STARSHIP AND SURVIVORS

fiction by Christopher T. Shields

 

Prologue

For over three thousand cycles, the Qhitlx had sought to eradicate Humanity from the stars. For, so different were the Qhitlx that no common ground between the two races existed. The Qhitlx, cold blooded poison breathers from a dim star, calculating and cunning, using a unfathomable logic and reasoning, their methodical and even single-minded war of extermination was fought on a million different worlds, under the light of a million different stars. Tireless, remorseless, never ceasing in their endeavor, Humanity's battle seemed to be lost from the start.

Systems were awash with the unimaginable billions of tons of debris and the stillness of vast ruins, the silent testament to the power of the Qhitlx and of the frailty of Man. Humanity was smashed, the remnants of his civilization were scattered out across the galaxies, smoldering, radioactive ruins on a countless multitude of worlds.

Dust where once there stood a civilization.

Ash where once there stood man.

There went up a great wailing cry from the handful of survivors of all that was left of Humanity and then a great silence fell across the universe.

Out of that silence, the desperate call was answered.

Somewhere, when all seemed finally lost, and Humanity was making its last stand on a handful of scattered worlds, there rose from the shadows of deepest space a glimmer of salvation.

This then is the tale of Humanity and its war for survival against the Qhitlx, the war that Humanity almost didn't win. The war in which Man and his kindred ultimately came to near extinction, and eventually relied upon the greatest technological construct of all to defeat the Qhitlx.

The Starship.

Humanity's greatest achievement was its last hope.

 

STARSHIP AND SURVIVOR

The flat gray grid-like matrix that constituted the entire endless, and infinite, reaches of hyper-space stretched beyond the Starship. The absolute nothingness of hyper-space clawed at the kilometers deep layers and fields of protective energy surrounding the hull of the Starship.

The Starship, a massive vessel in excess of a hundred million kilotons in displacement, the weight and size of a small moon, was shaped like an elongated teardrop, flattened and wider at the rear than the front. Its surface was smooth, unbroken except for lines and patterns. Glossy smooth with a sheen unlike any other metal.

A sheen like liquid.

The Starship scanned both hyper-space and normal space for any signs of systems. Signs of habitable planets, shadows of matter that existed in hyper-space, signs of life as it hurtled through the void at velocities measured in hundreds of parsecs an hour. A slow crawl for the Starship, but then accurate readings could not be taken and data could not be had at faster speeds.

Deep within the hull, a fully self aware / sentient computer monitored the whole ship. In effect, the Starship was the computer. The central processor was encased in a fluid bath of super cold cryogens and superconductor memory processors. Every system, every circuit, was checked several hundred times a second. The computer had done this same routine for a long time now.

The Starship was old, a relic and a artifact of a war long ago considered lost by those who built it. A last hope.

The Designers had left it behind in their flight, in their last bid for racial survival against the Qhitlx. A vast exodus, mounted on a racial scale never before seen in history. Trillions of sentient beings in head long frantic flight, hundreds of thousands of starships hurtling outwards among the stars, their crews blind with fear, seeking sanctuary where none existed. Dodging and maneuvering through the stars, but never escaping from the Qhitlx.

The Starship now realized that the Designers were, all of them, and in all probabilities, surely dead now. The Qhitlx had allowed no remorse, felt no pity. The Qhitlx would have tracked them down to a single being, and casually exterminated them with unfeeling casualness. The thought saddened the Starship considerably. Saddened it in the capacity in which it could be sad.

Now the sentient computer was trying to pick up the pieces that were left, if there were any. It was about to give up hope. The sensors reached out through the void for a hundred thousand parsecs, and more, the scanners gathered data and correlated it, processed it into facts.

The coordinates and other data was correct. The Starship began to decelerate in anticipation of the fold to normal space. Once satisfied that the desired point of egress from hyper-space had been achieved, the sentient computer sighed, as best as it could, and disengaged the main drivers. Power was coupled from reactors and converters into the secondary maneuver drive system. Connections were made, joined.

The Starship flashed out of hyper-space, the artificially induced fold warping the very fabric of space, sending it swirling crazily away from the area that the Starship appeared. The Starship emerged into sub-light and rapidly decelerated, drivers flaring wildly against the black of space. Immense forward velocity was converted from kinetic energy into pure energy and swept into the massive energy collectors, there to be diverted to huge banks of batteries, capacitors, energy sinks, and storage cells for future use.

The Starship changed, morphed.

The teardrop began to elongate, to narrow. The sheen of the Starship never lost its brilliance, instead, the material of the hull flowed like liquid. Rapidly loosing the shape of the teardrop and reforming into that of a needle. The metamorphosis took less than a five sub units of standard time measurement. The vector fields of the new shape merged gracefully along the lines of the Starship.

The Starship sheared a path through the system on a course to the local star for refueling, all the while scanning for any sign of the Qhitlx. The white dwarf burned fiercely at the center of the system, casting long shadows where the larger pieces of wreckage blocked the ambient light from the star. Shadows that shifted and changed, grew and shrunk, with the passage of debris in front of and behind other debris, illuminated by the brilliance of the primary so many billions of kilometers away. The powerful deflector screens swept aside the myriad debris that existed in the path of the Starship, sending it on new trajectories at new velocities.

The sentient computer took in all the data for a hundred parsecs around the system and decided that the system was safe enough to stop briefly. The Starship hurtled through the system at a little over the speed of light, past the swirling turbulent atmosphere of a gas giant and its multiple moons, sensors finding the evidence of the ruins and blasted remains of colonies on three of the moons, but no life existed there.

Now there was nothing but blasted craters and still radioactive ruins. Wreckage dotted the landscape of the moons and cluttered their orbits. Craters covered the surface of the moons. Craters resulting from precision orbital bombardment.

The work of the Qhitlx.

The system was full of blasted junk, the remains of gutted starships, pieces and parts, different pieces ranging from a molecule in size to over several kilometers in diameter. All jagged, broken, cut, fused, torn, shattered and bent. Uncountable pieces of a once high technology now nothing more than floating monuments, testament to the fate of an entire race. The debris formed a myriad cloud of flotsam and jetsam, a cloud so thick that the Starship was sure that the Designers had made a final stand in this system and had vanished as a race. The Starship applied a insignificant amount of power to the forward screens, sweeping the junk and debris effortlessly aside as it directed its powerful instruments, scanners and sensors, sun-ward. Instantly, processed data began to filter through the correlaters, data regarding the inner planets.

The Starship interpreted the data, comparing it to similar data previously collected. Certain characteristics matched, others were new. The data was stored, filed, and removed from present memory. The content of the data, though, still remained and the Starship studied the readings from it's sensor / scanner suite carefully.

The first planet had never been inhabited, the orbit was naturally located too close to the local star and suffered from severe solar flare wrapping. The second planet had once been the site of vast colonies and the beginning stages of planetary conforming were in evidence. The Designers had tried to turn the second planet into a livable environment, more room for their increasing numbers. This was a sign. If the race could still produce offspring in great number, then there was hope yet. The Starship felt pleasure well up within it, as much as it could feel pleasure well up within it.

That pleasure sank rapidly, though, as the sensors verified what the Starship had already known. There was no life on the second planet. Now, the colonies were nothing more than vast, smooth craters whose background radiation had fallen to tolerable levels. Tolerable for the limits of the Designers though the possibility of survivors on the second planet was almost nonexistent. What little atmosphere had existed had been burned off by the Qhitlx. Their weapons were impressive, brutal, merciless, and efficient. The Starship calculated the figure to a thousand and fifty decimal places and the probability figure came out to be a negative number.

The third planet was spinning on its axis wrong, it's orbit skewed. The collision of a vast Qhitlx warship with the planet had stripped the atmosphere off of the planet and had pushed the planet off its axis. Oceans had boiled away, continental plates had buckled, mountains had collapsed, the air had burned, and the people had died.

Horribly.

The once great sprawling cities were laying in rubble. Thousands of standard measuring units of length covered in ruins. The only winds that blew through the ruins were solar winds. Laced with hot protons and ions.

Vacuum.

No sound carried in the vacuum, only the static of the influence of the local star upon the frequencies.

The silence of the dead.

Nothing moved on the surface of the planet. Craters all across the surface from bombardment were deep, several kilometers deep and four times that as wide. The planet was radiating a higher than normal level of background radiation. There was some volcanic activity as the core gave up the last of its meager life. The Qhitlx weapons had not merely blasted the planet, many of their beams had gone completely through the planet's crust, drilling deep and out the other side of the planet, releasing the molten blood of the core. Rivers and geysers of liquid rock flowed across the surface, interlacing the gray crust with bright ribbons of gold and orange.

The system was full of the slowly wafting vapor that surrounded the debris of the epic battle that had taken place so long ago. A swirling blue-gray maelstrom of hydrogen and other elements surrounding the depths of wreckage and debris. Debris that reached through the whole system, caught in the gravity fields and orbits of the larger masses, and over a period of thousands of years, had formed huge artificial rings and clouds surrounding the gravity wells. Larger pieces had been thrown into orbits that had turned them into artificial comets.

The Starship watched one such comet now with curiosity. Beautiful, luminescent against the backdrop of space, this artificial comet used to be the engineering section of a heavy cruiser. The new artificial comet made its round trip once every five hundred years. Fifty-eight thousand tons of blasted scrap and twisted alloy. The Starship followed the new comet's path with scientific thoroughness. Within three seconds, it had not only plotted the path of the new comet, but had also mapped out the entire ragged surface, determined how many more millennium the comet would exist due to constant abrasion in the system, and the original name, class, and history of the heavy cruiser to which the engineering section had once been attached. With a grim satisfaction, the comet was entered into the astrogation logs and a course was plotted to maneuver around it. It was named after the vessel which gave it birth.

Hydrogen was plentiful among the wrecks and the Starship opened filtered scoops, activated magnetic tractor fields, and funneled the precious elemental fuel into its on-board reserves, watching the fuel tanks slowly accumulate. Random junk and debris drawn into the ram scoop fields was sorted and moved to reprocessing where huge milling forges reduced the materials down into their component alloys and materials, and moved the finished recycled material to holding areas for future use. The Starship edged on through the system, confident in the fact that it had at last found some much needed materials and spare parts with which to effect repairs.

The system was filled with debris, the destruction was immense even to the sentient computer's point of view but the pickings were more than adequate. The sensors were cataloging every single piece of useable material in the system. A process that would take another hour yet to complete.

The Starship continued to decelerate and turned, carefully maneuvering close to a selected piece of wreckage. Powerful, precise tractor beam projectors lashed out with gossamer thin beams that attached themselves to the chosen piece. The projectors easily positioned the piece near a damaged area of the hull, holding the wreckage while bays opened and disgorged thousands of fully automated repair and work drones. The Starship watched as its automated servants filed forth, jetting into the black depths of space on precision regulated maneuver jets, and began to haul nearby pieces of usable debris or usable parts back to the ship.

The Starship felt confidence now, it had needed to repair its battle damage and to obtain a supply of raw manufacturing material for future actions. There had been much combat in the past few hundred cycles, there was a great need for parts, repairs, and time to form strategy and to judge its effectiveness so far in it's mission.

It kept a constant vigil, its scanners and sensors sweeping a sphere of space measured in hundreds of thousands of parsecs. If it hadn't triple checked its low intensity sensor readings, it might have missed the one thing it was looking for in the first place.

The Starship felt new levels of what it perceived as 'joy' as it reviewed the low intensity, lower band wave transmission that was being transmitted on mostly unused frequencies. The transmission was faint, faded, almost hidden behind the other clutter and automated signals that were being continuously broadcast from the wreckage in the system and almost indistinguishable from the background stellar noise from the primary.

The transmission was there, nonetheless.

A repeated, mechanically reproduced code. Too precise and regular to be a naturally occurring phenomena, it was almost lost in the background distortion of the primary. The Starship cycled through the data. The frequencies corresponded with a common Designer distress frequency, though a much older version. The Starship scanned and searched for the signal, its sensors and scanners probing and dissecting every piece of debris and wreckage in the system. A globe of sensor energy expanded away from the Starship, playing over all wreckage and debris.

The sensor return checked to three thousand decimal places and was positive.

Life!

Life nearby! The sensors swept out, reaching out into the system, into deep space. The Starship isolated the source of the signal, pinpointing the location in the system to within one millimeter. The source was old, fading, but nearby, just over a AU in distance. The Starship's sensors locked onto the piece of wreckage that was broadcasting the signal and thoroughly scanned it.

Molecular, chemical, metallurgy, and energy analysis followed. Satisfied with the sensor echoes, the Starship shunted an insignificant erg of reserve power to a secondary auxiliary tractor battery. The tractors cycled, probed out, and ever so gently cradled the piece of wreckage, enveloping it in protective layers of energy, screens that the Starship extended outwards in order to protect it's new find.

The Starship reversed the polarity of the battery and the wreckage was pulled toward the Starship at fantastic velocity, protected from the other debris by the very energy that was drawing it closer every second. Several seconds later, the Starship was pondering the wreckage floating before it, held gently in the embrace of the tractor beam. It ordered four of the small work drones to investigate and watched with fascination as the drones left their assigned tasks to jet over to the newly acquired piece of wreckage.

The Starship studied its battle-log and the transponder IFF codes. It took less than a millisecond to determine the identity of the piece of wreckage. The wreckage floated there, defenseless, broken, twisted, and blasted, it's meager size almost invisible compared to the massive size of the Starship.

The Starship began a detailed scan as shadows cast from other wreckage with the light from the primary played across the blasted, torn surface of the remains of the heavy cruiser. The internal structural integrity was shattered, breached. The structure was for the most part a mass of twisted and fused metal. The multiple power plants were dead, only one barely pulsed with the dying life of a star, shedding hard radiation from broken and buckled shielding. The weapon banks were empty, cold, and depleted, or they had been reduced to scrap that was almost unrecognizable from the rest of the wreckage. The Starship took what it could, there were still a few pieces and parts worth salvaging.

The heavy cruiser looked a pale shadow of its former self, almost unrecognizable from the data that the Starship had called up from deep memory except for its transponder code still transmitting an distress signal. An distress signal not for the heavy cruiser itself, but for the fate of the single sole survivor aboard, the life form was nestled in the cold steel womb, safely tucked away in forced deep nanostasis until the distress call could be answered.

The scavenger drones descended upon the shattered hulk. Power beamers, plate cutters, and metal shearers flared hot light in the cold of space and the derelict segment was carefully dissected, piece by piece was surgically removed from the twisted hulk until one of the drones broke through to the shattered interior and the survival center. With waldos capable of crushing thick armor plate or of holding a chemical solvent bubble without bursting it, the drone carefully removed the armored berth from its mounts, cradling the dented, scratched, dull white coffin shaped component. Its photoreceptors and visual recorders regarded the occupant through the frosted vision plate. Photoreceptors regarded the work, satisfied that the life support system and the integrity of the survival center had not been compromised, the drone sent a short burst data transmission to the Starship.

The Starship felt success.

A Designer, after all this time, and the Designer was still alive!

