Farlost, Episode 56
Lou matched Travis’s pace as they raced, side by side, down the long corridor to the front of the Betty. “You okay with this plan?” Travis asked. "Cannibalizing your ship?” Lou grinned. She was enjoying the sweat beading up on her back, despite the dampness and smell building in the space suit she’d worn for way too long. The gravity hurt, but the adrenaline helped. It was shaking her headache, resetting her metabolism, this run, after so many months without the steady motion of her limbs and the warmth building in her chest. It made the rest of the insanity a little more bearable. “Tearing off Six's main engines? They can’t generate a fraction the Delta-V we need to get out of the Thorn's well. Betty’s can. They're practically antiques from what you're telling me.” Another breath in, her pace steady and strong. “But they’re still nuclear powered antiques, and if Beacham can use them to get us out of here, Boomer style--" Something like a balloon careened down the hall towards them, screaming and bleating in fear. "Whish!" Travis called, moving to the side and waving it to pass, but it blocked Travis and glommed onto his suit, gibbering "Zeus! That ship is the Zeus!" Lou ducked to the side, just avoiding a quarterback sack from the flying alien. She tried to make sense of his words as Travis struggled to free himself from Whish’s grip. “Zeus is here?” Travis slammed a forearm against his man’s-or his being’s- helmet, stunning him into letting go. “Okay! Zeus, I hear you! Now haul ass back to Observation, raise the ramp and stay hidden! The Boomers’ll hit us any time!" Travis threw the thing down the corridor. It turned around and flew into Travis's face. "The Boomers gonna board us any time?!" Whish squealed again. The Betty's captain held onto the little alien, his face pained and pleading. "Then get yourself safe, yeah?" He shook the thing, and it ceased its struggling. Through the open helmet, Lou saw a wide mouth, like a fish, but with what looked like baby's hands on either side, topped by several fine digits. "Yeah," it finally gasped. "Get out of here," Travis murmured, slapping it more gently on the helmet. It turned and fled, piling on speed with spurts from chem thrusters on his suited wings. On an ordinary day, Lou would have been struck dumb and wide eyed at the sight of the alien being, running away in the grips of an obvious panic attack. Today, it din't phase her. She stared at Travis through the open faceplate of her helmet, eyes wide. "Zeus? Our Zeus?" Travis nodded grimly. "Run and talk!" He bolted forward and Lou followed. "The Zeus Arrived in the midst of a Dragon clan war, and yes, I mean real Dragons. Or close enough." He turned sideways and hauled himself to a stop by an airlock door on the right side of the corridor. Lou barely avoided slamming into him as she stopped herself. "Dragon babies were still bigger than us," he said as he tapped a code into the door. "Some of the oldest chose to grow bigger than this ship, become ships themselves. Clans formed around the largest of their kind." Lou leaned against the wall, gasping for breath. "The scales on Betty's nose?" Travis nodded as the airlock raised up and disappeared into the ceiling. "Dragon scales. Tough as any refined alloy. Plus, even after they're removed, the scales heal up if you care for 'em." He jumped down a short flight of stairs and Lou followed. The room was long, extending parallel to the corridor they'd just left. Around her were long, narrow crates, all bolted into place. To her right, along the far wall was a train-car sized steel container. Crates were stacked along its side and filled up the rest of the space to both sides of the door. Some were open, and held an assortment of equipment she didn't recognize. Just ahead was an empty area, with several narrow, closed crates standing on end. Gun crates, was Lou's guess. Travis proved her right, entering a code into the closest of the crates and swinging it open to reveal a rack of long tubes. Oh yea, she thought: these things screamed 'weapon'. Travis pulled a very familiar shape out of the crate, and clipped it to the side of his suit. A holster. He pulled a 9 millimeter pistol free, working the slide, peering inside and nodding. "Dragons were tough as hell," he murmured, flicking the laser sight below the muzzle on and off. "They could live in vacuum-not just survive it, but live in it for the long haul." He pulled out one of the long tubes, holding it like a rifle. Lou watched his motions carefully. "Dragons breathed honest to god flame, and they loved two things most: controlling territory and fighting each other for more." Lou's eyes watched Travis turn a ring around the barrel, about at the point where weaponry she was familiar with would have a trigger, guard and magazine. Her inner ear buzzed as Travis turned the ring. Travis met his eyes, performing the motion again. She nodded and he handed the weapon to her. "It's safe, so long as you don't turn that ring and pull back towards you," he said. "Understood," she replied, running her hand along the ring carefully. It