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2.01 – The Afterthought

Feb 14 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Chapter Two

Year: 2713 A.D.
Dimension: Universe 7C (Your Universe)
Location: The Quadra Sector
Time: Six Weeks Later

With surprising agility, the discount starship hurtled through the wreckage of a hundred thousand dead vessels.

Calling it a discount starship is perhaps too kind—the Afterthought was a pile of rusty scrap metal that just happened to have three thrusters and an engine.

Shaped like a falling raindrop turned on its side—with the front end at the fat part of the drop—the ship gave off the impression, the correct impression, that it could fall apart any second.

That made the pilot's high-speed flight through the ship graveyard all the more impressive.

Rachel-7 pulled the scow into a barrel roll between two abandoned stellar yachts about to collide, shot through a spinning column of green ice shards that had been a luxury cruiser, and spun the ship ninety degrees clockwise, counter-clockwise, and clockwise again to dodge three razor-edged emergency beacons made jagged from millennia of debris collisions.

After forty-seven hours of similar gut-wrenching moves, Rachel-7 put the ship down on the starboard lower half of a slowly rotating forty-story tall metal cylinder.

Inside the Afterthought’s cluttered control room, the mechanical life form named Trak spoke to the artificial intelligence named Rachel-7.

"No sign of our pursuers yet," Trak said, his voice a rumbling bass. "Excellent flying, Rachel."

Rachel-7 filed the praise away for later enjoyment.

Then she responded in the accent she had chosen for herself the day of her birth: Young Female Aristocrat, United Kingdom, Earth, 1800s.

"More than excellent,” Rachel-7 said regally. “Flawless."

"Any compliments from our esteemed captain?" she asked, half-mocking.

Daniel Wei, the third and final member of the crew and owner of the Afterthought, didn't say anything.

Quietly singing an ancient children's song to himself, Daniel stood transfixed by an object 300 miles in front of his ship.

The object at the center of the ship graveyard was massive and terrifying.

It also, as far as Daniel could tell, should not exist.

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2.02 – Garbage and gold

Feb 15 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

“Nothing? Not even a ‘congratulations?’” Rachel-7 asked, her voice emanating from every part of the Afterthought’s walls.

“Our captain doesn't know quality flying when he sees it,” Rachel-7 added.

That’s incorrect, thought Trak. Daniel knows the difference between garbage and gold; he just doesn’t care anymore.

Why else would Rachel and I be in this defenseless wreck? he thought, reexamining the ship around him with his optical sensors.

Trak listened to the Afterthought creak and groan.

A few years ago, Daniel would have had the place running clean in three hours.

In addition to its general lack of structural integrity, the Afterthought amenities included a weakened thruster that forced the ship to pull to the left and a life-signs scanner that displayed advertisements for every alien bazaar within two light years but only occasionally detected lifesigns.

The ship’s sole repair cloud might have been able to fix those problems, if it hadn’t been in worse shape than the Afterthought itself.

No matter how many times Daniel told it not to, the malfunctioning cloud continued to install kitchen appliances on the outer hull.

From a distance, the ship looked like it had slammed into an asteroid belt made of refrigerators and toasters.

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2.03 – Daniel in the Dust

Feb 16 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

The Afterthought’s structural integrity only worsened during the six-week voyage to the Quadra Sector: parts of the ship started falling off.

The pieces—most of them recently attached blenders—remained trapped just outside the ship, smashing back and forth in the weightlessness between the Afterthought's energy shield and its hull.

The damage had become so noticeable that a number of passing ships hailed the Afterthought and asked if the crewmembers were refugees from some distant conflict.

“Let us help. Your ship has obviously been through a terrible war,” they had said.

“Several wars, but none recently,” Daniel had responded.

Then he thanked them for their concern, ignored their continued offers of assistance, and drank two or three shots of booze.

The dismal state of the Afterthought didn’t bother 25-year-old Daniel. He’d spent his whole life around junk.

Daniel had been  trained as a cloud mechanic—more commonly known as a duster —since he was four-years-old.

A popular 28th century profession, a duster used nanobot swarms to repair and rebuild old machinery. That included everything from starships to medical equipment.

While clouds can assemble almost any type of material, they can be temperamental. A duster knows just how to work with them to get the best result.

In Daniel’s time, duster inhabited countless orbital construction platforms, scrap nebulas, and any place with garbage that needed fixing.

Mechanics found out that, during large-scale manufacturing projects, clouds created harmless but highly adhesive nanoparticles called Dust.

Anyone who worked with clouds ended up coated in the stuff, just like ancient mechanics ended up coated in oil. The longer you worked around Dust, the harder it was to remove.

A duster to the core, Daniel's five foot eight inch frame, genial face, fair skin, and black hair was a permanent canvas of grey-colored smudges and streaks, remnants of the last job he'd truly loved.