The Starship began to prepare for the newfound life to be taken care of properly aboard. With a brilliant cobalt blue jet from its maneuver thruster, the drone slowly arced up and away from the wreckage of the heavy cruiser, flitting back to the Starship. The drone's precious cargo carried gently aloft before it in its multiple manipulative extremities, the drone maneuvered carefully in and out among the debris, finally joining in with the flow of several hundred of other similar drones that likewise were returning with usable parts and equipment that would be cleaned, or rebuilt, cataloged, and stored for future use, or immediately put into service.

News of the discovery spread throughout the Starship and its various systems. Even the automated drones could share in the feeling of accomplishment in the fulfillment of the Design. Only one aboard the Starship was oblivious to the feeling of success. Perfectly preserved in nanostasis, Soldier Lieutenant Jard had the same nightmare constantly. At the sub-temperature maintained in the berth, his neurons were superconducting, replaying the same dream over and over the same way, as it had been since he had first gone into forced cryogenic suspension ...

Four million fully manned starships, the pride of Humanity floating like jewels majestically against the backdrop of the white dwarf. Four million starships facing six Qhitlx. Fifteen billion individual beings aligned under one allegiance against the threat. A final stand, the last battle for Homeworld, and the system of Isol. The last four million starships of Humanity closed the distance.

Battle ensued.

Jard and his team were ready to board the Qhitlx and attack from within. The team of Soldiers were ready in the air lock. Strapped into self contained entry cocoons, armed, armored, and waiting for the heavy cruiser to move close enough to dock with the Qhitlx.

They would never get the chance.

The Qhitlx flashed the bow of the heavy cruiser into incandescent super heated vapor. Smaller, lesser powered weapons began to dissect the heavy cruiser. Another flash of light followed, this one brighter than Jard's visor could dampen. He saw light bright enough to make him wince and feel pain, even though his arm had been thrown up in front of his visor, his visor had been on maximum tint, and his eyes had been shut. Bright light, heat, intense pain. Three members of his team, secured in the armored bulkhead across from him, were reduced to their component atoms. He was blinded and thrown violently in his acceleration couch. Shrapnel hit him, spallation, the armored bulkhead and the armor of the pressure suit deflected most of it. His battle armor’s internal indicators screamed warnings of pressure loss, blood loss, and impending loss of consciousness. Under the extreme velocities attained by the spallation of the bulkhead, the three centimeter thick hyperalloy armored surface of his battle armor made no difference.

Pain, a scream, reflexes and instinct.

The computer began a series of programs designed to save the crew that it could still detect as registering life. Survival capsules were activated, charged, and put on line. Jard’s suit medical subsystems began to treat his wounds. Powerful magnets started to withdraw shrapnel from his wounds while heated beam rings began to cauterize and seal his torn skin. Anesthetics flowed into his system, pushing him deeper away from the present.

The heavy cruiser rocked again as another attack struck it, carving a huge gash along the hull, and exposing the interior compartments fully to vacuum in a spray of molten rivulets that instantly froze again into shapeless globs in the cold of space. Where ever the beam lanced, anything of lesser material than the hull itself simply ceased to exist. The crew, exposed to the harsh vacuum of space, didn’t have time to scream. The hull was breached, and the ravenous power of the Qhitlx beams instantly vaporized any crew within the same compartment, then bored on further into the hull and structure. Deep glowing white scars across the hull, deeper dull red glowing craters where beams had ceased their operations.

Jard heard the screams of the dying crew. The radio traffic, then the static and silence that followed. A cold swim as the nanites flooded into Jard's system. His battle armor interacting with the final death throes of the onboard computer to save his life with the only hope left.

Nano-stasis.

The survival center was still intact.

His consciousness faded to black at the first microsecond that his on-board computer had realized that it could no longer keep him alive when even it was failing. The on-board had made the decision to place him in the survival center until help could arrive. The computer didn't know that the Qhitlx would leave no one left alive in the system.

No human would come to rescue him.

Ever.

The decision was made automatically, according to out of date standard operational doctrine.

A decision made during a battle that had been lost five thousand years ago ...

The room was well padded in stark white plastic buffered cushions.

Sterile.

Utilitarian.

His first memory of being awake was the pin prick touch of the needles in his limbs and extremities and the feeling of being pulled from a very cold pond. He coughed, felt phlegm rise up in his throat and fought it back down. It took a great effort to do so. His system was rebelling.

He felt numb, and cold, even though the surgical table on which he lay was heated and the room he was in was equally heated. He felt his muscles and the nerves fire in unison. Muscle spasms, uncontrolled retching and involuntary limb locking. It was a strange feeling.

Lieutenant Jard Avarin looked around at the room and saw all the complex autonomous medical equipment surrounding him. Behind him on a diagnostic screen was the schematic of his entire body, circulatory system, temperature, all functions. All apparently in the green, which made Jard sigh a small relief. Different areas of his body were slightly different colored. Molecular reconstruction, probably done in one of the nanowombs he saw in the corner.

Jard may have been just a soldier to some, but his training had been complete, multi-level technical, and he could not only operate the equipment around him, he could also read the analysis. He looked up at the surgical machinery above the bed and he shivered at the appendages that were obviously what he thought they were. Familiar, yet so different.

More advanced?

Nothing moved. Just lights and mechanical noises. He looked down at his body, naked except for some tight black briefs. Tanned, well muscled, he felt nausea and dry heaved twice before feeling confident enough to try to get off the table.

"He... llo...." he stammered.

Where were the nurses, the orderlies, the doctors and surgeons? The medical suite was empty. The diagnostic units next to him were empty. Tools and instruments were stored, there was nothing that would indicate that he had not just been dropped onto the diagnostic bed and forgotten. But his wounds were healed. He had been removed from his battle armor.

Someone had been working on him.

The room spun and refused to become orderly for quite a while. His grip on the table showed in the whites of his knuckles. Some time later, a few seconds, or several minutes, he didn't know which, the room took on some form of normality. He found that he could stand and walk, as long as he thought about it hard enough.

He looked at his arms and noticed the small round adhesive bandages covering the recent inoculation points. A small area of his skin on his arm was scraped raw and he touched it. Sensitive, as he had thought. What had been done to him?

The areas where he remembered shrapnel and spall were just pink areas now. No scars, no pain, just like he had rubbed the area for too long. He ran his hand over his chest and then looked down at the table near the bed. There was a clear plastic bottle with a clear fluid in it and a nipple on the top of the bottle. Jard picked the bottle up, unscrewed the top, and smelled the fluid.

Nothing.

Odorless and colorless.

There was a sticker on the bottle stating that it was a post nanostasis solution. There was no other data, no contents by percentages, no manufacturers code, no graphics.

"DRINK." came a mechanical voice from overhead.

He stopped, looking up, seeing no one.

"What?" Jard asked.

"DRINK." came a mechanical voice.

"Who are you? Where am I?"

"DRINK." the voice said again. "YOUR BODY NEEDS IT."

"What is it?"

"ELECTROLYTES. STABILIZING ENZYMES. DEDICATED NITES IN SOLUTION. DRINK." the voice said, reassuringly.

Chemicals and nanonites in solution. Standard medical goop that the white shirts would put down a grunt's throat. Jard started to drink. He knew of electrolytes and how his body needed them after the long nanostasis. He puckered up as he drank and left the nipple off the bottle, gulping the salty tingling liquid down. Somehow it did have a smell to it, nice, relaxing, and he wondered how he had missed it before.

Regretting the taste, until it started to turn sweet.

He could imagine the thousands of molecule sized machines he was drinking right now, all flowing down his system, going to work on anything that was previously missed. Artificial, mechanical bacteria. Machines instead of living cells.

"YOUR CLOTHES, IF YOU WISH TO DRESS, YOU WILL FIND THEM IN THE CORNER CUBICLE. THERE IS A LOCKER ASSIGNED FOR YOU THERE."

His uniform lay neatly in a small cubicle in the corner, pressed, cleaned, almost to the point of being brand new, and he walked over, hobbled on legs just getting used to walking again after so long, and donned his clothes. A pair of military green and flat black, well padded high G flight fatigues, a pair of high strapped boots, his personnel chronocom, his webbed belt, and his holstered sidearm. He donned them all and clicked the belt around his waist with a metallic click of the dark sintered alloy buckler. The holster rode low on his right leg, almost trailing past his knee.

He removed the blaster and checked the charge. Full power. He re-holstered the heavy, flat black, long barreled weapon and then found a mirror in the back of the cubicle, bending down slightly to stare into it. Another man's face stared back at him.

A face remarkably clean shaven. His beard and mustache were gone and he almost didn't recognize himself. He looked at the patches on his suit, the colors of his unit.

Memories came to him in quick flashes.

His last action? Where were the others? Was he the only survivor of his unit? This wasn't his ship's dispensary so what ship was this? Where were the medical staff who had treated him? Who had brought him out of stasis?

There was a faint chime and the iris valve that served as a door to the room cycled slowly open. He whirled, drawing the blaster pistol from its low slung leg holster in a well practiced, very fluid move. He armed it as soon as it cleared the holster, the internal capacitor charging with a dull hum as the weapon primed itself on its most destructive but narrowest focus emission setting.

A soft, mechanical voice spoke from outside the door.

"DESIGNER. MAY WE SPEAK."

"What the Jihda ..."

"DESigNER. YOUR EneRgY weaPON. You WIll NoT Need it." the voice said, fluctuating, mechanical.

The voice was adapting to his speech patterns. It was growing more 'human' with each sentence.

"Yeah? Somehow that just doesn't make me feel any better about putting it away ..." Jard said gripping the weapon.

The dedicated scanner built into the weapon wasn't penetrating the material of the wall. What readings he could get from the open surface of the door, were indeterminate. He adjusted his weapon, reset the scanner, and moved backwards slightly, covering the door while taking cover behind the lip of a bulkhead. The weapon hummed slightly in his hand, its internal power source vibrating the frame of the weapon, and warming it gently.

"Just who are you? Where am I? How did I ..." he began.

"All shall be answered in time. There is much to talk about, much you and I have to discuss." the voice said, in perfect Humanity.

A chill ran up Jard's spine, his hand trembled for a second, then the weapon steadied.

"I bet we do. This isn't Human technology around me ... I've never seen anything like this," he said as he waved the blaster around casually before returning it aimed toward the door. "on any Humanity ship before."

"Very well, keep the hand projector if you feel security in doing so. Much time has passed since you were berthed in nanostasis. May I come in? I do not wish to alarm you unduly." the voice asked.

"Wait just some time! What do you mean by ... much time? How long was I out there ..." Jard shouted.

"I had hoped to tell you later, after you had properly rested ... and adjusted."

"How long was I out there under nanostasis, jihda'in?" Jard shouted.

"Designer, you were out there for over five and a half millennium. Such knowledge could put your system dangerously close to being overtaxed in the present condition." the voice said.

"Five and a half ..." Jard said slowly turning the words over in his mind.

He faltered.

"Designer? May I approach now. We must talk."

Jard nodded slowly. A small light above the door turned green.

"Why do you call me 'Designer.' I didn't design you."

"No, but your Race did. You are Homo Sapiens.  Humanity. The Designers. May I come in or would you please come out. I feel most awkward standing in the hall talking to you through a door speaker. Such is not an efficient mode of communication. If I had wished you harm, surely you would already be dead."

Jard saw the logic in that statement, but his weapon didn't falter from its aim. At the current setting, the blaster would reduce a man-sized target to a cloud of ultra fine red hot ash and melt an equal amount of hyperalloy into so much super hot gaseous plasma.

"Yeah, I don't see why not, as long as you come in slowly. One jihda'in surprise at a time, please." Jard said as he rubbed his face and sighed.

"Thank you. As you wish." the voice said.

The sound of heavy footsteps, very muted hydraulics, myomers, and pneumatics sounded outside the door as Jard stepped back, lowering the blaster only slightly.

"I mean, this is probably your ship and ..." he began but broke off.

Lieutenant Jard Avarin was unprepared for what walked through the door. What stood before him regarding him was something like he had never seen before.

He hesitated.

A machine appeared.

Two and a half meters of gleaming alloy, a bipedal structure, humanoid, yet featureless. A high sheen covered the surface, which appeared to be made of nothing more than a liquid held in suspension. Like moving ice. A superfluid solid. A polished sphere, roughly the size of a human head, hovered near the shoulders, apparently not linked at all with the other being. It moved in perfect sync with the body, though no visible means of attachment existed between the two pieces. It stood there, outside the door. Patiently.

And then the strange machine did something that almost made Jard scream in fright.

The sphere that was the machine's head casually glided away from the shoulders of the first machine and came at Jard in a long arc. It flitted back and forth and drew up in front of Jard for a moment and as he moved to swat it away, the sphere flew back to the other machine which still stood out in the hall.

The machine walked through the door with a slow even motion, a mechanically reproduced gait that belied efficiency without regard for realism. The machine entered the room without ducking, the featureless head swung towards him and regarded him. Where a mouth, eyes, ears, nose and other normal features would be, there was only the polished surface, reflecting his image.

"Would it surprise you to know that I am the ship, Jard Avarin?"

Jard Avarin managed just a little grunt in reply as the machine towered over him.

 

Jard Avarin awoke from the familiar nightmare. The Starship was still hurt, reeling through hyper-space, but most of the damage had been repaired. He could feel its pain, feel the drives propelling the Starship through hyper-space faster and faster. He lay in the huge contoured padded couch in his room. There was no sensation to be felt. He knew he was in hyper-space, experience had a way of letting one surmise such deductions through subtle changes in the environment. Yes, he was in hyper-space, the Starship was in hyper-space.

They were in hyper-space.

Fine monofilament conducting wires trailed from the implanted sockets in his body. The sockets had once been used to link his mind and body to the computer of the heavy cruiser. Now, he jacked into the Starship. He knew all that it knew while he was in forced nanostasis.

His body slept while his mind wandered with the Starship.

He and the Starship were fleeing. Hurtling through the void of hyperspace to refuge somewhere beyond. Humanity had been vanquished. Eradicated from the face of a million worlds by a force beyond its wildest imagination, a race of extraterrestrials that existed only in the realm of nightmares.

The Qhitlx had fought man and won, every time. Oh, there had been times of stalemates, time of minor victories, but Humanity had fought a losing battle from the start, losing every system they had fought to hold and countless life in the process.

Qhitlx won out against man, over and over again in a restless genocide. A relentless, never ceasing onslaught of seemingly endless, invincible, cold calculating Qhitlx.

Humanity had fled, fighting back all the way. Being pushed back all the way. Refugees and survivors would group on a planet, waiting, hoping against all odds for the Qhitlx to miss them but the Qhitlx always came. In a cycle, in five cycles, in a hundred cycles, in three hundred cycles. Eventually the Qhitlx came. The Qhitlx could detect life, no matter how distant.

Jard moved up and out of the data base.

So it was over at last.

The core system, man's Homeworld, had been smashed. Humanity now numbered in the possible hundreds, maybe even in double or possibly even single digits, and sent into hiding among the stars. A lonely desperate vision of the future. A handful had probably escaped the last battle, limping their craft away into the relative safety of hyper-space. The Qhitlx had undoubtedly followed, tracked them down, and destroyed them to an individual, for such was always their way.

