know what to do without her. He had other wives, of course, but none as talented as Ariana. He even offered to buy her back later when he got more funds, as though there was enough money in all of his coffers to buy someone like her back."
"So sheís your slave?" Funuyaki asked, becoming even more disgusted with the man.
"Hardly," Stargrave scoffed. "I freed her the moment I won her, then offered her a job working for me. The poor dear didnít know what to do at first; she did have a lifetime of conditioning which made her think of herself as nothing more than property to be bartered with by other men, but sheís broken out of that frame of mind since. Sheís her own woman now, free to come and go as she pleases."
"Iíd never leave you," Ariana insisted.
"Ah, but women are fickle," Stargrave said whimsically. "You say that now, but will you feel the same a year from now?"
"Iíd stay with you forever," she said with total conviction.
Funuyaki rolled her eyes. It really was quite clever maneuvering on Stargraveís part. In freeing her, he bound her to his will more tightly than he could have hoped if she had remained his property. After all, once permanently outside Andarea, Ariana would have seen what it meant for women to be free and might have developed ideas of her own concerning her independence. But in freeing her first, Stargrave had made her feel indebted to him; at least she did once she understood the concept of freedom outside her own world. No doubt he had done other things as well to bind her to him. And Ariana was blind to it all. Truly the man knew how to manipulate people like a master.
Had Funuyaki been able to read Arianaís thoughts, she would have learned that she was only half right. It was true that had been Stargraveís plan, and Ariana had originally served him out of a feeling of debt, but as time went on, Ariana genuinely fell in love with the man. It went far deeper than merely freeing her from her bondage. It went far deeper than him treating her like a person instead of like property. It was the man himself whom she loved. He was truly an inspiration. Confident in his abilities. Ruthless in his ambitions. Dominating in his personality. Yet there was also a definite code of honor within him; it was just something few could make out among the various actions he did. He was a hundred times the man Bethlamu was, and she would sooner cut her former husbandís throat than allow herself to be enslaved to him for even a second ever again.
Stargrave was a man that was actually worthy of her love, and she was worthy of his. He showed it in the manner he behaved around her. When they were alone, he was open in ways that he never was with others. She knew more about him than anyone else. While it was true that she did not know the exact details of his past, it was something from there that drove him to become the man he was today. She was the only one that came close to understanding him. Even if he did not love her now, there would come a day when he would look upon her in a new light and at long last love her in return. She knew it in her heart. And until that day, she would willingly and faithfully serve at his side as long as she drew breath in her body.
Stargraveís momentary surge of pride passed and something of a dark mood settled over him again, though its hold was not as strong as before. He followed Ariana back to the piles of salvaged items and began sorting through them with her. Malgaunt and the others separated and began helping reclaim what they could from the ship once again.
Feraís fur bristled with anticipation as she mounted her bike. At last she was going to get a chance to fly fast and be alive for the first time since she had landed on the miserable mudball. True, it was a testament to her skills that anyone could even walk away from the site of the crash, and it would add to her already impressive list of deeds when she reached final judgment, but already she found her soul wanting more. It wasnít just her skills she wanted to show off; it was competition she desired. All Katasans knew that tests of skills against the forces of nature, like Hellís Gate, were ultimately victories only for oneís personal spirit. One could not defeat the forces of nature; one could only survive them.
However, when challenging other living beings, that was different. Then it was solely a matter of skill versus skill, and only the best, or the luckiest, survived. The more worthy the opponent, the more honor one gained in their defeat. And the more opponents that were defeated, the higher one was elevated into paradise when the final tally was added up and judgment was rendered.
There had not been many that had tested Fera of late. None that were what she considered worthy, in any case. There had been that runner that had tried to stupidly attack the Rack NíRuin a couple of weeks ago (the Gods only knew why he didnít recognize the ship on sight) and had made a pretty good run for it. It had taken Fera almost a whole two and a half minutes to bring him into line so the gunners could take him out. And then there was that Gippetten ship they nailed last week. Those speedy little things were usually good prey, and their vehicles packed a nasty sting for something so small. It had lasted almost three minutes before being shredded by the twin threats of her piloting and the Rack NíRuinís guns.
There had been many others before those two ótoo many to countó but now there was one that had caught Feraís attention like no other. Not even the idea of flying against any more of her fellow Katasans excited her that much. It was all about the one who had moved so fluidly, that flight was one of her higher instincts. The one who had so easily defied the odds that Fera felt intoxicated at the very idea of seeing her in action again. And unlike the other members of the crew, she felt confident that somehow, in spite of the odds, Mihoshi had survived. And if she had survived, Fera would find her. Then the two of them would engage in the duel that destiny decreed they should have. And in the end, one of them would find out what paradise was really all about.