He hadn't worked with clouds in years.

Daniel should have felt at home in the ship graveyard, but the object in front of his ship removed any sense of familiarity.

Rachel-7 had nicknamed it the Garage.

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2.04 – Normal space?

Feb 17 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

The Garage was impossibly big—a cube of space with a length 100 times the diameter of Earth's sun.

It also registered as "nothing" on the Afterthought’s bargain sensors.

No significant gravitational pull—visit Quidnak’s Trade post for savings, savings, savings—no anomalies, the sensors continued to report.

None of the data indicated the Garage was anything other than a normal region of empty space.

Except that even a glance made it apparent the cube of space wasn’t empty or normal.

For inside, stacked so evenly they gave the Garage its shape, were spaceships. Spaceships seemingly without number.

Trak, who didn’t enjoy vague phrases like “without number,” estimated that there were 52,473,483,042 vessels resting motionless inside the Garage.

Aligned in columns and rows, each ship was separated from the surrounding vessels by mere inches. Some ships were so vast they'd have pulled planets out of orbit; others were so small they would have fit inside the Afterthought’s cabin.

Daniel checked the sensors again, and then rubbed his eyes. The Garage was still there, and the sensors still said it wasn't.

Using his optical implants, Daniel examined a closeup view of the cube for what had to be the thousandth time.

Unlike the wreckage in the surrounding ship graveyard, the ships in the Garage showed no sign of battle: no weapon burns, no radiation leakage, and no cloud damage.

Actually, there didn't appear to be any damage of any kind. Each ship still had its evacuation pods, jumpers, and shuttles. All 52.4 billion plus ships looked new, untouched, and uninhabited.

It has to be an illusion, Daniel thought.

He was certain that, if it were real, the Garage would have been crushed under its own gravity eons ago. It'd be a black hole.

A black hole made of starships, thought Daniel in wonder. It's not a black hole,  so ... it has to be an illusion. Right?

Daniel still wasn't sure.

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2.05 – A collision

Feb 18 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Nothing about the Garage made sense. Not its size, not its location, not even what happened to anything that entered it.

As Daniel watched on one of the Afterthought's always-out-of-focus viewscreens, an empty, battle-damaged spaceliner the size of a skyscraper breached the outer edge of the Garage.

With no one to steer it, the crimson ship was on a collision course with a mosquito-shaped vessel twice its size.

Within seconds of entering the Garage, the spaceliner hit the stationary ship at several thousand miles per hour and exploded with a burst of fire and molten metal.

Chunks of debris shot in all directions, hitting dozens of other ships inside the Garage. Some fragments whirled in place, some floated deeper into the Garage, and some bounced back into the ship graveyard.

Neither the mosquito-shaped ship nor any of the other Garage vessels showed any sign of damage.

Suddenly there was a blinding flash of light, a light even brighter than the explosion.

When the flash cleared, most of the spaceliner wreckage was gone. The debris inside the Garage had disappeared.

All that remained were the fragments of rapidly-cooling metal that the explosion had flung just outside the Garage's perimeter.

The spaceliner was the fifth ship Daniel had seen disappear since the Afterthought arrived in the Quadra Sector 47 hours earlier.

It was baffling.

Daniel tore his eyes away from the crash site and rechecked the coordinates he had received six weeks earlier.

He cursed his luck again.

Because—if the coordinates were correct—somewhere in that cube of nonsense space was the woman who broke his heart.

Jeska-Bel DotCom.

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2.06 – Love, metaphor, and artificial suns

Feb 21 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Jeska was the one that got away.

Or, to use a more fitting metaphor, Jeska was the one who had shredded Daniel’s fishing boat and left him stranded in shark-infested waters without hope of surviving in a cold, dark ocean.

Now, from what Daniel could tell, Jeska herself was caught in a strange, dangerous sea … filled with spaceships … surrounded by a fog of debris … located a six-weeks-voyage away from Daniel’s home galaxy?

Well, the metaphor doesn’t hold up, but suffice to say: Jeska broke Daniel’s heart, he still loved her, and now her life was in danger somewhere inside the Garage.

Instead of panicking, Daniel used his vague apprehension about the Garage to distract himself from the not-vague-at-all terror he felt about Jeska's fate.

Good gods, what is it? Daniel thought again, marveling at the Garage’s size.

As a duster, Daniel had seen big construction projects before: orbital cities, continent-sized artificial minds, artificial asteroids. Before the Garage, the largest manufactured object he’d ever seen had been a moon with engines built around its equator.

Compared to the Garage, it was all nothing.

Earlier on their voyage, Daniel had asked Trak to give him the Garage’s size in understandable terms.

Trak had tried to explain his calculations, which bored Daniel and Rachel-7, so Trak just told them the answer.