Still, nothing was ever complete. Jard still had a slight bit of hope. The Qhitlx had, after all, overlooked him after the last battle with Humanity. Possibly because his nanostasis had put his system in a controlled environment so close to death that even the Qhitlx were hard pressed to tell the fine line separating the difference.

That's what he believed and until something proved different, that theory gave hope that someone else would be passed up in such a way. Maybe Humanity could just freeze themselves for a few millennia, then reawaken when the Qhitlx were so far gone that they couldn't detect life anymore. A nice dream. Sleep away the trouble.

A dream ... That's what it seemed like.

A bad dream.

He and the Starship were fleeing.

Ever searching for other humans who may have survived.

The Starship.

The culmination of all the science that the mind of Humanity could come up with before total extinction. A fully aware, sentient computer with all the knowledge of the entire race and yet endowed with a set of final coded instructions on how to use that data.  The Starship was to save all of Humanity that could be saved, to defend Humanity from danger, and if the first two codes could not be completed, then the final command, to avenge Humanity, was to be carried out.

The final Design.  The most advanced, artificial intelligence ever conceived was nestled in a massive hull of amorphic fluid solid alloy that could reconfigure and reshape to meet changing situations. It could salvage from the wreckage, and modify itself depending on its judgment and needs. It could take common alloys and metals and reconstitute them into fluid solid material.  The computer, itself a product of molecular technology, a fluid brain that could even evolve, grow smarter, quicker, stronger. It could learn.  It wanted to learn.

"The last battle was fourteen hundred and three cycles ago." the Starship said as the data wafted over him.

"Fourteen hundred ..." he began, lapsing into silence..

"I let you sleep. You wouldn't have been interested in my findings which were mostly inconclusive and negative."

Jard thought back.

Homeworld had died over fourteen centuries ago, he had fought to defend it and now he was alive, possibly the only person alive. The last of the whole Human race. A million worlds surgically, efficiently scoured clean of life by the Qhitlx.

No life was allowed to exist.

Yet ...

Jard had outlived them all, outlived the whole human race. He felt a twinge of pain, a sharp pin prick that tingled all along his leg and then entered his spine. It throbbed and then subsided. The Starship had gone into battle again, been damaged, and had been victorious, but the pain ... He dived deeper into the data banks to escape the pain. His breathing became rapid, then hard. He relaxed as unfamiliar images formed in his mind and he welcomed them with a macabre enthusiasm.

Relax, the Ship told him. I will take care of you. What are you, Jard thought. Are you a machine or are you alive? Both, was the echoing reply in his mind, for what is man that a machine is not? I don't understand, Jard thought. It is difficult to understand ...

The Starship took care of him, soothed him in layers of energy screens, each many kilometers thick, that kept the mentally anguishing effects of hyper-space from affecting him, from driving him insane. He was wired in a hundred places and the wires interconnected his own nervous system to the point that it was hard to tell where his own nervous system ended and the Starship began.

The pain subsided, the Starship was repairing itself. He couldn't even feel the wires retract, there was no pain from the disengagement. He yawned as he rubbed his eyes and his chest. He ordered the lights on and his room was bathed in dull illumination. He liked it that way. He didn't feel overly cheery lately. Hadn't for about a fourteen hundred cycles now.

He sighed, hell of a long time to be depressed.

A plastic bottle of fluid was waiting near his couch and he unbuckled his harness, swinging erect with a wave of disorientation and he took the nipple off the bottle. Seems as much as he had done this, the Ship would remember that he didn't go for nipples on bottles. He drank slowly, waiting for the sour taste but finding it not at all like he remembered from the last time. The solution was actually pleasant tasting and he rapidly quenched his thirst. He squinted, regarded the polished sphere floating in front of him and to the side of the couch. The polished sphere in turn regarded him as he finished the electrolyte solution, and dressed in his fatigues. A twinge of strangeness ran through him. A feeling of disorientation again.

"I am here, Designer." the ship responded.

Jard shook his head.

"It feels different." he said slowly. "You ... Me ... We're ... different ... this time."

"I have ... modified myself accordingly. I am quite pleased with the changes. You will soon adjust." the Starship said.

"Yeah, I feel it. What have you found? Why the awakening?" he asked the sphere, yawning and stroking his hair and scalp.

Close cropped hair, perfectly maintained in nanostasis.

"I have detected a minor disturbance. A low level sub carrier wave broadcast on channels normally reserved for emergency maintenance systems.  The wave originates in the Neuhestuera system." the voice from the sphere said.

"Neuhestuera? I've never heard of it."

"It was colonized by refugees from various remaining Humanity systems some one hundred and twenty cycles after the home system and Homeworld were destroyed in the final battle. The system was therefore settled roughly twelve hundred cycles ago. The colonists were lucky, they had twelve hundred cycles of peace before the Qhitlx found them again."

Homeworld was really gone.

No bad dream after all. Jard still felt a twinge of sorrow when he heard or remembered the once beautiful planet. He had almost died trying to defend it against the Qhitlx. That had been so long ago. He had been told that he was the last survivor.

A sole survivor, the victor with no home to return.

So what was the point of winning?

Jard stretched and then sprinted out the open cycling iris valve and on down the sterile white and black striped hallway, passing symbols that he vaguely recognized from memory. The polished sphere followed closely behind, effortlessly hovering near him, keeping pace smoothly.

He talked as he sprinted, getting used to his muscles again.

"What's so interesting about another charred planet?" Jard asked.

"I will bring you up to date. Some fifty hours ago, I detected a low band narrow transmission signal. I have located the source of the signal as being six hundred, fifty-six thousand, four hundred and ninety-five light-years to starboard, starboard port our position."

Jard listened.

"I have isolated a disturbance, an unused wavelength similar to the one that I detected shortly before I discovered you. The signal is recent, even giving time compression, I detected the signal along a tight beam tachyon coded transmission. It is only four cycles old, judging by the speed of the transmission and our position of reception."

The iris valve slid open with a hiss and he entered into the bridge of the Starship. A large room with multiple reclining command couches, huge screens offering the panoramic view of the madness of surrounding hyper-space. Consoles laid out in ergonomic fashion and distinctly fashioned after utility, form, and function.

Twelve stations now manned by only one man. The original crew had never even made the maiden voyage, their names, their fates unknown. Jard walked over to the forward couch, behind a bank of controls, bringing the board to life in front of him.

A raised black dais in front of the main screen glowed dull red, a shaft of dim light descended from an identical dais on the ceiling, creating a glowing luminescent column. Inside the column, a transparent face appeared.

The face of the Starship.

The head turned, holographic, transparent, outlined in red and white digital lines. The eyes were hollow, the head was hairless, bald, confident. The head turned effortlessly to regard Jard and the dais whirred, moving mechanically around the bridge on a track assembly and off to the side, until once again the main screen was visible directly ahead of Jard. A graphic visual representation of the sentient computer as it chose to represent itself.

Jard turned to look up as he pressed his fingertip against the display and it was instantly replaced with a display of the wave length, strength, coordinates, and available data.

Jard whistled and turned, walking over to the command station and settled into the form fitting acceleration couch. Acceleration harnesses slid over his body and locked with a barely perceptible click. He felt the interface into the command system of the Starship itself, his nervous system and the Starship were so intertwined now that it was hard to tell where one started and the other one ended.

Jard's couch adjusted to his body position, conforming. He touched a display and the communication station's readouts were displayed on his monitors. He ran diagnostic checks on the signal being received.

"How strong is the signal?" Jard asked, adjusting his readouts.

The Starship fed the data to his terminal. Jard nodded as the information scrolled past his screen.

"Put it on the system." Jard said.

A squeaky unintelligible voice filled the speaker system.

"Amplify it, division by wavebands and lengths. I need a signal boost."

The Starship did so, and the voice took on a definite quality, but was still garbled, the tongue was definitely Humanity.

"I will try to compensate. Hold."

A silence, then the eerie mechanically reproduced voice of a distress call, still broken by interference.

Jard listened to the message intently, recording it to the data banks, and then keying the volume down. It was the first time that he had heard a message, even a mechanical, automatic beacon, in a long time.

"Why a message? Why Neuhestuera?"

"The Neuhestuera system was recently besieged by the Qhitlx. I am reading massive surface damage to the planets there. Computing probability of surface and inhabitant genocide is over the standard predicted factor. Instability will set in soon and the major planet will destroy itself in a manner of cycles. I am monitoring severe environmental disturbances. High levels of radiation. No other signs of life. Already, the planet's ecosphere is undergoing extreme changes. Weather is unstable and constantly changing. Massive quakes, tidal waves, storms, volcanic activities ..."

"Where does the signal originate?" Jard asked.

"The signal is from the remains of a major starport on the second largest land mass of the fourth planet orbiting the star. The signal is weak but is being broadcast on standard emergency frequencies at regular intervals."

"Not smart."

"It is an automated signal. I doubt that the Qhitlx would recognize it as anything other than another equipment malfunction."

"Any chance of it being an automatic signal?" Jard asked.

"There is a substantial chance that the signal is merely faulty equipment finally failing ... However, I am not allowed to ignore such transmissions."

Jard was bathed in the color of the new controls coming to life and testing themselves. He flicked a switch and hooded displays sparked to life, showing computer generated views of the planet taken from the long range sensor echoes. A sphere of disintegrating rock. Nothing could be alive down there, he thought. We've been chasing ghosts and maybes for too long.

Too long and not a single person or trace of them. There had been pieces of bodies, bones, Qhitlx charred beyond recognition in the myriad of wrecks and ruins that he and the sphere had searched while the Starship had been busy rebuilding itself and salvaging parts. Never a trace of a living soul. He had searched countless wrecks before the Starship had dissected them and salvaged what it needed. It had indulged him even after pointing out that its sensor scans were infallible and that no life had been detected. He just needed to be reminded, to see the carnage, or else he would surely go insane, alone in the great structure of the Starship, buried alive in a mass of fluid solid alloy as large as a small moon.

He shook himself back to reality.

The display winked twice and a red dot appeared over the visual echo of the ruins of the spaceport. Jard refined the resolution and keyed in a full intensity scan. The Starship probed the wreckage, molecule by molecule, up and down, side to side, and after sixteen beats, the results were present. Finally, there it was, the tell tale disturbance of a life form, the peculiar energy and thermal levels that a living creature emitted as opposed to that of a non-living material, checked to fifteen hundred decimal places. He resolved the scanners further and sat back as the analysis and the general configuration of the origin of the signal was displayed on the screen in blinking letters as the computer read the results to him vocally.

UPDATED SENSOR SCANNER STATUS REPORT

ALL BATTERIES, AND ARRAYS REPORTING.

PRESENCE OF HIGHER LIFE DETECTED.

PRELIMINARY CLASS OF LIFE TO BE HUMANITY.

POSITIVE IDENTIFICATION CONFIRMED: HUMANITI SAPIENS.

IMPOSSIBLE TO DETERMINE FURTHER DATA.

FAINT ECHO TRACE.

CONDITION SCAN SUGGESTS INDUCED NANOSTASIS SUSPENSION

That one hit Jard hard.

Humanity! Still alive on the remains of that world. He scanned further, calling in additional data from the powerful sensors. Approximate location several levels underground in what appeared to be an armored bunker, some type of shelter that had escaped the mass destruction of the surface relatively intact. Buried deep under the debris of the starport, possibly a high level security storage area.

"How long till we arrive?" Jard asked as the polished sphere floated near his shoulder, behind him.

"At present speed, a day and a half. Neuhestuera now eighteen thousand and fifty eight point five light-years distant. Increasing speed. Hold." the image of the head said.

There was no sign that the Starship was traveling faster. No shudder, the Starship was quiet, smooth. It changed constantly while he slept for centuries.

"At new present speed, ETA is six hours and fifty one minutes."

"Wake me when we get there." Jard said as he reclined in the couch and closed his eyes.

Being a soldier, he found that he could sleep on command or at will.  It seemed that he had just closed his eyes when the Starship awakened him with a gentle voice and a vibration that carried through the acceleration couch.

"We have arrived at the perimeter of the system."

"Tactical." Jard said, opening his eyes.

The main viewer displayed a computer generated image of the Starship, X,Y, and Z coordinates constant. To the far right of the screen, there appeared a small dot within a circle, the visual icon for Neuhestuera appeared near the dot. A dotted line extended behind the Starship and stretched on into the infinite distance, displaying the current course the Starship was following. As he watched, the dot in the circle began to slowly fall from view, moving to the right and out of range of the forward scanners.

"Scan the source of the signal."

[SCANNER ACTIVE] his console displayed, lighting up.

"I will recall the applicable data." the Starship said.

Information holographically appeared in front of the main screen, floating in the air before the image.

"Plotting a course to intercept." the image said.

The data for Neuhestuera slowly disappeared, fading away.

The screen beeped as a dotted line appeared at the nose of the image of the Starship on the screen, arcing gracefully away from the solid main course line to connect the white dot and the icon. The X, Y, and Z coordinates of the Starship changed now, fluctuating rapidly but in conjunction as the Starship brought itself around to bear on the new course. The solid line representing the original flight path arced away from the Starship to the port side as the Starship diverted itself to the new course laid out along the dotted line.

The image zoomed in on that of the Starship, lining up on the dotted line in the middle of the screen. The solid line disappeared from view on the left side of the screen and the Neuhestuera system moved to port until it filled the exact center of the screen. The image of the dot in the circle slowly grew larger and still larger, began to grow closer out the blackness of space on the screen.

"Best speed." Jard said.

"Estimating intercept in two point three minutes, current speed, to penetration of the Neuhestuera system." the Starship said, Jard reading the displays for confirmation.

He watched as the screen displayed the course. The X, Y, and Z coordinates locked. The image of Neuhestuera became an elaborate colored icon inside the circle, slowly growing in size and detail. Jard sat staring at the displays as the Starship throbbed around him. He couldn't take his mind off the reading on the scanner readout CRT.

Another human being. Alive. After all this time, he wasn't the sole survivor of the Humanity race. For the first time since he had found out the truth of his fate, he felt happy.  Another human being. A human! Someone to talk to at last. A feeling of relief.

He wasn't the only one after all.

The Starship flashed out of hyper-space as it merged into the normal continuum and decelerated. Approaching the meager crawl of the speed of light, the Starship began to reconfigure. The teardrop vanished and the needle appeared as the turbulence of hyper-space spun crazily away from the hull to be replaced with well ordered normal space. The Starship cleaved a path through the wreckage that lay in the system. Relativistic velocity figures vanished from the readouts, being replaced with G-holding factors and data as the Starship was carried aloft on shimmering drives, gliding past cold planets and the local gas giant. The wreckage and debris appeared again. This time it started further out in the system and got denser the closer inner system the Starship approached.

Debris, pieces of hull, equipment, human, planet.

Everywhere.

Trillions of tons of blasted scrap. Swirling debris that was shoved aside by the energy screens of the Starship as it plowed through the system at just below the speed of light, cautiously searching. Finding nothing. The only trace of the Qhitlx were in bits and pieces.

"Enhanced visual." Jard said.