"Would you please slow down?!" Tenchi shouted from his position from behind Mihoshi. Almost from the instant they had lifted off the ground, Mihoshi had chosen to fly at a breakneck speed that had given probably given Tenchi a bad case of whiplash, if the pain from his neck was any indication of it.
The land was a blur below them, the wide fields becoming a sea of yellow, and then of blue and green as Tenchi assumed the grass had changed color. Their speed increased as Tenchi held onto Mihoshi even tighter than before, praying she didnít turn too quickly and send him flying off the bike. He was in such a panic that he barely realized that his grip had shifted from her waist to somewhere higher and softer instead. But the new hold did afford him a better grasp upon the driver, so perhaps he could be forgiven.
Fear intensified as he wondered what was going to happen, as the sea of blue and green grass changed to a drier and rockier terrain. Even at the speed they were going at, Tenchi could tell the difference in the land. He hoped Mihoshi could figure out some way to slow down, or else they were surely doomed.
Mihoshi heard Tenchiís pleas and matched them cry for cry with tears of her own. It had been so long since she had used the hoverbike that she now was uncertain of how to stop it. There were three controls she could use. One would stop the bike. One would activate the afterburner and quadruple the two hundred kilometer speed they were currently at. And the other one would do something that Mihoshi wasnít sure of.
Her mind raced with the possibilities, then eventually realized that since she didnít have the faintest clue as to which button was which, it didnít really matter which one was pushed. So Mihoshi opted for the one in the center.
Windshield wiper fluid sprayed out across the windshield. Now she remembered what the third control did. She was about to try switch number two, when she realized she had forgotten to warn Tenchi of what was about to happen. "Hold on tight!" she cried out over the wind.
Tenchi heard and tightened his grip.
As Tenchi tightened his grip, Mihoshi gasped delightedly and briefly forgot what she had planned on doing. Actually, she was pretty damn happy with the way things had suddenly turned out, and their high speed didnít seem to matter so much any longer.
Tenchi buried his face in her back, trying to keep the wind out of his eyes, and also to keep from looking down as the land had seemed to be getting progressively closer to the bottom of their hoverbike, and they had not been that high to begin with. "Nothingís happening!" he shouted.
"I wouldnít say that," Mihoshi said as the pleasant feelings continued to override her higher functions.
"What was that?!" Tenchi shouted over the roar of the wind.
"Hold tighter!" Mihoshi answered loudly enough to be heard this time.
Tenchi was going to do so anyway as he dared to look down once and saw that the land below was coming uncomfortably close now.
Again Mihoshi moaned. It was almost as pleasant as the time she had bathed baby Taro and he had mistaken her for his mother. As she lost herself to the sensation, her hand fell downward, near where she was straddling the bike, and hit a lever located right where the base of the seat met the steering column. The lever turned out to be the emergency brake.
The hoverbike skidded on air to a stop, slowing down enough so that when both Mihoshi and Tenchi slammed into the plexi-plastic windshield on the bike, they survived the impact. They did have a bit of difficulty peeling their faces off the plexi-plastic, and were a bit shaken up by the impact, but were otherwise fine.
Mihoshi shook her head clear. She had forgotten all about the emergency brake. That made things a bit easier, since she remembered which switch would land the bike. She located the right one and flipped it all the way to its lowest position.
And the bike plummeted like a rock, slamming hard into the ground ten feet below.
"Oww." Mihoshi wondered if her tailbone was still there. Probably, since it hurt so much. "I forgot. Youíre supposed to turn the switch slowly, stopping at each notch, rather than turning off the landing control all at once. If you donít you kind of—"
"—Crash," Tenchi finished for her as he shook his head a bit to clear it. The way his teeth had slammed together when they had hit, he was sure a couple of them had been knocked out. He was about to reproach Mihoshi about being more careful when he realized where his hands had been located both before the abrupt slowdown and after.
"Gah!" he removed his hands as quickly as he could. "Iím sorry. I didnít mean to grab you there."
A small blush formed on Mihoshiís cheeks. Mihoshi didnít mind it. Tenchi minded it. Aeka and Ryouko would have minded it violently, but Mihoshi didnít mind it at all. She looked over her shoulder at Tenchi and said, "No need for apologies. It was sort of, ahh…" she trailed off, embarrassment at the slightly sexual situation overriding her bodyís healthy, natural, normal impulse to jump Tenchi then and there.
Yes, while on the bike. Mihoshiís sense of balance could be quite good when it had to be.
"It didnít bother me at all," she finally managed to get out.
Tenchiís blush was four times that of Mihoshiís. As the full repercussions of what he had done set in, he found it hard to look her in the eye. When he at last worked up the courage, he said, "I promise not to do it again."
Mihoshi went from looking slightly embarrassed to crestfallen.
[Youíre a bloody little queer, arenít you?]
"Shut—" Tenchi quit before Mihoshi accused him of talking to himself again.