According to Trak, Fragged, Daniel’s birth planet, could fit inside the Garage 100 million times with plenty of space left over.

Fragged has a diameter of 8,100 miles—about the size of 21st century Earth before the disastrous invention of Termites 2.0.

Stuck On: Artificial Suns

When considering the largest manufactured objects he had encountered, Daniel didn't include artificial suns in his estimation for a very important reason.

He was prejudiced.

In Daniel's opinion, members of humanity's Star Engineering Guild "thought they were better" than duster because guild members could build "big, glowing blobs of gas."

"Making a star is so much easier than making a starship," Daniel would often say, after his customary too many beers. "Just get enough matter together and you got it."

On Fragged, these statements had landed Daniel in a number of fights, mostly with Star Engineering Guild members who didn't agree with Daniel's gross oversimplification of their complicated livelihoods.

A few serious injuries couldn't change Daniel's belief: he knew that making suns was "the pastime of the lazy."

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2.07 – Dealing with gravity in 2713 A.D.

Feb 22 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Here’s what Daniel remembered about gravity from his brief time at school.

1) Increasing an object’s gravity is easy.

Add a little mass to an object, and its gravitational attraction increases. The attraction isn’t noticeably different, unless you're adding asteroid-sized amounts of matter.

2) Creating artificial gravity is less easy.

But humans are persistent, and, in 2350, they developed the artificial gravity engine. A version of that engine kept Daniel from floating around the cabin.

3) Lessening the effect of gravity is monstrously difficult.

So difficult in fact, that humanity couldn’t do it without help.

That’s why in the 26th Century, in exchange for several colony worlds, a faction of humanity purchased gravity damper technology from a traveling salesbeing named Troakach—the same salesbeing who sold Anderson’s people their energy prosthetics.

Gravity dampers protected starships like the Afterthought from the crushing gravity of stars and super-massive planets.

The devices did have their limits. If the object in the damping field was too big, or the gravitational pull was too strong, the damper's power requirements became insurmountable.

Daniel recalled the example he'd heard in class: to protect a moon from the crushing gravity of a star, a damper would need the combined power-producing capacity of every sun in an entire galaxy.

And that was only for one moon, an object nowhere near the Garage's size.

"Trak, how much power would a damper need to keep that thing from destroying itself?" Daniel asked, gesturing to the Garage.

“Ignoring the fact that creating that amount of energy would most likely kill every living thing in our universe?” Trak asked.

“Yes, ignoring that,” Daniel said to Trak.

"Still waiting for the compliment, Daniel," Rachel-7 interjected.

“If you could somehow use every atom in the entire universe in a fusion engine, obliterating all of reality for power, you’d gain enough energy to keep the Garage from falling in on itself for twenty-three minutes," Trak said.

“Assuming my estimate of the number and size of the ships is correct,” Trak added.

Daniel went silent again.

Nothing can generate that much power, Daniel thought. That’s why the Garage can’t exist.

He looked at the few fragments left behind from when the spaceliner vanished.

All right, that's one of the reasons the Garage can’t exist.

“Thanks for the kind words, captain,” Rachel-7 said in an acid tone.

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2.08 – Too many phrases in bold

Feb 23 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Though she thought Daniel was too worried about Jeska to listen, Rachel-7 began her daily audio report.

The update was doubly unnecessary as Trak had been linked with the ship’s sensors the entire time.

But Rachel-7 spoke the report aloud because she liked the sound of her own voice. Her chosen accent soothed her.

"Status update: Your employer—” Rachel said.

“Former employer,” Daniel said, interrupting.

Maybe he is listening after all, Rachel 7 thought.

“Your friend has dropped out of Quantum space and will be here soon,” Rachel-7 said, sending Daniel’s eyescreens an image of the ship.

Daniel sent the image to his augmented internal memory without paying attention to the picture of the approaching dreadnought. He knew what the ship looked like.

“Wait, he dropped out of Quantum space?” Daniel asked. “He’s not using his worm? Or his shatterwarp? Why’d he take the long way?”

Unlike the Afterthought, which was stuck with an obsolete Quantum drive for its faster-than-light travel needs, the dreadnought had a host of ways to break the universe's speed limit.

“If he used wormhole or shatterwarp technology, he could travel more quickly," Trak said. "But he'd have a harder time following us. The only benefit of traveling through Quantum space is that it makes our course difficult to pinpoint. If I were tracking us, I’d use the Quantum drive, so I could keep a scanner lock on the Afterthought."

Trak added, “Of course, the trip would be so long, I’d only do that if I really, really wanted you dead."

“Great,” Daniel said.

“We should be happy he used the older method of travel, Daniel,” Trak said, putting a bulky arm around Daniel's shoulder. “With our luck, I’m surprised he wasn’t here before us.”