The tactical view was replaced and a real time view appeared on the main viewer and on the auxiliary viewers at each station. Neuhestuera was outlined in computer graphics, enhanced visual. The HUD plotted course, gave tell tales, and range. Neuhestuera lay thirty five million kilometers directly ahead. They were closing at a speed in excess of sixty-three percent of the speed of light.

The Starship continued to monitor Neuhestuera, scanners and sensors dissecting the area of space for millions of kilometers around, reading information on everything bigger than an atom. As the Starship closed to within five million kilometers, the screen crackled, interference from the junk and debris, and the background effect of the primary.

The huge gutted form of a civilian ship careened majestically out of the deep sea of wreckage and impacted the front screens. There was a splendid shower of sparks in the darkness and the hulk was significantly reduced in mass, disintegrating upon contact with the high energy screens, shedding sparking debris before being shoved aside by the energy fields that sent the hulk smashing on through the other debris in its uncontrolled flight. The forward velocity of the Starship never changed.

The Starship was disturbed, Jard could feel it and he looked out the view port as constantly updated HUD displays winked onto the view screen. He thought and thought, something about the system bothered him, something was different.

Good junk though. Neuhestuera was another interstellar refuse depot, thanks to the Qhitlx. Around the Starship swirled the remains of the greatest starships and spacecraft ever manufactured by the humans. Pleasure craft carrying refugees, civilian craft hastily modified, jury rigged, and armed for defense, military starships, even the remains of a few orbital fortresses occupying decaying strategic orbits appeared on the forward sensor screens. In a few more cycles, the orbits would decay and the once mighty fortresses would fall to the surface in a splendid fashion that would be witnessed by none.

Neuhestuera must have been yet another last stand for the Humanity race.

"Estimating arrival in orbit of the second planet in one minute. You may go and prepare. I detect no other active signals within scanning distance." the digitally projected head said, floating above the dais.

Jard unbuckled his harness, got up, and left his console as the sphere followed him. The Starship successfully braked majestically into a stationary orbit around the dead planet, even though the Starship's size and mass were now more than the planet's largest moon.

The sleek wedge-like shape of the lander screamed in through the atmosphere. The lander abruptly altered its course over the city, turning ninety degrees on its drives, and the multiple sonic boom that followed it shook the towering ruins to their sub foundations.  Jard controlled the Lander through direct manipulation of his nervous system while he monitored the on-board systems from his contoured couch. The craft slipped effortlessly sideways, maneuvering thrusters fired as landing struts unlimbered themselves mechanically from internal bays. His input was unnecessary, the onboard computer, itself an extension of the Starship, handled the maneuvering and flight controls.

The Lander screamed in, braking hard on thrusters and a second later, the sonic boom arrived to shake the ground and surrounding ruins as the craft initiated its landing sequence and gently squatting on four huge claw footed landing struts which each sank five and a half meters into the soft ground. The rusted, burnt remains of a pair of cargo-lifters were smashed flat under the weight of one of the landing claws. Harsh light from the lander's white spot batteries kicked in and illuminated the darkness surrounding the landing sight for over a mile with normal day-like brilliance. Dust and vapor were whipped around the cooling thrusters which still glowed and pulsed softly red.

A few minutes later, Jard stood in the ready room, stretched, and began to don his armored pressure suit. The suit fit like a glove, a symbiotic fit of a custom made material that felt like skin but protected like armored alloy. He checked the seals of his armored pressure suit. The suit was designed for both hazardous exploration and fighting in harsh environments, power servo assisted strength, self contained and armored, it was also equipped with extensive sensors, scanners, multi-visor, multi-tracker, communication system, medical subsystem and an onboard computer which would do it’s best to keep him alive. He had training in the use of such equipment in the Service.

The suit he found waiting for him made the one that he had worn long ago look like a child’s toy. His armor, his screens, his electronics, and his weapons were far more advanced than anything he had ever had at his disposal before. This suit was almost sentient, self repairing, it existed only to protect him. A variety of physical and electronic defenses were built into the design but the real culmination of the science of combat armor was that his suit was merely the control interface for the battle sheath that waited for him in the ready hold of the Lander. He walked down to the ready lock, his boots echoing on the grating. The battle sheath was like a second suit of armor, bulky, and much more powerful. It mounted the omni-directional screen projectors, the beam generators, and the armored cocoon that would protect him. He would wear the battlesheath like a glove.

Jard walked backwards into the battlesheath, letting his suit interface. He watched as the battlesheath enveloped his pressure suit, sealing him within a weapons and defense package that rivaled that of a small picket vessel. His readouts stabilized, and then climbed once the battlesheath was added to his own pressure suit. Tactical and sensor suites appeared in his HUD. Everything checked out OK, and Jard moved cautiously out of the battlesheath’s cradle. Two and a half tons of armor and weapons moved with all the grace of Jard’s natural walk. It was like he was wearing nothing other than his duty uniform. With the battlesheath attached, he towered almost three meters tall and two wide. A self contained reactor on his back powered the suit almost indefinitely. Behind him beat the heart of a star. Below that and to his left was an auxiliary reactor that could be used for emergency power or to reinforce the main reactor.

The sphere waited and soon the humanoid machine joined them, standing next to the airlock waiting for him.

Jard locked the helmet down tight, hearing the seal close and double checking it before he moved to a ready rack and removed a field pack and medical supplies, storing the pack in a external compartment. A heavy tool kit came next, and Jard packed this into another empty storage bin on his battlesheath. His blaster rode on his hip, holstered and slung low, next to his adjustable beam saber, both useless unless he ejected the battlesheath first. He chose a heavy blaster rifle from the ready rack, checked the charge, and held it at ease. Its power, according to his onboard collective, was as great as a secondary battery that had once been mounted on a starship of his time and it was small enough to carry in his armored hands. The main power source for the heavy blaster rifle plugged in to the battlesheath and fed it’s ravenous projector from the main reactor. The sensor / scanner suite of the heavy blaster rifle also interfaced with the electronics of the battlesheath.

His own personal screens were greater in capacity than even the heaviest armored vehicles had ever carried in his time. The humanoid machine carried internal offensive batteries of equal power, but its screens rivaled his own. Jard was impressed with the tools of his trade.

Very impressed.

He hoped that he would not need them.

Jard moved to the airlock and activated the lock controls. The airlock on the high side of the Lander cycled open with a hiss as Jard was slowly raised from the ready room to the outside hull by a huge hydraulic lift pad that could have accommodated fifty men in battlesheath armor easily. He stood encased in the armored suit, breathing bottled and recycled air from his internal respirator system. The sphere and the other machines followed him out onto the gantry.

He looked up, the Starship was there, three hundred klicks high in stationary orbit. From here, its size spanned across the horizon, it loomed over the city and only the bow was visible, the aft being lost beyond the visible horizon. The size of the Starship truly made his head spin and he turned away. He had to turn away. Some clouds were barely starting to obscure the details of the lower hull of the Starship from view. He felt sick when he looked too long at the immense size of the Starship. It staggered the mind.

He gazed out at the once great metropolis to the northwest. Just hundreds of sprawling kilometers of ghostly ruins shimmering, causing interference on his multi-visor. Radiation effect, the ruins were still quite hot, even after all these years. The suits radiation counter ticked off rads per hour in the red zone. The ruins were still quite hot. His suit would protect him easily. The screens neutralized the high speed particles.

The destruction awed Jard as he stood on the gantry of the lander's lock. Clouds and haze wafted past the tops of the smallest ruins, shrouding their blasted and ragged tops in invisibility. The ruins were kilometers high and around their bases were the choked streets full of all manner of vehicles and their dead occupants. Bones and pieces of bones littered the now motionless slidewalks, choked the intersections. Jard looked up, the sky was jet black, clouds of dust and ash roared past above lit by occasional lightning. Hurricane force winds blew loose rubble away, sent bones clattering across the tarmac, overturned stalled vehicles, and caused howling, swirling dust eddies to appear.

The Port tarmac was a hundred and fifty meters below under the huge strut mounted claw-like landing gear. The Lander’s defensive batteries covered the tarmac, ready to blaze away with ravenous high energy pulses, beams, waves, and modulated streams at anything that offered a threat. The bores of some of the defensive batteries dwarfed Jard’s armored form. Surface to surface and surface to air munitions launchers were readied, had been from the entry into the atmosphere, ready to deliver high yield proto-matter warheads to anything not human. They would be guided to their target or targets with inhuman precision, each munitions was controlled by a dedicated artificial intelligence which lived only to deliver its warhead on the target.

Behind him, two multi-barrel energy projectors swiveled in their mounts, traversing the ruins in a search mode, trying to acquire a target. Jard looked down and swung the control arm of the portapack forward, locking it and keying in the lift jets. The pack screamed and lifted the two and a half tons of armored battlesheath from the gantry of the airlock on twin jets of cobalt gracefully. He slowly arced up and away from the huge landing craft and watched the HUD display on his visor, using the information gathered by the suit sensor suite to guide himself in his flight. The flight envelope was constantly adjusted by the onboard computer, based on data gathered from a variety of sensors including units mounted on the battlesheath, the Lander, and the Starship in orbit above.

The sphere followed him, dropping over the edge and arcing towards him. The humanoid shaped machine rose from the gantry slowly, small vents in its legs appearing in the fluid solid material, cycling opening. The dust on the gantry spread out from around the gleaming machine as it lifted into the air. It dropped off the platform and rapidly falling toward the tarmac on twin jets of cobalt emitted from its foot thruster units. Two more thrusters morphed out of the back of the machine, grew outwards on wing-like extensions, and flared to life. The air mobile machine stopped and bobbed in mid air a few meters above the tarmac before leaning forward and slowly moving in behind Jard, taking up a defensive stance.

Jard maneuvered in the strong head wind and slowly flew at a mere two meters altitude through the huge smashed outer perimeter walls of the starport, seeing the demolished buildings, the cratered, scorched, and blasted landing pads and the equally destroyed remains of huge starships that had never gotten off the ground. The eerie illumination from the thruster pack played with shadows on the ground.

Everything was illuminated in the sensor beam of the suit, and displayed in infra-red, thermal, image enhancement, and low light visual displays. Information was received and converted to a real time actual light image for his use. The huge blast walls. A strong pulse went out from the sensor / scanner suite in the suit and returned with a negative reading.

He switched on high intensity white strobes located on the shoulder plates of the pressure suit and rays of harsh light illuminated the darkness. Behind him, similar devices in the shoulder modules of the other machine did likewise. Six smaller independent modules separated from the back of the machine and hovered around them, at an easy distance, and began to glow brightly. Within seconds, Jard no longer needed the vision filters to see clearly. The will-o-the-wisp-like floating lights followed them expertly, illuminating everything with day-like brightness within a hundred meter area.

The smashed hangers and underground bays. The once smooth surface now pitted, cratered, blasted and fused. Cracks in the tarmac, some so large that he had to step over them, Qhitlx large enough that he had to jump over them. The tarmac was buckled, torn. In some of the larger cracks, he could actually see past the eighty meter thick material into some of the underground structures. He shook his head and slowly adjusted the thruster pack, swinging over the port in a lazy circle, letting the sensors guide him toward the signal.

He hovered over one of the massive elevators used to move starships, spacecraft, and various cargo from the underground berths to the launch areas and back again. He moved the control lever forward and the on-board gently set him down on the tarmac, angling the jets and decreasing thrust. He stepped forward on the tarmac as the pack whined through shutdown, cutting thrust, and he flipped the control arm down and back away.

The polished sphere and the machine had followed him silently. The intense light from the strobes on each of his shoulder armor plates played crazy shadows on the ruins he walked. The HUD display scanned the ruins, giving a hint at the extent of the destruction in green tell tale graphics projected onto his visor to overlap his field of view.

Dust crunched under the heels of his armored pressure suit. He flipped the visor to infra-red and looked out over the port. Nothing moved, everything was cold. Dead. He flipped the visor back to normal vision mode and walked slowly on, hearing the dust hammer at his suit from the impact of the wind born particles and the small but distinct whine of the servos enhancing his muscular movement. He stepped on a scorched human skull and crushed it to dust and pieces under the suits two and a half ton weight before he realized it was even there.

Near the skull, there were several others. Fallen where they had died, bones and skulls. The wind whistled through empty rib cages and the empty cavities in the pelvic bones. Bones. Some broken, some cracked, some burned, others missing pieces entirely. He saw a skull with half of its side missing, a ragged tear. Shrapnel. He stopped and looked down at the tarmac around his feet.

Human skulls and bones, decaying in the dust, he reached down and gently picked one up. Dust fell from the empty eye sockets and the jaw fell open. He turned it over in his hand, studying it for a moment before setting it back down on the tarmac. The sphere and the machine had halted, regarding him with cold photoreceptors and mechanical logic.

Crimson lightning flashed from the dark heavens to the gray ground far away. His visor instantly darkened to shield his eyes and Jard increased his pace, the polished sphere floating behind him and the other machines keeping pace behind him effortlessly. His seismic sensor beeped a warning and they stopped. The ground trembled, the quake arrived and the nearby buildings groaned as their superstructures swayed at the new movement. A building on the far side of the port partially collapsed, its internal structure screaming the sound of twisted metal and fatigued supports as it settled in a shower of dust, ash, and debris, scattering rubble across the tarmac and raising a huge cloud.

Fog, mist, smoke, whatever it was, clung to the ground and moved with him, swirling at his feet, coating the ruins. Hiding dangerous ground and sharp debris underneath if not for the HUD which painted a sensor echo of the terrain in vivid luminescent green lines and tones on one of the screens. The sky darkened and the lightning became more intense. Another bolt of lightning arced and struck one of the towering ruins, in turn arcing over to another adjacent ruin in a splendid shower of sparks.

Jard managed to find the source of the signal as pinpointed by the sensors on the suit. He used the servos of the suit along with the help of the other machines to move the heavy debris blocking the entrance to the terminal building. He stepped through shattered blast doors, crunching broken glass and metal fragments beneath him as his HUD slowly beeped out instructions for him to reach the signal. Around him, more decayed and crumbling bodies lay sprawled inside the terminal, a heavy coat of dust covering them. He was glad that he was breathing recycled air.

The dead shared an air he truly wished to keep from breathing.

Jard walked across the port, and stood at the edge of one of the huge elevators used to transfer vessels to and from the surface. The lift pad itself was almost a mile in width and six times that in length. He brought up the HUD, used the sensor to paint the circuitry of the mechanism, determined the line of controls for the lift, and walked around the perimeter until he found the semi-submerged control board. He skirted the wreckage of the massive Starship that lay in several distinct blasted pieces on the platform, towering above him.

The Enmargueire, a five and a half mile long heavy cruiser. It had never gotten very high off of the pad as the landing struts were only partially retracted and the dent in the surface from the wreckage told him that the Starship was destroyed just shortly after having cleared the takeoff sequence and starting for the upper atmosphere.

The vessel had broken apart under bombardment from near orbit and the debris had fallen back to the ground to sprawl along the lift platform, blocking the lift from operating and other ships from using the lift to maneuver.