was lighter than she expected. She waved one hand in a 'more' gesture. "Zeus? Clan war?" He nodded, removing another rifle and turning its ring. It didn't tickle her inner ear and Travis frowned, setting it back in place. "Zeus arrived at the Thorn closest to Kasti. A gas giant. Biggest planet in Farlost. Resource rich." He pulled another rifle out and turned the handle. Her inner ear almost shook from the sound. Travis smiled nastily. "Two Dragon clans had wiped out or absorbed the other three. The five clans had had little wars before, but nobody had seen Dragon bloodlust like what happened during this last war. Nothing was going to stop the Dragons until one or the other clan owned all of Kasti." Travis rushed past Lou. "Maybe all of Farlost." Further back in the room, he took three steps toward the train-car sized metal cage taking up half the room. "We've got a history of data traders in Farlost. They function as currency for all the states and peoples. They keep what passes for history. Ery and Martel are the only two standing, since the Guard came to power." He spun the ring and the vibrations hit Lou's ears again. "The last Dragon war was horrific. It accounted for more death, famine, loss of history and toppled governments than in all the recorded history of Farlost." He raised the weapon and bore down on the mouth of the container. "The Guard is worse." He pulled back on the ring. A bright green beam leaped from the muzzle of the rifle. She felt the heat wave. She saw each and every red-circled target of different shape and size catch fire and quickly turn to ash. She turned cold, and looked down at the long cylinder she held. Her hands shook. "Zeus was big and fast enough to match up against the biggest monsters of both clans," Travis growled, tugging her by the arm to stand where he had stood, and hold her weapon the way he had held his. He stood close behind her, put his hand over hers and turned the safety ring until they both felt the click, then the thrumming of power through their bones. "They flew through the guts of the monsters and dropped nukes inside them," he murmured close to her. "Steady now, and draw back." His fingers, over hers, pulled the ring steadily backwards. A thin beam arced out of the rifle, but it was still enough to slice several cindered targets cleanly in half. They disintegrated into heaps of ash. He let go of her hand. She quickly, but carefully eased up on the pressure, and let the circle turn slowly counter-clockwise until she heard the click of what she took to be the safety engaging. She turned her neck and stared up at Travis. "And then they took control?" He nodded. "And then they took control," he whispered. He stepped away. Reluctantly, Lou felt... then wondered if it was her reluctance she was feeling. She coughed, look down at the weapon in her hand. "Am I going to punch through the hull with this thing?" Travis shook his head, smiled slightly. "Betty's tougher than that. Try not to hit anything but the Boomers, though. Gruber gets pissy about fixing things I break." She nodded. "How did one human ship take control of an entire system?" Travis cut chin toward the door and started moving. Lou followed him up the stairs and back into the corridor, headed for Betty's bridge. "They didn't take control of any of the settlements, not at first. They just promised protection and impartial adjudication. Who was going to argue with their saviors from the Dragons?" Lou caught a glimpse of light ahead, and saw the doorway marking the end of the hall. "The Guard is a protection racket?" "It started that way," Travis growled. "The military crew of Zeus found themselves in foreign territory with no way home. They said they were bringing truth, justice and the enlightened human way. They defeated the Dragons and declared themselves an impartial Guard for all that wanted trade and protection under their watch. Then they started seizing ships in free space that didn't follow their rules. They built a powerful fleet to give their protection real teeth. Then they started dispatching ‘advisors’ to settlements that couldn’t say no. No one really had a choice. There are rebel groups all through the system, but no one can stand up against the Guard's firepower." "Decades," Lou panted, "of no strong opposition, and-" Travis nodded. "And now they've got their fingers in every pie, squeezing every government. The Guard is worse than the Dragons ever were." The ceiling exploded. Lou staggered to her knees, both hands on the alien rifle raised over her head against the shower of torn metal, ceramic and electrical sparks. Something sprang up from the ground, raising itself on massive black tentacles. One of those whipping appendages slammed into Travis. He hit the ground and crumpled, eyes close, face slack. Lou staggered to her feet, sweat-slick fingers racing for the trigger as the monster roared. Its tentacles smashed dents deep into the corridor walls, and then it was leaping through the air. In slow motion, she saw the long, barbed tentacles, sharp fangs and flying spittle... and then it was on of her.