“With our luck, I’m surprised he’s not standing behind me,” Daniel said.

“Ahem,” Rachel said. “We are deep in the Quadra Sector, latched onto what appears to be the headlight for a defunct Onea transport—"

"It's a fusion cannon from a Z-Klik warship," Trak said, gently correcting her. "It fires an energy beam that, once emitted, expands to three times the radius of the weapon itself and can travel 300,000 miles before losing intensity.  It obliterates most types of matter, especially organic matter, and is useful for planetary sterilization operations."

Stuck On: Quantum drive

An outdated method of traveling faster-than-light, The Quantum drive, also called the Quantum engine, does not use the principle of quantum tunneling, quantum entanglement, or quantum free-form jazz.

The drive is named for its discoverer, Alt-Shift-Professor William Quantum (Alpha Centauri scientist, 2343-2392).

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2.09 – Trak

Feb 24 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Daniel raised an eyebrow, as he did any time Trak mentioned a scary, oddly specific piece of military information.

Trak, Daniel’s best friend and confidante, was once described as the weapon other weapons would use to end a war.

Blood-red in color, he stood ten feet tall on four wide spidery legs, his head an inch below the Afterthought's ceiling.

His metallic arms, thick with copper-colored cables, extended from an obelisk-shaped torso. A skull-sized blob of what looked like mercury, also blood-red, hovered above each shoulder; Trak had told Daniel they were turrets.

Lines and grooves covered every inch of his alloyed frame, marking the areas from which Trak could extend concealed weaponry.

Two insect-like mandibles jutted from the base of his sharp, angular head--a head with no features other than a ring of smooth dark-blue crystal that wrapped all the way around the top of his skull and served as his optical sensors.


As the faint glow of the Garage illuminated his towering figure, Daniel saw how others could think Trak was "terrifying."

Trak had never used his weapons in Daniel's presence. He had not intentionally harmed a living thing in the 15 years Daniel had known him.

But Daniel was certain Trak hadn't always been peaceful.

Trak didn’t talk about what he had done during the 9,985 years before he met Daniel, and Daniel never asked. He was afraid of the answer.

Trak was content to watch over Daniel as he had always done since Daniel was ten-years-old.

But, every once in a while, when Trak would say something about "troop deployment strategy" or "ancient casualty figures," Daniel would become curious about his friend's former life.

“The area is full of debris, and there is no sign of any intelligent life,” Rachel-7 said, continuing her ship status update. “Or Jeska either. Ha.”

“Maybe Jeska was wrong, Daniel," Trak said. "Or maybe that message you received wasn’t from her. Maybe this is a trap."

“You already told me that,” Daniel said.

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2.10 – The guessing game

Feb 25 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

A trap had been Trak’s first guess three weeks earlier, when the crew first caught a glimpse of the Garage in the distance.

Three weeks earlier

For such an enormous object, the Garage was almost invisible.

It  gave off no discernible heat or energy, and no star was close enough to illuminate it.

If it hadn’t been for the countless craft inside that still had active headlights, Rachel-7 calculated she would have crashed into the Garage at full speed in about three weeks.  

She decided not to mention that to Daniel.

Don't tell your boss the mistakes you never make, Rachel-7 thought and continued guiding the ship through a galaxy made hazy by the Afterthought's bubble of Quantum space.

"It's a trap," Trak said, examining the dim light of the Garage through the Afterthought's screens.

"Too obvious,” Daniel said. “I'm thinking a Singularity God who collects starships?"

"You think everything's a trap," Rachel said to Trak. "And Daniel? A Sing-God? Really?”

"Maybe," Daniel said.

"A trap makes the most sense. And I don't think everything's a trap," Trak said.

"You do," Rachel-7 said.

"Could be a space-time fracture," Daniel said.

"A space-time fracture that catalogs and organizes spaceships?" Rachel-7 asked.

“Could happen,” Daniel said.

“No,” Trak said.

“No,” Rachel-7 said.

"I don't think everything’s a trap,” Trak said.

"You do," Rachel-7 said.

“This table’s not a trap,” Trak said.

“Are you sure?” Rachel-7 said.

“Yes,” Trak said. He secretly scanned the table just to be certain.

"What about rogue clouds?” Daniel said. “They build vessels. I saw some crazy stuff at my father’s cloud yard.

"But why would the clouds build ships with ancient identification codes unless it was a trap?" Trak asked. "If the codes are authentic, some of those ships disappeared 1.2 million years ago. I have the archive data."

“I like this one,” Rachel-7 said, sending an image to Daniel's eyescreens of what appeared to be a tiny scout ship. “I bet it handles well.”

Daniel realized it only looked tiny when compared to the ships around it. The glowing markings Rachel-7 had added to the image indicated the scout ship was easily a hundred times larger than the Afterthought.