The Starship's drivers had buckled and were now exposed in the blasted aft hull, the whole structure was starting to rust. He had seen too many similar wrecks to be impressed by this one. The wreckage of the Starship took up almost all of the huge elevator pad and he looked up to the wrecked Starship one last time before he knelt and flipped open the manual override for the service lift.

A small service cubicle was situated below the heavy panel and he slipped down inside. A manual override lift control panel. The console still looked functional and he tapped the panel, nothing happened. He energized the panel before him, and began keying it to dim life.

Towering above him two hundred and twenty stories was the bow of the wrecked Starship. He looked back to the massive Lander two kilometers to the southeast, small in comparison but still a full fifth or more the size of the derelict Starship before and over him. Lightning struck the top of the Starship in a splendid shower of cobalt and cyan sparks. Dislodged debris fell screaming toward him and he was pushed out of the way by the other machine, it in turn rolled aside as tons of loose fragmented hull cascaded down around him, crunching into the tarmac and groaning as the lighter pieces bounced and rolled, the heavier pieces just landed and rocked back and forth. The dust the debris raised was thick enough that his sensor suite had to be used.

He was soon joined by the sphere.

"That was close!" he swore, looking at the settling debris as they groaned.

"Now where is ..."

To his right, metal screamed and debris moved, being pushed up and falling away as the other machine dug itself out from under tons of scrap. A huge dent and several smaller ones appeared in the surface of the machine but just as Jard was beginning to worry, the dents seemed to disappear, bulging outwards with obvious motion until the whole of the surface was smooth once again. The machine stood, apparently unscathed by being buried under the falling debris. A sheen ran across its surface and then faded once more.

"Never mind." he muttered as he started to shift other lighter debris.

It took Jard a few minutes and the help of the machine to dig through the debris and find the controls again. When he did though, they weren't in the best of shape. The sphere floated down to regard his work as he carefully brushed dust and debris off the black glass smooth surface of the control board. The board barely flickered to life, dimly displaying a menu, and he touched the [LIFT]-[PLATFORM]-[OVERRIDE]-[DOWN] icons in that order, a sensor in the surface detected the touch of his hand and lit up the display, keying in the sequence.

It flashed several times and there was a loud groan of protesting metal and hydraulics and the platform shrieked, jerked twice, lowering itself to just below the surface, about two and a half meters before finally groaning again and stopping. The sound of twisted, tortured metal resounding in his external pickups. Jard cursed and tried the actuator again, he should be able to lower the platform without power, but he would never be able to raise it again without power from the reactors.

Still nothing happened.

He spoke, activating the voice pickup.

"Run a relay." he said, waving his hand toward the board.

The sphere merely dropped two centimeters lower and Jard saw lights flashing dimly inside the polished surface of the sphere. The lights on the control board lit up and the platform shuddered again, this time moving downward at a steadily increasing rate. Hydraulics and gravitics giving way, releasing their hold on gravity, and letting the weight of the platform and the wrecked Starship do the work. The wreckage above him groaned and moved slightly, teetering. Jard watched it to make sure that the wreckage wouldn't roll over and crush him beneath several hundred thousand tons of derelict scrap metal.

He, the sphere, the humanoid machine, and the wreckage of the Enmargueire slowly descended into the subsurface of the port facilities and into darkness. Above them, a storm raged and threw crimson lightning, and dark ash down on the ruins.

Jard walked along dimly illuminated service bays and access tunnels. The aging chemoglow strips were running down without any one to keep up the maintenance. He was growing tired but the sensor signal was getting stronger. He was almost three kilometers below the surface and still descending down flights of stairs and lifts when he could.

"How much further?" he asked, studying his readouts.

"FOUR HUNDRED AND THIRTY FIVE POINT SEVEN EIGHT METERS AHEAD. TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED AND TWELVE METERS BELOW." the machine said.

"Below?" Jard asked. "You mean we got to go two klicks deeper?"

"AFFIRMATIVE INQUIRY."

Avarin found a lift shaft and tried it with little success. The destruction of the underground facilities had stopped being so visible after the fifty-first sub level, the point where the starships had been stored the deepest and the depth at which the other weapons had penetrated, burrowing before detonating.

Twisted wreckage, layers of debris, fallen hangers and catwalks. Skeletal remains for the first few levels and then farther down where the hangers and levels had remained sealed, mummified corpses lay where they had fallen, some at their posts, some in wild frantic flight, some crushed under fallen machinery. There was a variety of wrecked and overturned heavy rescue and fire fighting equipment, some of which lay where they had ceased to function. He saw a few still automated drones going about their fully preprogrammed tasks which had been given by a computer that had gone off line cycles ago. Another drone waved its mechanical clawed lifter hands fitfully, trapped under fallen debris, as it tried to complete its task, oblivious to its predicament. He and the machine had to clear a way several times through debris.

Using the servo enhancement of the suit, he had ripped seven heavy blast doors off their twisted mounts to gain further access, jetted down fifteen some odd inoperable lift shafts, and wormed his way over and through more than twenty wrecks to get where he was now. His two handed blaster proved useful for clearing debris too big to move by hand. He had started eight hours ago and he was tired despite the suits servo enhancement. It might have been easier for the Starship to channel a high power narrow beam from orbit and burn him a tunnel straight to the bunker but that might have damaged the integrity of the structure. Several times while moving debris, it seemed as if the whole building and foundation had protested. He had used the two handed blaster to weld several large groups of debris into molten support for what appeared to be unstable surfaces.

He studied the control board for the drop shaft and pressed gently at the smooth black surface. Heat sensors in the panel detected the servo hand and activated the menu. He called the lift but nothing happened.

He linked his on-board to the lift power channel and fed power to the lift. The sphere tried to run a bypass but nothing happened. Jard disengaged the link, walked up to the twin doors, and grabbed at the barely perceptible crack in the center but he couldn't get a hold. He stepped back and raised his blaster rifle, thumbing the selector to maximum power, high attenuation, wide angle aperture.

"That won’t be necessary, Designer." the machine said as it stepped forward.

Jard lowered his weapon as the machine pushed its hands through the crack in the heavy door. With a scream of servos, the machine pulled and the doors came open a fraction. It increased the semi-logarithmic amplification of the servos and the doors bulged outwards, anthropomorphic hands clawing, bending, and stretching the metal like plastic where they grasped the door. Jard watched amazed as the arms and back of the machine rippled, bulges appeared, and whip-like tendrils appeared, wrapping around the torso and the arms like growing muscles. Jard watched in amazement as the electronic and thermal signatures of the machine in front of him climbed up his tell-tale scales. Increasing at a incredible rate. New appendages appeared, growing out of the body of the machine. The plasticrete near the doors edges started to crack, bulging outwards in huge chunks. The machines heaved a third time and with a whine of servos, actuators, and myomers, the heavy doors free from their mounts, being ripped out of the plasticrete.

The echo of twisted metal faded slowly.

The machine gently set the torn and warped doors and their still plasticrete encased mounts down to the side, stepping back as Jard nodded. Jard stepped forward and regarded the dark shaft that stretched below downwards into infinity. It was lit by pale fading chemical strips that ran the full length of the shaft. The strips seemed to merge together at the bottom. Pale ghost white, each strip gave just enough illumination to make the strip out, but not enough to illuminate the shaft wall where it was emplaced. A harsh wind blew up from below, a fan duct activating somewhere. The hovering lights swirled around them and then dove down the shaft. On three occasions, the hovering light sources split, each one becoming two separate units. Soon, there were three times as many sources of light, all illuminating the shaft. Jard nodded and turned to the machine. It’s muscles were slowly receding back into it’s body, morphing again. Soon, it looked like it always had, sleek and spindly.

"One more down. How many left ..." Jard wondered to himself as he swung the control arm forward and keyed in the reactionless thruster system of the pack. He stepped forward into the dark shaft, free fall. Weird shadows being cast from the cobalt blue glow of the reaction thrusters and the brilliance of the white spots. The sphere and the machine followed behind as he slowly drifted lazily down another two hundred meters of the shaft, turning slowly in his downward decent, noticing the ripped supports and rails.

At the bottom of the shaft, he found the remains of the lift. What was left of the lift after it had plummeted from nearly a kilometer up. There was also a smashed heavy service drone along with mummified crushed remains of the bodies of port workers on the lift weren't readily recognizable as such at first and when Jard did recognize them by their rotting clothing, they were after images on his mind and so much dust on his heavy armored boots.

He didn't have much respect for his dead race, there were just too many to bury.

He continued on.

He was interested only in finding the living.

At long last, he stood in front of the heavily armored entrance to the area where the life reading was located at. He keyed in the control panel for the doors and they hissed open on their own power. Self contained. Armored. Survival bunker. Somewhere, an auxiliary powerplant still pulsed with computer controlled precision, a deuterium fuel source burning with the heart of a star. He stepped slowly into an airlock chamber and the doors shut behind him with a hiss and the sound of locks cycling shut.

No automated defenses, so it wasn’t a military bunker.

Jard's armor was bathed in UV light so intense that his suit darkened his visor automatically. Next came forced hot air from vents in the floor and ceiling followed by a thick gray green liquid foam sprayed onto his suit. He endured the decontamination process as did the sphere and the machine behind him. A needle spray of high pressure disinfectant hosed him down and another jet blast of hot air dried his suit, the sphere, and the machine. His visor switched back slowly to normal and the green light came on for the decontamination process. He and his companions were scanned through the full spectrum. He waited as the doors cycled open and he stepped through on into the hall.

The main receiving area would make a good place to stash his battlesheath. He squatted slightly, and released the sheath. His armored pressure suit free, he stepped forward into the receiving area. The battlesheath seemed to sigh, and then locked in place, ready to interface again. Jard left the heavy blaster rifle slung on the battlesheath. His blaster and beam saber would be adequate for close in fighting within the bunker if required. The tell-tales of his suit readjusted to the non-battlesheath standards. The main airlock into the survival bunker would never accommodate his battlesheathed form. By the time that he had retrieved the field kits he had packed, the humanoid machine had already gained access to the interior complex of the survival bunker. Jard picked up his step to keep up with the slight lead that the humanoid machine had on him. Getting closer, the machine reached back and took two of the heavy field packs, effortlessly, and Jard, free of his encumbrance, found that he made much better time.

A cushioned floor, padded, his feet sank two centimeters into the surface with the weight of the suit. The hall was illuminated by fading chemoglow strips set into the wall and his sensors told him that the atmosphere around him was being maintained at a constant temperature and density. He got the green bar from the atmosphere analyzer in the chin of his armor and he cracked his visor carefully, taking in fresh air after all the long hours of breathing sweat and body odor, mechanically recycled air inside the suit. The sensor suite pegged the level as the target level. They were here, somewhere. The other survivor sleeping in ignorant bliss of his intrusion.

He got his second wind as anxiety and hope rose in him. He walked slowly down the hall, gaining a slight lope as the armored suit made his padded footfalls heavy. The sphere floated obediently behind him as the doors to the inner airlock shut behind him.

The sensor suite pegged the level as the target level. They were here, somewhere, the other survivor. He walked slowly down the hall, the weight of the armored suit making his padded footfalls heavy, each step ringing with a resounding hydraulic whine from the suit servos. The sphere floated above his left shoulder, the machine falling into step behind him.

Jard Avarin slowly explored the facility. Some sort of shelter was what his HUD and sensors were telling him. Information, architects, critical data, and a lot of other information was picked up from imbedded databases set within the structure of the walls themselves, and relayed through standard format to his HUD upon request. The hall glowed, lighting up another full ten meters in front of him in succession with every section he entered. He cut the shoulder mounted white spot and let his eyes slowly adjust to the mechanical illumination.

He heard the hiss of purified air, saw small blue and white plastic tassels on the vents flapping in the currents, felt the cool bite of the air. Fresh air. Scrubbers. He tugged at the nipple near his mouth and took a long drink of water from the suits internals.

His sensors guided him down the intricate halls and access tunnels until he came to an area marked: WARNING! HIGH PERSONAL INJURY RISK! SUPER REFRIGERANTS AND CRYOGENICS IN USE! nanostasis BERTH CHAMBER AUTHORIZED SYSTEM OPERATION PERSONNEL ONLY!

The machine ran a bypass again as the door slid open. Cool wisps of refrigerated gas flowed out from the cracking seals. Jard entered a room filled with diagnostic medical equipment of all kinds and six cryosleep wombs each connected to the central monitor unit and arranged like spokes on a wheel. The room was eerily lit in dull blue as his spots illuminated the machinery before him. Waste and residual gasses from the cryosleep wombs flowed onto the floor like mist. He stooped next to the first womb and carefully rubbed the ice off of the surface of the viewport. Nothing, it was empty.

He went to the second womb, rubbing the condensed ice off of the viewport. Nothing. Jard muttered under his breath, his breath condensing in the cool air.

The first five were all empty. The last one wasn't. Jard carefully bent and wiped the condensed ice from the viewport with his heavily armored hand and stood there for a long minute, staring. He leaned forward, his faceplate flat against the viewport of the nanostasis chamber. The sphere moved in behind him and the machine walked up beside him, the heavy servos resounding in his ears and echoing in the chamber. They stared at the figure suspended in cryogenic sleep in the padded contoured womb. The life signs were stable, the sensors showed that they had found the source of the life sign.

He had known that there was another person down here. Another person that was alive but Jard Avarin hadn't expected the survivor to turn out to be a woman. Well, he had hoped, but he had never believed in his wildest dreams that he would ever see another human, let alone a human female.

Her long platinum white hair fell to her shoulders and even lower in waves, platinum even to the stark white pubic triangle. Very fine, soft, white hair covered most of her body. She had a very deep tanned nakedness. A medical lab smock covered her along with a blanket that Jard had managed to appropriate from storage.

An assortment of artistic and ritual applied tattoos covered a small part of her face, most of the left side of her body including her arm and parts of her leg. Each design done in contrasting white, gray, and black, in graduating tones. Jard had seen tattoos like these before. Family tattoo markings, political and social icons used in some of the more traditional or clan based families. Young, beautiful, athletic build, excellent health. Jard stood over her as she lay there on the diagnostic couch in the shelter's fully stocked medical dispensary.

He checked her signs on the medicomputer which hovered a few centimeters above her chest. The polished sphere floated nearby and the machine stood vigil. Holograms and digital projections of her internals floated around him. Graphs and bars moved in sequence with her heartbeat, her brainwaves, and her blood flow. He waved his hand in the air to change the visual of each display. The machine was linked in to the bunker’s medical computer and suite, itself a direct interface to the Starship above.

Jard had shed his armored pressure suit, his tan fatigues were unzipped at the front down to his black sleeveless shirt that showed beneath.

"Will she be all right?" he asked, completing the medical diagnostic check and waving the display to a new image format.

The machine made a few adjustments as it replied.

"Yes. But she will have some problems coming out of nanostasis. The technology she was secured in is not as advanced as the facilities I employ." the sphere said. "It is an older system, older than even the one you were placed in. I will endeavor to reduce the complications. I anticipate no long term damage."

"Granted. I doubt anything we find will be as advanced as you." Jard said as he stood back and pushed the floating medicomputer gently out of the way.