[You grab a womanís tits and, instead of enjoying the cheap cop, you apologize for it. Never mind the fact that itís obvious you werenít trying to hit on her, and that you know damn well sheís attracted to you and probably didnít even mind it. Hell, youíve hurt her feelings by saying youíd never touch her breasts again. Way to go, Mr. Sensitivity. Why donít we try to find out why youíre such a putz, shall we?]
Tenchi repressed the urge to shout the voice down.
[HA! I knew it. Here we are, latent bi-sexual tendencies stored away really deep in the subconscious. Darn near tripped over the things, theyíre hidden so well. I bet you thought Kagato was a real cutie.]
"Iím not gay!" Tenchi shouted.
"I didnít say you are," Mihoshi said in surprise at the uncalled for protestation. "I didnít think it either. I just assumed you were being a gentleman and maybe, maybe you werenít really interested in me." She blurted out the last part and ended it with a sigh.
The hackles rose on the back of Tenchiís neck and he felt put under the spotlight. With that one statement from Mihoshi, he now had one foot in a trap that would close on him and chew it off if he said the wrong thing.
[Just tell her youíre gay and be done with it.]
A low growl rose from his throat. The anger made him know what to do. He grabbed both of Mihoshiís hands and held them in a soft, gentle, grasp. "Itís not that I donít like you. Itís just that Iím not the sort of guy that goes around grabbing womenís chests and feels comfortable about it. Thatís the only reason Iím apologizing so vehemently."
The Tenchi Solution: (def.) Being evasive and dodging tough questions when it came to women. Employed at every turn and at all costs when serious female situations arose.
It was a technique Tenchi Masaki had developed like a pro, his mastery the equivalent of a man four times his age and experience. It was a skill that would serve him well once he was married. It also served to get him out of his current predicament by working wonders on Mihoshi. She took a non-outright agreement as a sign that he might actually be interested in her and cheered up considerably.
"Letís stretch our legs." Mihoshi rose and did so. She jogged in place for a few seconds, then bent down and touched her toes while her back was to Tenchi. When he realized what a view he was being presented with, he looked away, then thought better of it and forced himself to look straight at her rear end. He examined it very carefully, close enough to confirm that that part of Mihoshiís body was indeed both very firm and very symmetrical. At the first signs of a reaction from certain parts of his anatomy, he turned away and mumbled under his breath, "See. A perfectly normal reaction to staring at an attractive girl that way."
[Having your nose bleed is NOT a perfectly normal reaction, you twit!]
[On the other hand, you admitted she was attractive without even trying, so maybe thereís hope for you yet.]
"Of course there is," Tenchi said.
"Of course there is what?" Mihoshi asked.
"Ah," Tenchi was beginning to consider asking Mihoshi for some of the medication she had talked about earlier, when he noticed a large pile of upturned earth in the middle of a large field of grass on the side of the hill a considerable distance away. There was something odd about it, even at that range. "What do you make of that?"
Mihoshi looked in the direction Tenchi was pointing. "Iím not sure. I think it might be an impact crater. Letís take a look."
"On the bike?" Tenchi asked with a slight tremor of fear in his voice.
"Donít worry. I remember how to fly it now. Weíll be safe." She hopped onto the bike.
Reluctantly, Tenchi followed. He made certain to grasp only her stomach this time, although he did adjust his grip a bit high so that his arms were wrapped around right under the lower curve of Mihoshiís breasts. That would show the voice in his head. If Mihoshi minded, she gave no indication of it as she turned the hoverbike back on and took off once again, under better control this time.
They didnít have to journey long, even at the decreased speed Mihoshi was traveling at. Tenchiís original estimation on the distance from the hill the crater had been on was off by a lot. Without an accurate point of reference between where they had been and the hill, he had been off by about thirty kilometers. It took several minutes for them to draw near enough that Tenchi could see that Mihoshiís guess had been correct; it did appear to be an impact crater. The earth around it had been kicked up in wide circle about a hundred meters wide, showing that the ground beneath was much darker than the brownish topsoil in the surface. The mounds of earth were strewn loosely about, showing that the impact had been recent, just as Tenchi had suspected. In the center of the carnage, both of them could clearly see the object that had caused the crater so recently.
"That isnít from your ship, is it?" Tenchi asked.
"Nope." Mihoshi stared at the object as well, studying it intently.
It was a simple object; a large, intact, gunmetal gray metal sphere that was about two and a half meters in diameter. The outer coating lacked the scorch marks that one associated with orbital entry, despite the fact that was obviously how it had arrived there. The surface was somewhat plain, covered only with a series of tiny one-inch protrusions of metal identical to that of the sphere, and a single red oval near the top. A simple object, at least from the outside.
But then, sometimes the most dangerous things came in the simplest of packages.
To be continued.
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