The Garage threw off Daniel's sense of scale.

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2.11 – Then and now

Feb 28 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Using his link to the Afterthought’s systems, Trak changed the image on the main viewscreen, replacing a picture of Rachel-7’s dream ship with a live recording of the Garage.

"Maybe it’s a prototype weapon that malfunctioned," Trak said, after examining the object a few more moments.

“Makes sense,” Daniel said.

“But I’m not convinced it’s the answer,” Trak said.

"You're forgetting the more important question," Rachel-7 said.

"Which is?” Trak said.

“Who cares?” Rachel-7 said.

“I care,” Daniel said.

“Loooove is involved, so you have to care,” Rachel-7 said. “You know, of course, that when we get there, Alitma will catch up with us."

Daniel thought about that for a moment.

"Don’t let Jeska ruin your life again,” Rachel-7 said, the slightest bit of concern slipping through. Then it was gone. "Or my life. Which is worth more than yours. Much, much more."

“Go back to window shopping,” Daniel said.

“I will,” Rachel-7 said and continued scanning ships.

"A trap is still the most likely scenario," Trak said.

Back to the present

Three weeks after the discussion, the possibility that the Garage was a trap weighed heavily on Daniel.

“Alitma will be here soon,” Rachel-7 said. “I suggest we run. Fast.”

“Considering his ship's weaponry, that is the best course of action,” Trak agreed.

“We hold till we find Jeska,” Daniel said.

“That’s stupid,” Rachel-7 said.

“I know,” Daniel said.

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2.12 – Not buying fear

Mar 01 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

The Garage held no terror for Trak.

Not because he was brave, but because he hadn't been built with the ability to feel fear. He was an emotionless killing machine by design.

Nonetheless, in an effort to better understand his friend Daniel, Trak had purchased more than 73 “feeling” upgrades for himself over the past fifteen years.

With the upgrades, he could experience most emotions: sorrow, joy, anger, jealousy, etc.

Fear was the one sensation he hadn't added to his collection; he'd just never found the time.

The day Trak finally decided to purchase a "fear" module was also, by coincidence, the day Alitma started hunting Daniel.

In his hurry to help Daniel and Rachel-7 escape, Trak accidentally crushed the semi-rare upgrade.

Then they were on the run. Since that day two years earlier, Trak hadn't seen any other compatible "fear" modules.

He wouldn’t admit it—because he knew Rachel-7 would laugh—but he was happier not knowing what fear felt like. If it was anything like guilt, an emotion that haunted him every moment, he didn't want it.

In a distant sort of way, Trak did understand that if he did have the capacity for fear, the thought of the Garage would make him, a Saris Brigade Death Mek, curl up in a ball on the floor.

However, because he remained involuntarily courageous, he continued studying the Garage intently.

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2.13 – The ship graveyard

Mar 02 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

As he examined the Garage, Trak  could feel the dead starships drifting around the Afterthought.

Awash in his vessel's bountiful-but-sometimes-faulty sensor data, he knew that he and his crewmates rested in a vast ship graveyard.

The wreckage didn’t orbit the Garage; the Garage generated no measurable gravitational pull. Instead, the ship graveyard simply rested around the Garage, like an egg white around a yolk.

Some of the debris had been there long enough to coalesce into small junk planetoids. The largest was a garbage moon of mostly toilets, starship fenders, food processors, and shatterwarp engines.

Despite the vast number of destroyed vessels surrounding the Garage, Trak no longer thought the Garage was a trap.

Three weeks earlier, Trak had believed that the Garage projected visions of valuable ships to lure in curious travelers and destroy them. But, after reviewing the data over the past three weeks, Trak had formulated a different theory.

Using the current size, age, and velocity of the debris in the ship graveyard, Trak’s mind — built to analyze and produce complex military maneuvers — had created models of what some of the destroyed ships looked like moments before their destruction.

He then mentally designed a theoretical recreation of the vessels’ final minutes.

Trak’s conclusion? The graveyard was the result of a stunning number of interspecies conflicts.

Small sections of the graveyard — the 20-mile sphere of space around Daniel’s ship for example — had been the site of thousands of skirmishes, according to Trak’s analysis.

And the ship graveyard was big. It extended from the edges of the Garage for more than 1,270,000 miles in some places.

Trak theorized that some of the battles had taken place as recently as three years ago and as far back as 2.6 billion years ago.

It had taken Trak three weeks of processing time to finish his study, and he finally presented his findings to Rachel-7 and Daniel two hours before they arrived at their current destination.

He asked them their thoughts on why so many battles took place in this area.

Rachel-7 said she didn’t care. Daniel said he wasn’t sure.

To Trak, the cause of the conflicts now seemed obvious—countless species had fought and died to possess the Garage.