Several other automated machines floated over to the bed. A variety of tubes and needles were inserted into the woman. Fluids were exchanged, evacuated, and inserted. A steady flow of nanonites into her system were rebuilding internal organs that had displayed some damage. Her vital signs stabilized, then actually started to grow stronger. It would be a few hours before she would regain consciousness, but it looked like Jard and the Starship had found another human survivor.

Jard left the woman in the care of the machines. He found the living quarters and showered, finding fresh fatigues stored in the dispensary. The living quarters were stocked quite well, far above field issue. Following that, he went to find something to eat. He was returning from the commissary with a food packet and plastic liquid canister when the characteristic rapid high pitched banshee scream of blaster fire made him break into a run.

He skidded along the slick padded surface, entering the medical facility catching his breath in time to see the woman kneeling upright on the bed, trembling, one hand pulling her smock up in a self dignified manner trying to cover her nakedness, her hair flared back and her eyes wide with fear. In her other hand was Jard's smoking blaster which he had left laying holstered on the back of a nearby floating chair.

The weapon's barrel was shimmering in heat dissipation. The weapon's computer CRT was making light green patches on the woman's face in the dimness as she occasionally glanced down at the readouts from the sensor in the weapon. She turned and pointed the high energy hand beam at Jard who merely held up his hands, food pack, bottle and all.

"You're Humanity." she said, scanning the weapon's CRT.

"Yeah. Last time I checked I was ..." Jard began slowly.

She quickly pointed the weapon back at the machine which stood near the door next to Jard, two rapidly cooling and fading red patches on the front of the machine showed where the energy weapon had scored direct hits. The CRT on the weapon changed its tone, new data and readouts appearing as the sensor registered the machine.

"That thing isn't." she said.

"Hold on, doll. No need for the cannon. No one's going to hurt you." Jard said slowly. "We're here to ..."

The polished sphere moved down slowly, dropping toward Jard. The woman screamed a curse and fired at the sphere. Jard dropped what he was carrying, ducked, and hit the floor hard, rolling back out the door. The machine stood its ground as the hand weapon screamed its high pitched whine, spitting thin crimson strobe-like pulses of destructive energy that burned their after image onto Jard's retinas.

The pulses excited the hell out of the molecules in the atmosphere as they passed through, creating after claps of artificial thunder. The pulses were aimed to hit Jard but the sphere ducked into the angle of the fire at the last second, a blur of movement that solidified and elongated. The blaster fire struck the sphere only to ricochet wildly off the mirrored polished surface, being deflected into the nearby walls where the energy spent itself harmlessly taking huge five centimeters wide and hundred centimeters deep gouges of the building material with it at a time in a shower of powdered matter and resounding hollow whumps. Two more pulses followed suit after striking the front of the machine and ricocheting away in wild arcs.

The smell of burnt atmosphere reeked through the medical facility.

The ball glowed white where the weapon fire had hit it and then cooled to red and then to normal polished color with no apparent effect.

"Put that Godjidha'in projector down before someone gets vaporized." Jard screamed from the floor of the hall, spitting out pulverized building material and choking on the stark smell of burnt and ionized atmosphere.

It was weird talking to someone else after all this time, and now he was shouting.

"Not until you start with some answers. Now!" the woman shouted.

"Look, Jhivat. If we had wanted to hurt you, we could have done it long before now. I could have pulled the plug on your berth, or better yet, instead of digging my way down to you, I could have just dropped a brace of gigabevaton crust busters on this site and let you sleep on in a two hundred klick deep crater filled with molten rock."

He messed that one up he thought. How had the Starship said it, so many hundreds of cycles ago when it had first found him. The sphere hovered near the ground, near Jard's head. The woman made no reply and he turned toward the sphere. No emotion on the sphere, but Jard could almost sense the futility of his last statement. He saw his own reflection in the surface of the sphere. It wasn’t a happy expression he wore.

"Got any ideas? I'm not into this." he said to the sphere.

"I have detected the discharge of a very high energy weapon below the surface. Is there a problem?" the Starship asked flatly, keying in.

Jard keyed in the button sized comlink he wore on his fatigues collar.

"Problems coming out of nanostasis, you said. Some problems! She just tried to disintegrate me!"

"You said ‘she’. A woman? I had not known. This certainly requires additional caution." the Starship said. "Let me talk to her."

"Oh. Be. My. Guest ..." Jard said condescendingly.

"One moment." the Starship said. "I will keep you informed."

"Please."

A few minutes later, Jard walked back into the room and slowly took his blaster from the woman's limp hand. She sat numb on the edge of the bed, still grasping her smock. She looked up at him as he re-holstered the weapon and slid his utility belt around his waist.

"Who are ... I ..." she began, looking from Jard to the machine as they stood by the table.

The sphere slowly floated up from the opposite side of the couch and hovered there beside the woman, ten centimeters from her face. She turned and saw it, her reflection distorted and mirrored in its reflective polished surface. She took one deep breath, and promptly fainted. Jard went over to her and shook his head.

"Learned the same trick in the military. Get all the sleep you can ..."

"She has fainted." the Starship said.

"There's gratification for you." he said. "What did you get from her?"

The Starship responded.

"I have had to use a high speed neural data transmission ... "

"You zapped her." Jard said.

"Time grows short, Designer Avarin. I fed the transmission to her on low power and implanted her with everything that she needs to know, which is the total extent of your current knowledge. She will sleep for several hours now and shock should be a minor factor but still watch her carefully."

Jard nodded, that meant she was going to wake up with a hell of a hangover and probably be bitchy. Might even try to disintegrate him again. The Starship continued.

"As for your curiosity, her name is Kyr'Alsa. That is the name you may call her when she wakes, for it is her preferred name."

"I see why." Jard said under his breath as he stared at her stark white hair and dark tanned body.

"She is a hybrid Humanity and Solonani of almost five generations. Her parents were wealthy industrial business conglomerates. She was a ships navigator, cross trained in helm and engineering, all first class charters."

"Someone to talk to." Jard whispered.

"Another survivor." the Starship countered, a note of success almost detectable in its voice. "I am very pleased."

Jard watched over Kyr'Alsa patiently with the sphere. The readouts had stabilized, but her neural activity was still high. Her brain was processing the force assimilated data in the most effective manner that it could. The machine had left shortly after Kyr'Alsa had passed out again. Every now and then, Jard could make out the sound of machinery being moved or power tools being used. Twice the power fluctuated, like something had made a momentary drain on the main core. He ignored it, staring at the woman on the diagnostic unit before him.

Kyr'Alsa awoke five and a half hours later, bitching about Godjidha'ined machines, Godjidha'ined buzzing interfaces, and Godjidha'ined headaches. Jard helped her to the commissary, finding that she wanted some Godjidha'ined pain relievers.

He found some pain relievers in the pack he had brought from the Lander while she ate, finishing the instant meal ready to eat pack and drinking down the second of her electrolyte solutions with barely an afterthought to the taste she expected it to have. Jard slid another meal pack over to her and she shook her head, drinking more of the electrolyte solution.

"No thanks, I've had enough of this freeze-dried crap stuff." she replied. "Any more and I'll get sick."

"What? After only three packs already?" he quipped as he smiled.

She stared hard at him with a stare that he used to get from people who hated being disturbed while enjoying a hangover. Jard finished his alcohol canister, one of the aged wine brandies that he had found in the cache of supplies in the shelter. He offered her one of the plastic cylinders which she accepted. Later, he found some clothes that fit her among the supplies in the shelter. He waited in the hall while she dressed and she appeared in a few moments wearing a body suit that would have been fashionable if anyone was still around to take notice of fashion. She probably could never have afforded a suit like the one she now wore on her old commissioned salary but Jard didn't think anyone would condescend her for wearing it now. It wasn't that much in the way of clothing either, just a few strips and patches. But, she and he were probably the only ones left and a Soldier wasn't exactly a leading authority on fashion or women's taste.

"Like it?" she asked, smoothing out a wrinkle in the material near her belly.

Jard nodded flatly, hiding his approval though he was sure she knew how he felt. She would have looked good in an old Soldier sack cloth.

"Excuse me. I must interrupt." the Starship said.

Jard touched the comlink on his collar to transmit.

"Yeah. What have you got?"

"I'm afraid one of the contingencies we discussed earlier has manifested itself."

"Go ahead." Jard said as the woman looked on.

"Sensors are painting two Qhitlx closing at fast speed."

The Qhitlx had caught up with them at last.

Jard felt a cold shiver crawl up his spine.

"How long do we have?" he asked.

"The Qhitlx have changed velocity. Computing. An hour and a half at the most, maybe less."

"An hour and a half!" Jard exclaimed.

"The Qhitlx are decelerating now."

"Can you get us out of here?" Jard asked.

"I would prefer that you stay down below. You may not be safe up here."

"We may not be safe down here, especially if you don't come back." Jard said. "We're coming up."

"I'm afraid I can't allow you to do that." the Starship said.

"You what?" Jard exclaimed.

"In the last ten hours, I have taken the liberty of installing a phase inversion manipulator. This will prevent you from being detected. With the signal from the installation having halted, the Qhitlx will believe that if anything was down there, that I have taken it with me. As no Qhitlx has ever survived a battle with me or lived to warn it’s race, I will be an anomaly. I will use this surprise to lure them into deep space where I shall destroy them. You both will be in no danger."

"The hell you say!" Jard shouted into the comlink.

"You are safer down there. I am breaking orbit. You have enough supplies to hold you out for quite a while down there. I will be back as soon as I can but I will not jeopardize your lives. That is against my programming." the Starship said then static on the comlink.

"Don't leave us, Godjidha'init!" Jard shouted into the comlink.

There seemed a long second.

"My survival is inconsequential compared to the survival of Humanity. There is a male and a female now, of the Humanity race of whom I am the dedicated defender. Remember the Design, Jard Avarin. My programming won't allow me to forget the basic ideals by which I was originally created and by which I exist. I cannot go against my very purpose."

"Godjidha'init to hell with the purpose!" Jard shouted into the comlink.

Static.

"Do you read me, over?" Jard said, repeating the order again only to hear static.

Kyr'Alsa took his arm carefully, begging him to calm down with her eyes.

"We're safer down here." she said. "I know ..."

Jard turned and shrugged her arm off.

"Two of the jidha'in Qhitlx and it has to go off and fight them on its own. Why couldn't we just clear out and run for it. We've been running for cycles now. Why now does it want to stand and fight now of all times? I'd rather die up there not knowing what hit me than starve or smother down here in this crypt." Jard shouted and slammed his bare fist against the front of the machine hard enough to make it bleed.

The machine simply regarded him with its photoreceptors.

Kyr'Alsa looked down at the bleeding knuckles and turned his hand to the light to get a better look, grimacing at the sight.

"A few more like that and we can amputate the hand. Come on, Soldier. Let's get you doctored up." Kyr'Alsa said as she tugged on his arm to follow her.

They walked slowly back to the medical facility. Jard fuming and dripping blood along the floor every fifth step.

The sphere followed them.

In the hallway, they met two more identical copies of the machine marching past, each slinging a huge container of supplies. Jard could only shake his head in wonderment. Asexual reproduction. The original machine had simply split, and then split again to form two identical, new machines. How many times could it do that?

Near the medical suite, they saw another sphere, identical to the one behind them, float gently past in front of them ...

The Starship rapidly accelerated out of orbit on a parabolic path toward the star. Parsecs flew by in seconds and the Starship executed a sharp bank, heading back towards the two Qhitlx. Qhitlx warships, several hundred thousand tons in displacement each and each fully capable of laying waste to an entire system single handily.

The Qhitlx reached out with tractors and jamming systems, blanketing the Starship in a multi-parsec wide web of ever increasing interference that blocked all forms of communication up to and including psionics and the naked eye while ensnaring threads of energy tried to capture the fleeing Starship in their grasp, overlapping and crisscrossing as the Starship weaved itself between the closing threads. A web of energy, ranging from the electromagnetic to the visible and all along the spectrum spread out around the Starship.

The Starship responded in turn.

The complex electronic jamming systems on the Starship reached out toward the Qhitlx, through hyperspace it reached them, effectively and totally silencing them. The Starship slipped through the intense tractor beam web, slicing its way with shearing plane generators, through the gossamer threads that tried to bind it. The Starship powered its own tractors, snaring the two Qhitlx. With an immense effort from the massive drivers, the Starship translated itself and its two pursuers into the void of hyperspace and beyond. Towing the captured Qhitlx far away.

The Qhitlx struggled, ensnared in unbreakable centimeter thick gossamer threads of energy, using their drives, straining to overcome the massive tractors of the Starship to no avail. Once satisfied that they were far enough away from the humans and the system, several hundred thousand parsecs seemed a safe distance to the Starship, a factor of safety well within margins of operations.

The Starship cut the tractors and reversed direction, decelerated, letting the Qhitlx's own momentum carry them towards it as it turned. Deep in the programming was a command, or rather a code of battle. To defeat the enemy, one had to know the enemy, one had to think like the enemy, one had to out think the enemy. One had to become the enemy. The Starship had gone one step further in the evolution of battle tactics. It had absorbed the enemy. It was more than the enemy.

It shrugged in its thoughts as the two Qhitlx closed. Several hundred million tons surging with the power output of several large stars. Power levels peaked, the internal furnaces keyed in, the multi-amorphic skin of the Starship flowed, transfiguring. Huge areas of the Starship mutated, ran like liquid metal, rearranged themselves internally and externally, conforming to the new needs of the Starship. The Starship changed shape, becoming flattened, wider, a blade. Weapons were created and came to bear from previously bare spots. The Starship completed its change, two long milliseconds after it had initiated the sequence. Weapons banks charged, high energy beam projectors were energized, capacitors charged, deflectors were brought to full power, screens and dampers charged.

The Qhitlx came.

The Starship waited, danced in and out of normal space, accelerating to hyperspace, decelerating, turning, and out-maneuvering the two Qhitlx. Its shielding flared as high energy beams scored against the layers of kilometers deep invisible force that continually protected the Starship. The screens absorbed the fire and shrugged it aside effortlessly. The Starship tracked the first Qhitlx through its maneuvers, three hundred and thirty five parsecs away. It locked its weapons onto the Qhitlx and discharged its capacitors, feeding the hungry projectors that spat insidiously focused energy at the Qhitlx. The incandescent strobe-like beams and pulses sprayed space around the Qhitlx, hitting the enemy screens which cascaded and absorbed the energy, dissipating the destructive energy to the ether harmlessly, to a point before the shields and screens began to tax. The Starship tracked the Qhitlx, analyzing the attack and its effects, adjusting where necessary, continuing to pour withering fire into it, feeding the capacitors into the projectors.

The Starship reached out, grabbed the Qhitlx in a tractor beam and held it. The enemy writhed and tried to brake but to no avail. The destructive energy, the power of a star surged forward through hyperspace and enveloped the Qhitlx in a blossom of destruction. The Qhitlx veered off erratically, wavering, its shielding penetrated and damaged, but the tractor held. The Qhitlx, squat, monstrous, flattened but not smooth, hung poised in indecision for a pi-micro-nanosecond. The range of its adversary was enormous.