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2.14 – A voice from before

Mar 03 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Even to a universe-weary Mek like Trak, the ships inside the Garage were amazing.

Some ships seemed to fade in and out of reality and others appeared to move like living beings.

Some looked as if they were made of ordinary elements, but in physical states that shouldn’t exist in the vacuum of space. He saw a cruiser of liquid water and a pyramidal craft made of what appeared to be fire.

From his visual analysis, there were also some ships that might be composed of priceless nonmanufacturable material -- matter that clouds could not construct.

Any species would have wanted the ship's in the Garage.

So, Trak supposed, many fleets had warred over it, and many fleets had died.

Trak theorized the dead made up the graveyard, and the victors… many of them had entered the Garage.

Not all of them. Some would have exhibited caution.

But some would not.

And that explained the large swathes of war fighters frozen inside the Garage, still in formation, motionless, and surrounded by other vessels like gifts in packing material. Many of them were flying their victory colors.

Trak thought it had been a foolhardy show of military bravado for these commanders and their fleets to enter the Garage as one—instead of sending a probe or a scout ship inside first—but he could not fault them their desire for glory.

Seizing on the warlike sentiments, a darker part of Trak, a piece of him left from before, suddenly made itself known. It wanted the Saeo-4 Warmonger, a monstrous frigate inside the Garage about 350 miles in front of the Afterthought.

Yes, that’s the one, it said, about the dark purple ship bristling with weapons.

A vehicle for conquest, for domination. Take that vessel, that war engine. Take it. And get me a Ren Fruit Cocktail. A good one. But first, take that frigate. Take it. Take it! Take it and rain fire upon someone, anyone, everyone! it screamed.

Disgusted, Trak mentally pushed away the tantalizing commands. The voice was not his own, but it was always with him.

Trak heard it often, sometimes many times an hour. The owner of the voice was long dead.

Trak rechecked the only safeguard that kept him from acting on the voice’s orders and was relieved to find the protective coding still in place.

Just to be sure, he scheduled several diagnostic checks for later that day, assuming Alitma hadn’t destroyed the Afterthought by then.

He returned his focus to Daniel and Rachel-7.

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2.15 — Rachel-7

Mar 04 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

“Who made it?” Daniel asked again.

“Who cares?” Rachel-7 said again.

"Can you get us closer?" Daniel said.

"This is as far as I go," Rachel-7 said. "The Garage stays three hundred miles away."

Rachel-7 really wasn't curious.

She had flown the Afterthought through the ship graveyard safely, and that's all that mattered to her. It’d been the first actual challenge she'd encountered in her 2,000 simulated years or in her eight real-time years.

Age was a fuzzy concept for an Aye—the 28th century slang for any disembodied artificial intelligence with enough mental capacity to be considered a living being.

Rachel-7 was the most talented flyer in known space, according to herself, and several leading piloting academies. She was also the most disagreeable pilot in known space, according to several leading academy teachers and their psychiatrists.

Combative and prideful, Rachel-7 didn't fit the profile of the typically serene and humble Aye.

Her rude behavior cut short her enrollment at the Pok-Nur-Tem Galaxy Corp Naval Academy. During her second term, she loudly told a visiting general that his commands were idiotic, using a catchy song she had composed.

Though the tune had excellent rhythm and meter, the school expelled Rachel-7 and apologized to the general.

The general later went on to mistakenly land his warrior-class cruiser on an inhabited city, killing himself, his crew, and thousands below.

Rachel went on to laugh at the general's fate and mourn the loss of the lives he had taken; she was arrogant, not unfeeling.

Unlike the other three-hundred and forty employers Rachel 7 had worked with after her expulsion, Daniel was the only boss to keep her on staff longer than three minutes.

She'd worked with him for almost five years now.

Rachel-7 knew that Daniel thought her personality defects — she liked to think of them as eccentricities — were funny.

Not that he laughs at much anymore, Rachel-7 thought.

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2.16 – Recycled drinks

Mar 07 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

“Three minutes until Alitma arrives,” Rachel-7 said.

“He’s not even spectrum-folding his ship," Trak said.

Alitma has enough s-f equipment to cloak three cities, Trak thought. The only reason not to use it is to scare Daniel. Or taunt him.

"I think he wants us to see him coming," Trak said angrily.

Daniel nodded and stuck his late father's "World's Best Dad" mug into the nearby food forge to get a refill.

"Soda," Daniel said.

The food forge quickly assembled soda molecules out of waste from the Afterthought’s sewage system.

In the 28th century human culture, most substances were made from recycled material.

By dissembling an object’s component atoms and reassembling them in a different configuration, clouds could turn dangerous or dirty things into harmless, beneficial ones. Nanoswarms changed deadly poison into baby food and transformed spoiled meals into furniture.