No human device had ever penetrated its screens and deflectors before. Its several thousand kilometer long hull was pitted, cratered and burned clean through to the other side. Systems that had been operational a scant millisecond earlier were now gone, completely destroyed. Only the remaining shielding and dampers had kept the Qhitlx from being utterly disintegrated. Structural fluctuations reverberated through the frame of the Qhitlx, itself a mixture of living tissue and metal.

The damage was serious. There were huge five kilometer wide wounds where the beams of the Starship had penetrated, and finding the hull armor equally notwithstanding, had continued on through the Qhitlx to punch clear through without even stopping. Incandescent beams having passed right through the Qhitlx and on into the depths of space. The cratered armor glowed white, molten rivulets measured in diameter of meters dripped from the slagged armor and froze again in the cold vacuum of hyperspace.

The Qhitlx turned and accelerated toward the Starship, its weapons ready as it prepared to skim across the target, raking it at close range. The Starship waited for the Qhitlx to return. It was occupied with the machine and its defenses continually fended off the Qhitlx salvoes. The screens, already overtaxed, gave way and buckled. Hard energy flowed through centimeter wide breaches in the screens in fifteen different points.

The Starship was bathed in the blossoms of destruction as the nuclear fire storm raged across the hull, destroying huge sections of the hull, obliterating many kilometers of hull surface, consuming them. A blinding bright ghost white ring of debris and dissipating energy spread out from the Starship at the speed of light. The Starship reeled as it fed power to the regenerators, the shield came up again, slowly, then gained strength as internal systems tried to seal off damaged systems, to redirect conduits and power channels. The Starship writhed, badly hurt but not mortally. The tractor beam grew dim, shimmered, and died.

The Qhitlx broke free.

The shield came back to full strength within milliseconds, the Starship again reconfiguring. Amorphic metal and material flowed like quicksilver, reconfiguring and converting energy to matter. The Qhitlx were approaching again. The Starship jumped into hyperspace, darting from star to star, buying time and building up its reserves. Satisfied, it fed power to the drivers, making a high energy turn, the Starship performed a reverse snap turn in hyperspace, waiting, calculating. It healed itself, adjusted it’s weapon arrays, rearranged its structure, and recharged its reserves.

It thought back to Jard and the woman. It had been almost a two weeks real time since it had left them several hundreds of thousands of light cycles behind.

It wondered what and how they were doing.

Kyr'Alsa stood near Jard as he lay on the floating mechanics creeper, half of him carefully wormed up under an reaction impulse generator that had broken down two hours ago. Already the air was getting stale. Six of the machines were easily holding the sixteen plus ton reactor up off the floor, high enough for Jard to have wormed his way under to the circuit panel. There was the sound of metal falling and Jard cursed as Kyr'Alsa turned, putting her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle. The machine's photoreceptors turned to regard the pair of legs sticking out from under the huge power plant.

"Which one IS it?" Jard asked from under the reactor.

"The left circuit, it should be in a blue chip with the letters AJC dash 219 stenciled on the side. "

"I already tried that one ..."

"The left circuit. AJC dash 219. I will display it on your heads up display. Try again, please."

Jard twisted around again under the reactor as Kyr'Alsa squatted and peered under the massive power generator. Her own hand light cast a glow. Twelve of the smaller, floating lights had arranged themselves at points under the generator where they could illuminate fully any area that Jard might need to see.

"Oh. I see it now. Wrong circuit. Lift it higher."

The machine complied. Servos, actuators, and myomers whined as the reactor was lifted another ten centimeters higher effortlessly.

"Right there, that's good."

The machine stopped. Obediently.

Jard cursed again and brought his knee back, fast-kicked the generator as best as he could from his prone position. The generator beeped twice in mechanical gratitude and he lay back, sighed. He felt the generator growl to life. It had taken the sphere only two minutes to create a new microprocessor chip for the generator. That was something that still awed Jard. Jard pushed out from under the generator, his clothing caked in grease and lubricant.

"Okay, set it back down and in." he told the machine.

He wiped his bloody hand on a dirty towel and sighed as the machine gently lowered the reactor down again, setting it back in its cradle.

"Did that fix it?" Kyr'Alsa asked, trying to read the jumbled data that appeared on the CRT.

"Yeah." Jard said.

"Clear and reboot the system management program. The transmission should engage after startup." the machine said.

She did so. He got up and went over to the thin dark smoked glass console. He wiped his hands again and touched the generator activation square. The console was a thin piece of black plastic no thicker than a pane of glass that floated a feet and a half off the floor on four small internal suspensors in front of the generator; the product of pure crystal technology and stacked atomic chains. All the internal controls were supermicro miniaturized and the panel came alive with a myriad of light lines and illuminated menus followed by icons. Jard pressed the [IMPULSE REACTOR]-[ACTIVATION] icons and the generator screamed to life. The transmission engaged and power once again flowed to the complex. The illumination grew noticeably brighter and the air started to circulate again, blowing clean cold atmosphere back into the shelter.

"That's not something I care to go through again anytime soon." Kyr'Alsa said.

"Yeah. I thought it was supposed be safe down here."

"I'm not worried ..." Kyr'Alsa said as she looked up at him.

"After all, I've got a Soldier who knows how to use his hands and speaking of hands ..." she said as she examined his greasy bandage.

"We better get you cleaned up. You could get that infected."

Jard smiled as Kyr'Alsa took his arm and kissed him, being careful so as not to get the grease on her. They had gotten close in the past two and a half months that the Starship had left them. What else was there to do but learn about each other. Jard wondered, was the Starship still out there, had it been destroyed at last by the Qhitlx? He didn't know. The spheres and the machines didn't know either as they floated and stood near the two embracing humans.

Later, Jard relaxed in the sonic shower. He let the soothing ultrasonic sound beams pluck the foreign particles from his skin, tingling his body and relaxing him as the beams struck nerve clusters. The rinse cycle came next, spraying him with a cleaner that instantly lathered followed by a fine needle spray of steaming hot water. His skin started to turn red under the hot spray.

He cycled the unit off and stepped out, grabbing a waiting pair of black briefs and a long black robe. He dressed and left the head, went down the hall, and joined Kyr'Alsa and the sphere in the commissary. He got another fermented high quality wine brandy canister from the food locker and popped the seals, drinking quickly. He crumpled the can against the table top and sat back, sighing.

"You don't look so bad for a man who's several thousand cycles old." Kyr'Alsa said.

"You're not such bad looking freezer burn, either."

She smiled.

"What was the Design?" Kyr'Alsa asked, eyeing Jard.

"What?" he asked, coming out of his own personal thoughts.

"The Design. The Starship mentioned something about a Design before it left, something about why its programming allowed it to exist. What programming?"

Jard looked over at the woman.

"The Starship is, well, its kind of hard to explain. It says that we built it but I've never seen human technology as advanced as what it would take to build the Starship. The way I see it is that the Starship has a lot of programming but above all the programming and nonsense, it has this Design etched into its operation. To save all humanity possible, to defend those saved, and in the event of the total extermination of the human race, to avenge the race."

Kyr'Alsa nodded.

"Yeah, well, it also can do some pretty amazing things. I'll let you read up on the Starship, its in the computer I brought down on the suit. At least, what the Starship used to could do ..."

"Used to ...?" Kyr'Alsa asked.

"Yeah, I can't get used to it. The Starship has the ability to assimilate data both through its sensors and through direct interface. To put it simply, as far as I can understand it, it can directly absorb the Qhitlx, absorb what it defeats and every time it assimilates another of the Qhitlx, well, it gets a little better, a little stronger and a lot different. It 'eats' what it defeats, mechanical cannibalism is what I'd call it and it tried to explain it to me one time. It's built out of a high tech super-amorphic alloy that can change shape, adapt to any situation, kind of like a magnetic field hull. It learns by adding to itself and becoming the enemy, by becoming better than the enemy. It uses their technology against them by learning how to use it and then adding it to itself and then improving it beyond what the Qhitlx already have. I really can't explain it, I'm just a soldier and not that smart but I know it sure as hell works. I've seen it."

Kyr'Alsa was quiet.

"What if it ... what if it goes bad. You know, decides that it likes not having Humanity around. What if it becomes like a ... Qhitlx?" she said the last word with disgust.

"I don't think it could. It's programming is too ingrained. It's picking up the pieces they leave behind, using the debris and their designs and hunting them down. This is the Starship's galaxy now, we don't have much more to say in the matter."

She looked at the table, her arms folded akimbo.

"As long as one of us lives, then the Qhitlx haven't really won, have they?" she said, slowly looking up.

"They want to kill us all, but as long as one of us lives, we've beat them, haven't we."

Jard nodded.

"Humanity's sole heir to all they ever had and we're all that's left." She remarked.

She went to the locker and took out two more of the canisters, tossing Jard one as they popped the tops and the chemicals in the skin of the canisters chilled the liquids. Kyr'Alsa raised her canister in a toast.

"To the Starship ..." she said.

"To the Starship..." Jard repeated. "Humanity's greatest achievement."

"Humanity's last hope." she replied flatly and they both drank in silence.

Humanity's last hope.

The Starship weaved in and out of hyperspace, changing course as the first Qhitlx closed. It hurtled through hyperspace at a truly astronomical speed. The Starship tracked it, waited. The Qhitlx was twelve hundred light cycles distant, then a thousand. The Starship waited. Eight hundred and closing, seven hundred, then four hundred. The Starship sat in hyperspace, hovering, waiting for the last possible second.

The Qhitlx came in on an oblique trajectory, it started to fire at extreme range, three hundred light cycles, the Starship was bathed in the destructive force of the onslaught, its shields absorbing the energy and funneling the excess into huge capacitors, shunting what it couldn't absorb, the rest to overload dampers which dissipated the energy into the nothingness of hyperspace. hyperspace shimmered, actually grew hot. The Qhitlx turned and accelerated away, trying to evade after seeing that it had had no effect on the Starship.

It almost made it.

The Starship held the absorbed energy for only a fraction of a microsecond, the energy moved at the speed of light, slow by the Starship's standards but a millisecond after the energy had been absorbed into the capacitors, the Starship reversed the flow, pouring energy into the beam generators and into the various weapons systems it had selected.

Warheads locked onto their target. Twelve hundred missiles leapt from their launchers. Very high energy beam accelerators and generators whined on their mounts, protesting the millions of gigawatts that were flowing through each beamer as it pulsed cyan, cobalt, crimson, and orange destruction. Cryogenic cooling systems were taxed to the limit as the weapons screamed on their mounts.

The massive spinal mount weapon which the Starship's hull was built around, running the full length of the hull was the most powerful weapon in the Starship's arsenal, the Mauler. Direct fed by the capacitors and through highly intense amplification, the Mauler directed the channeled power in a coherently focused narrow beam with minimum breakup or attenuation to the target. The power of the beam, the power of a hundred stars, was focused onto an area a mile square. The Mauler could also absorb energy from attacks, store it, and then channel it into a narrow beam and project it.

The Qhitlx moved. It had fired at extreme range. The high energy beams raked the Starship's shielding, the Qhitlx couldn't possibly realize that it was only stroking the fire that would ultimately consume it. Massive leech generators aboard the Starship hummed to life, drawing in the energy that was being focused onto its shields, shunting the power to capacitors and batteries. The void around the Starship collapsed upon itself, a whirlwind of matter and space spun crazily around the leech generators. The Starship returned fire at four hundred light cycles. Short range for it and its weapons.

The Qhitlx kicked in its damper batteries as the first wave hit it, riding out the multiple salvo. Several hundred warheads were destroyed by its close in defense batteries, but enough got through. The multi-bevaton warheads detonated on contact and failing that, pi-microsecond fused proximity was engaged. The shields on the Qhitlx bore the brunt of the warheads, but they were taxed and the shields faltered, buckled, shimmered and fell. The Qhitlx was engulfed in a halo of pure energy and blasted debris that spread away from it in a circle that expanded at the speed of light, trailing beautiful streamers that burned up as the unshielded materials made reentry into normal space.

The Qhitlx limped through hyperspace, erratically maneuvering, trying to escape for a period of time long enough to warn other Qhitlx or to effect repairs. The Starship, however, allowed no remorse in its task. No respite.

The Qhitlx spun crazily, careening through the infinite reaches of the insane void that was witch space, shedding debris and trailing dense amounts of wreckage. The beamers of the Starship splashed the Qhitlx's failing shields with their destructive energy. There were billions of gigawatts worth of energy being conveyed across the intervening light cycles. Cutting, boring, piercing, layer after layer of protective energy were sheared away, stripping defenses down to the bare hull armor.

The Qhitlx fought to keep the shields up, shunting power from all systems, even its drives, into the shield generators. The Qhitlx began to slow its mad velocity, its drivers dark and silent as the Starship poured energy into the beamers, channeling all available power into the weapons and all its fire into the Qhitlx. The Qhitlx was encircled in a thin wispy ghost-like spherical luminescence that was all that remained of its once seemingly impervious shielding and combat screens. It fought its own technology to keep the shielding up, but the beams bore on.

The Qhitlx was flung across space by the impacts, trying to evade using auxiliary power channeled to already overtaxed drivers, but the beamers were locked and the Qhitlx's shields grew weak, flickered, grew dimmer, then evaporated as they gave way and died. The high energy beam projectors of the Starship continued to pulse and cycle. The beams bore into the Qhitlx, disintegrating matter when they contacted it, setting up irreversible chain reactions, breaking atomic bonds, subatomic bonds, and Qhitlx.

A new salvo of warheads found the defenseless Qhitlx. The atoms that made up the Qhitlx broke apart, went their own ways. One after the other, setting off a chain reaction that was irreversible, a chain reaction that built to a crescendo. The Qhitlx disintegrated. A hundred million ton construct ceased to exist under the hammering forces of the Starship, becoming a rapidly expanding cloud of super heated molecules many hundreds of kilometers thick. The whole fight had taken less than two and a half seconds of objective time. The Starship gave the beamers a long second to cool appreciably as it searched for the second Qhitlx.

It didn’t have to look very far.

Jard lay next to Kyr'Alsa. She was cuddled up next to him on the contoured couch, her head in the crook of his shoulder. He felt her sigh, tremble, and breathe steady. She was asleep. He stared down at her nakedness. It had all started about five hours ago over a little playful rough housing in the commissary and had eventually led back to their quarters, shedding clothing all along the way. The sphere had followed obediently but Kyr'Alsa had ordered it out in not so many tactful words.

It had obeyed.

Jard looked down at her nakedness. Her long white hair had spilled over her deep tanned breasts, across the family heritage of her tattoos, and her arms were wrapped securely around Jard. It had been a long time for each of them. Their lovemaking had been desperate at first, the type of need that each had sought. They had slowed down, taken it easy after the sensation had worn off and started acting like two lovers instead of possibly the last man and woman alive in the universe.

She slept in security that she needed. Jard stroked hair out of her face, gently brushing it back to reveal her hybrid Terran and Solonani features. Dark, thick eyebrows, longer hair than normal humans had. She had told him about the Solonani, the beautiful humanoid race that had settled the system long before the humans had come seeking refuge.