It didn’t bother Daniel that his mug held what used to be  urine. Repurposed waste was a part of life. In fact, seventeen percent of Daniel’s coat had once been fecal matter.

OK, the coat’s origins bothered Daniel a little, but only when he thought about it.

With three minutes left, Daniel planned to watch Jeska's message again: he wanted to see her face one more time before Alitma showed up.

Watching Jeska's message always left him emotionally wrecked, and he had considered ordering something stronger than soda.

Unfortunately, Rachel-7 had reprogrammed the ship’s food forge to stop giving him booze.

So, still absently singing the children's song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” Daniel stepped behind a rusty metal column, secretly poured the contents of his father’s old flask into the mug, and took a swig.

The powerful, homemade concoction had him buzzed before he finished swallowing.

“Perfect time for a drink, Daniel?” Rachel-7 said dryly.

“It is,” Daniel said.

“I don’t know if that’s the best idea at the moment …” Trak said.

“It is,” Daniel said and gulped down half the mug.

Daniel had hoped Rachel-7 or Trak wouldn’t see the flask, but he knew it was a false hope.

With Trak’s 360 degree vision and Rachel-7’s myriad sensors, there wasn’t much they missed. They were always telling him to stop drinking on the job, or at least to stop drinking while he slept.

Daniel put the flask back into his long blue coat and ordered his augmented internal memory to pull up Jeska’s message.

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2.17 – Jeska’s message

Mar 08 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

The message began.

"Daniel, you have to help me," Jeska whispered quickly.

Daniel shuddered. Seeing Jeska’s face, even a recording of it, hurt.

If I were sober, it’d hurt a lot more, Daniel thought. He had been 19 when she left him.

His remembered her as this perfect woman, but the Jeska in the message was a mess.

Dirty smudges covered her face.  She looked like she had been crying. Hair disheveled, sweat beading on her forehead, she wore a torn blue shirt with alien writing on it.

She still looked fantastic.

Though this was his umpteenth time viewing the message, Daniel was so focused on her that he still didn’t notice that his biografted translator couldn’t interpret the language on her shirt.

If he had noticed, it would have struck him as very odd. His translator was top of the line—at least when his dad installed it 21-years earlier—and it could comprehend most known languages.

"Please! Something is hunting me. Something—” Jeska let out a thirsty-throated cough, then hurriedly looked left and right to see if the sound had alerted whatever was after her.

“Something horrible,” she said. “I'm in the Quadra Sector. Here are the coordinates.”

The numbers displayed at the bottom of his eyescreens.

"Please hurry, I need—"

A bloodcurdling, high-pitched shriek interrupted Jeska.

She looked left, screamed, and darted out of view to the right. Something red hurtled after her, too fast to see clearly.

Daniel had asked Trak to analyze the image, but Trak said there was some kind of distortion. The creature, whatever it was, stayed a reddish blur.

Because Jeska hadn't been there to stop recording her message, the message went on for another 134 minutes.

Rather than watch a darkened hallway for three hours, Daniel ordered his augmented internal memory—augmem for short—to reverse the message until it found the clearest image of Jeska’s face.

Then Daniel told his augmem to freeze the image to his eyescreens.

As he stared, he knew he was obsessing.

He didn't care.

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2.18 - Most likely dead

Mar 09 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

To get Daniel's attention, Trak forced his own image onto Daniel's eyescreens.

His reverie interrupted, Daniel minimized Trak's picture and looked at his metal friend in person.

“Do we stay or leave?” Trak said, repeating the question he had just asked five times without receiving any response. “We need your decision.”

“Or I make the decision for us,” Rachel-7 said.

It was an empty threat. Rachel-7’s contract required that she get the captain’s input on most matters. She tried to circumvent the contract as much as she could, but in life-or-death instances, obeying Daniel was unavoidable.

She knew Daniel knew it was an empty threat; she was simply trying to push him into doing something.

Daniel frantically checked the lifesigns detector again, looking for any sign of Jeska. The sensors still showed nothing but wreckage, empty space, and, because of the continuing maintenance issues, advertisements for Mek polish.

"I can't find her," Daniel said, despondently.

"Good," said Rachel-7, who never hid her contempt for Jeska, or anyone for that matter. But especially not Jeska.

Rachel-7 continued adding escape routes to the 73,000 she had already logged. The escape routes were only viable if they left within the next two minutes.

"I hope she's alive, Trak," Daniel said.

"She's probably fine," Trak said.

"Really?" Daniel said.

"No," Trak said. "She is most likely dead. Especially since it took six weeks to get here."

Daniel rapped Trak on the back of his bulky ceramic head.

"Sorry," Trak said, hoping to move the conversation to the subject of their escape. Not for his own sake, but for the sake of Daniel and Rachel-7.

His own life, he could take or leave.