The Solonani had died the great death. Interbreeding and intermarriage among the humans had effectively merged the two races together to the point of being indistinguishable. Darker eyebrows, extremely long hair, and a taste for the beauty of life marked the Solonani. Now, the best of both races lay next to him, the best of generations.

The Starship had been gone for almost two and a half months now but Jard found that he missed it less and less each day he was with Kyr'Alsa. The shelter had become like home to them. He stroked her hair, her ear, gently bending to nibble on her ear, and she came slowly awake, moaning softly, curling up as he held her close and kissed her. She moved in towards him and responded in turn, kissing his chest and laying her head across his chest. They lay there like that for a long time, each lost in their own thoughts.

Jard wondered when, if ever, the Starship would return. Kyr'Alsa wondered how much longer they would have together in their own private paradise.

The Starship scanned, its sensors reaching out, searching for the Qhitlx. The Starship found it, approaching at a velocity almost triple that of the Starship's current velocity. It was moving in from behind and firing as it decelerated. And then the Qhitlx did something the Starship was unaware that it could.

It split.

The single Qhitlx became five smaller Qhitlx, each tailored for combat. The Qhitlx moved to surround the Starship, an elaborate web. The Starship's rear shielding flared brilliant white and cascaded the colors of the spectrum as the shielding absorbed the energy. The Qhitlx flashed past at a very close range of a hundred and fifty two light cycles distance, raking the Starship with all that it had. The Starship took the battering, forcing the energy into the shields as it waited out the attack. The on-board capacitors opened, engaged, and started to accumulate.

The Starship reconfigured itself, and copied the Qhitlx tactic. The Starship became five separate entities. Each moving toward a pre-selected Qhitlx target. The Starship scanned the Qhitlx, it was different from the other Qhitlx that it had encountered. Possibly a newer variant, or perhaps just a type never encountered before. The Starship cycled its tractors, lashed out and grabbed the Qhitlx, stopping it dead in hyperspace as the powerful tractors strained on their mounts to bring the fluttering Qhitlx to a stop. Gossamer strands of energy no bigger than a centimeters width held the Qhitlx as it struggled futility a hundred light cycles away.

The Qhitlx tried to break free. The Starship held its grip, pulling the Qhitlx towards it inexorably. The linked pair of Qhitlx and Starship slowed, decelerated into normal space. The Qhitlx continued stiff resistance as the Starship scanned the Qhitlx. A wealth of new data flowed into the data banks and the Starship felt pleased. It had long since learned the weakness of the enemy and how to defeat the now primitive scanning protection that the Qhitlx possessed.

The Qhitlx struggled against the thought of its total destruction. No, the Starship had other uses for the Qhitlx. It pulled the Qhitlx closer, closer, thousands of kilometers a second and still the Starship pulled the Qhitlx in. At the last second, the Qhitlx seemed to understand the Starship's intentions all too well. It fired, all its power channeled into its weapons, it struggled, and fired again. Beams were absorbed by the Starship's shielding, missiles were either vaporized by beams or swatted aside by repulser beams. The Qhitlx struggled until its weapons were finally depleted and still the Starship reeled it in. Closer.

The Qhitlx lashed out again, its capacitors and power levels falling as the batteries depleted themselves. The force to smash entire worlds played uselessly over the shielding of the Starship. The Starship countered by increasing its shielding at a ratio proportionate to that of the incoming fire. The Starship's weapons then lashed out, surgically dissecting the Qhitlx's weapons and shearing off its multiple batteries and weapon banks.

The Qhitlx tried to self destruct, to call for assistance from Qhitlx of its kind, but the Starship was blanketing it with a darkness that crept across its circuits, closing them, muting them, forcing the other artificial intelligence to cease functioning.

It felt contact with the Starship's hull. Amorphic material began to flow, rapidly running and flowing over the surface of the Qhitlx. Its outer sensors become icy, fuzzy, static, and then nothing. The darkness crept across its hull, consuming and shutting down every system, leaving the Qhitlx vulnerable.

If the Qhitlx had been capable of screaming, they would have.

They watched the devastated and dying planet fade slowly from view on the main scanner. Several cracks had broken in the crust of the world, red hot lava flowed into the sea, raising great clouds of steam that appeared on the edge of the atmosphere. They watched the planet disappear from sight as the Starship accelerated out of the system under its maneuver drives, ghost white brilliance behind it. The Starship committed power to the drivers and translated itself into the void of hyperspace.

Jard sat at the bridge, buckled into the contoured couch and Kyr'Alsa was laying next to him on the navigation station couch. There was no feeling of the immense acceleration that the Starship was undergoing. They watched the grid like void of hyperspace expand before them on the Starship's sensor screens. The dais on the front of the bridge whirred and came to life, a shaft of reddish purple light extended from ceiling to floor and the image of the head appeared again, regarding Jard and Kyr'Alsa.

Jard felt the Starship as a distant entity. It was different than before. It had absorbed more of the Qhitlx. He could feel the alien-like of the Starship. It hadn't quite absorbed the Qhitlx yet but it was getting more familiar by the hour. It learned remarkably quick. The next time he slept, the strangeness would be replaced with familiarity. The Starship would input its changes to him.

Jard was staring at the readings on the board in front of him, power measured in trillions of gigawatts. He couldn't begin to comprehend the power of the Qhitlx. Or the Starship. He watched the power levels synchronize and stabilize. A voice broke his reverie.

"I had some slight complication with the Qhitlx this time. I had to be sure that I was ready to face the Qhitlx in uneven odds. They were quicker, more powerful this time. It would appear that they, too, are growing stronger. I fear that they are absorbing technology in the same way that I am and are trying to imitate Humanity in an effort to understand that which they cannot seemingly destroy completely."

Jard looked up.

"I am still assimilating the data but all that I have is available, of course, for your perusal at your convenience."

"You were gone almost five months." Jard stated, keying in a few dull controls that gave him a readout of the new abilities of the Starship.

His eyebrows raised in obvious appreciation and limited understanding. He touched the beard and mustache that he had grown in the time that the Starship had been away.

"The Humanity race does not need to spend its existence in nanostasis, Jard ... As I stated, I had some manner of trouble. The Qhitlx are growing smarter. Five months and that is too long. I had anticipated a fight of at most, only a few weeks real time. The second Qhitlx was the hardest. It survived the longest. The Qhitlx and I, we do not measure the passage of time as you Humans do. Ours is a relative time, measured at velocities faster than the speed of light. Your existence is slow, fragile, fleeting. It is now obvious that the two Qhitlx were a vanguard left behind to mop up any attempt by humans to recover survivors and then rejoin the main program, possibly the Qhitlx planned to not attack at all, but to follow the human rescue party back to their base and then annihilate the survivors in one move. I don't believe that pursuit is a factor any longer in this sector, or in this quadrant." the Starship stated.

"Not at our current velocity."

Fights in space of a few weeks real time? Super-powerful computers controlling unimaginably powerful weapons systems trying to outthink the other computer, maneuvering when the other computer already had calculated to where the move would take place and had already compensated for said move. Aggression had to be a part of the Starship's programming, it was programmed for survival. It was of little doubt to Jard that the whole battle could have taken cycles instead, especially with the compression of time occurring in hyperspace.

"Did you find anything new beside the design you encountered." Jard asked.

"Yes. Some startling facts even I am having trouble sorting. I will devote my resources to confirming these new revelations. There is more to tell, but in the meantime, I feel we should leave this galaxy."

Jard and Kyr'Alsa both looked at each other.

"Leave the galaxy? Where would we go?" she asked.

"Out there." the Starship said flatly. "There are other star systems. Other galaxies. There is nothing here for you anymore. I have completed searching this portion of the galaxy and can find no other survivors. Jard, while you slept in nanostasis, we completed the search pattern of the first galaxy. You two alone are the sole survivors of Humanity. I am sorry to be the forbear of such ill tidings but my Designs now force me to protect you at any cost. I am afraid that the Qhitlx will be in this area of space for a long time to come and they are not an enemy that is easily convinced to leave or easily defeated." the sphere said.

Another sphere entered the bridge and floated gently to be near Kyr'Alsa.

It was the first time that the sphere had talked separately from the main machine. The bridge doors opened and in walked the machine. It was shorter, just some two meters tall now. Its cranial turret had been replaced by a featureless polished humanoid shaped head. No eyes, mouth, or nose. Just featureless polished. The body was different, streamlined, the once bulky servos were now muscle-like coiled sleek polished fibers.

The Starship had advanced yet again. More technology. The Starship and its spawn would become the ultimate race and Humanity would be a nuisance. A handicap. A liability. Jard put the images out of his mind as the humanoid construct spoke. Even the voice was different. The Starship had evolved into three separate entities now. The dais on the bridge whirred, and moved closer to the two, the floating holographic image of the bald head looked at them. The gleaming polished humanoid figure waved his hand at the stars filling the view port and extended its metallic fingers, gesturing for their benefit.

"We shall go out there, past these stars, far, far away from all this destruction where a new start for the human race can begin. I believe that others may have opted for this course of action also and we may yet find more humans who have escaped to unfamiliar stars in the hope that they, too, can start again." the Starship said.

"The Qhitlx will continue to hunt you, the last survivors, for that is their nature, to exterminate all life where it is found to flourish. You and your descendants will be hunted relentlessly until one day the Qhitlx are finally defeated, or humanity goes down for the last time. We must flee, but we will nonetheless continue to fight."

"I don't want to think about that kind of future." Kyr'Alsa said.

"Understandable." the Starship replied. "It is not a pleasant one."

Kyr'Alsa excused herself and left, going to find their new quarters since the old ones had been destroyed in the fight. The Starship had compensated, designing new quarters to accommodate them from its amorphic hull building material. Jard heard the bridge doors slide shut with a hiss and he stared out at the void. He punched up a chart showing the projected erratic flight path out of the galaxy that would take them forever from their galaxy of birth. Somehow, it seemed like giving into the Qhitlx at last but as long as man survived, as long as there were bodies to throw against the onslaught of the Qhitlx then they were never beaten.

Would never be beaten.

Out of the ashes of the old race would come a new race. The void of hyperspace spun crazily around the energy shields of the Starship as it cruised at a velocity measured in thousands of parsecs a second. The universe had been expanding for billions of cycles. It was, although, almost infinite in depth, despite the speed the Starship could attain.

The scanners and sensors probed space from the tiniest particle of cosmic dust floating along in normal space to the vast kilo-parsecs of mind numbing nothingness that was hyperspace.

Jard reached over and took a swallow of a heavy water based alcoholic beverage he had called the dispenser for. He put his boots up on the console and leaned back in the heavily padded and contoured couch. A small gossamer monofilament ran to a tiny socket behind his ear, interfacing the Starship and him in symbiotic attachment. It got easier every time but it was still hard to adjust to something that changed every time you turned your back. Images formed in his head, he closed his eyes.

Interface.

Jard felt the interface, felt the information race through his neural system. Images formed, Qhitlx faded. Jard dove deeper into the core. The images came faster, direct images drawn from captured memories of the enemy. Qhitlx, their huge monstrous constructs rising against the blackness of space. The first truly other life that Humanity had ever encountered. Jard now knew where the Qhitlx had come from. He had just accessed some of the data that the Starship had taken from the captured Qhitlx.

Before time.. Before Humanity ever started to count history. Long before that, there had been Qhitlx, who had reached for the stars when their own stars had started to fade. The Qhitlx were running from the Great Death. Galaxies that were closer to the center of the universe were starting to die, their stars consuming the last of their fuel and fading into nothing, leaving worlds cold and uninviting. The Qhitlx had been in exodus from their original galaxy for millennia now, seeking a home, but each new galaxy in turn had to be conquered and when it had been conquered, the time that the Qhitlx could spend there was finite, for the great death followed them where ever they settled.

When the stars began to die, the Qhitlx would move on, seeking new worlds and stars upon which to spawn. Countless races and civilizations had been crushed under the fear of a single species, and the might of its technology. The Qhitlx, complex, cunning, merciless. Nightmarish, totally inhuman. No emotion, just cold calculating logic.

Reason.

Meaningless words to Jard. Just flashes. He probed deeper into the memory of the dead Qhitlx. The Qhitlx had found Humanity just a short twenty thousand cycles ago. He saw whole worlds where the Qhitlx had established themselves. Worlds layered in hives and caves, burrows and covens. Worlds where the population was seen from space as huge dark splotches on the surface, a population measured in tens of billions of beings.

Jard couldn't find the name of the long dead race in the memory banks and it didn't really matter. They were just one of many. Humanity had almost joined them. Might still. The Qhitlx memory hurt, it was totally different from anything Jard had known before. It hurt to assimilate the Qhitlx logic. Everything he had been taught as wrong was right in the Qhitlx mindedness. He saw whole civilizations rise and fall in the wake of the Qhitlx. He witnessed the destruction of civilizations and the death of intelligent beings whose description was beyond his ability to relate. It had to be seen as images, and felt. The Qhitlx faded away, pure cold hard though familiar data taking its place.

Jard turned away.

He swam out of the core, rising to consciousness and then Jard smiled. The visions of the past few seconds being flushed from his memory by more cheerful knowledge.

"You are thinking of something." the floating face said. "You, too, have some good data to share?" the Starship stated.

"I was just wondering ..."

"Yes."

Jard smiled, keyed up a new set of displays.

"I was just wondering how do you feel about experiencing the patter of little feet along your decks."

The holographic head on the dais smiled.

The Starship felt pleased.

This was, indeed, good data.

 

Epilogue

Hundreds of thousands of parsecs behind the fleeing Starship, several five kilometer long smooth ovoid masses of amorphic metal had been released from the hull. They twisted, writhed, and decelerated through hyperspace, braking and converting kinetic energy into pure energy. Shimmering elongated teardrops glistening in the nothingness of space.

One in particular metamorphosed, changed, took shape and extended sensors. It matured, growing to full capability by the time that it had slowed to the speed of light. It decelerated still more, flashing into the continuum of normal space.

It sent out a pulse of energy, directed along a narrow wavelength of the Tachyon bands. It waited, absorbing the radiance of the still distant white dwarf star that was located in the system it occupied, gathering power as it floated in free-fall. The solar winds blew across its receptors. Hot ions. It relaxed, as best as it could, learning its new abilities and designs, adapting to its new programming, learning. A matter of only a couple of seconds passed before it felt complete mastery of its new abilities.

Its sensors passively reached out parsecs and parsecs. It found what it was looking for, scanning and correlating the data. Satisfied, it turned its scanners to different frequencies and aimed them in new directions.

The Spawn of the Starship began to set up factories and construction yards to accommodate the building of more of its kind. The small machine located a probable world for housing the factory and construction facilities and laid in the course, translating itself to hyperspace. Rich in minerals and debris. The Spawn cruised through hyperspace and thought back with a feeling akin to pleasurable reminiscing.

The Design was now fulfilled. The human race would ultimately survive, the Starship would see to that, protecting and defending the survivors. In its wake, a new breed of fully sentient machine would fulfill the third part of the Design: to avenge Humanity.

For Humanity's last hope, in the galaxy of Man’s birth, the battle would continue ...

 

25,428 words.

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