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2.19 - The Kep Effect

Mar 10 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Daniel stood still, thinking.

“This silence is wonderful,” Rachel-7 said. “But we don’t have time for it. I’ve been tracking Alitma since the first sign of his Kep Effect, and he's catching up fast.”

Trak said, "Despite his ship's considerable size, the vessel is more agile than us. Daniel, we—"

"More agile than the Afterthought," Rachel-7 said. “Not more agile than the Afterthought's pilot.”

“Subtle, Rachel,” Trak said. “Daniel, what do you want us to do? We need that decision now.”

"Now," Rachel repeated.

"Shhh," Daniel said, fingering his father’s flask, still thinking.

"If we head inside the Garage, we will most likely suffer the fate of the other ships inside," Trak said. "And if we stay here, Alitma will capture us and torture you until you tell him what he wants to know. But ... if we leave immediately—"

"Without Jeska," Rachel-7 said eagerly.

"Without Jeska," Trak said, "there is a chance that we might stay just out of range of Alitma's weaponry."

"Shhhh!" Daniel said again, giving the impression that he was developing a cunning strategy. In reality, he was buying time, hoping that postponing the decision might somehow postpone the problem.

Daniel realized he had no solutions. He couldn't abandon the search for Jeska. He couldn't let Rachel-7 and Trak die.

Think of something, he thought. Think of something!

Then he had flash of insight.

Wait … that could work.

Stuck On: The Kep Effect (Part one)

The Kep Effect is the energy field produced when any object Quantum shifts—that is, enters or exits Quantum space. [Quantum space was first referenced in the post titled Too many phrases in bold.]

The Kep Effect extends outward from the central coupling of the Quantum engine for about 23 miles. While the field has no effect on the Quantum-shifted object, it has a baffling effect on all other matter caught in its wake.

More on this later, but it is important to note that the discoverer of the Kep Effect, human William Quantum—who also invented the Quantum engine—named the effect after an Alpha Centaurian word for ridiculous, impossible garbage.

According to the few reporter clouds on hand at the time of the discovery, Quantum’s exact words, upon witnessing the energy field for the first time, were, “That ... is a load of Kep.”

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2.20 - Out of time

Mar 11 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Daniel had a brilliant idea …

“Trak? You know this whatever-click cannon thing we're attached to? Can we fire it?” he said.

… and the idea was quickly crushed by reality.

“Not a chance,” Trak said. “The most I could do is probably activate the cannon's auxiliary lighting.”

“Gods!” Daniel cursed.

"Five seconds," Rachel-7 said.

"Daniel?" Trak said. "That decision?

“Fine! Rache, Trak, I want you to—”

A blinding flash of light filled the Afterthought, and everything went white. When the glare faded, Trak and Daniel stood in a pitch black cabin.  Nothing was receiving power.

After three seconds, the Afterthought's backup generator hummed to life. Auxiliary lighting bathed the bridge in a dim glow.

Though Daniel was sure he was seconds from death, he felt oddly relieved. Mostly because he had no idea what he was going to say after “Rache, Trak, I want you to—”

He took another pull from his flask.

“Both engines are down,” Rachel-7 said. “We’re on emergency power.”

“That white flash was a phased pulse blast,” Trak said. “Knocks out most engines and shielding, leaves life support, ayes, and clouds functional. Before you ask why I'm still standing, Rachel-7, my interior is well-shielded against such attacks.”

“I knew that,” Rachel-7 lied. Then she said, with bitterness, “I am now putting the image of our oncoming deaths on the main viewscreen, Captain."

“Thank you,” Daniel said dryly.

Daniel’s eyescreens and the screen at the front of the cabin switched to a realtime view of a large, armored battleship drifting toward them.

Dominian cruiser: Armageddon Class,” Trak said.

It looked like a ship forged for the sole purpose of making other species miserable. Then a crack formed in the cruiser’s midsection. Shards of debris blasted outward as something as black as the end of time became visible inside the newly-formed fissure.

A knife-shaped warship tore through the abandoned Dominian cruiser like a dagger through fog.

“He broke the cruiser,” Trak said with awe.

Black on black with a hint of black, Alitma’s spike-covered dreadnought used its slowpoint jets to stop in the center of a wreckage cloud that, moments earlier, had been the Dominian ship.

“He’s here,” Rachel-7 said

“I can see that,” Daniel said.

“That was my version of ‘I told you so,’” Rachel-7 said. Daniel sighed.

A cold voice filled the Afterthought.

“Missssssssss me?”

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2.21 - Alitma arrives

Mar 14 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Alitmanouritanessess—Alitma to his very few friends—had an eerie, evil beauty about him.

With his sharp fangs, gold-colored scales, and a line of implanted jewels running down the left side of his face, Alitma looked every bit the scary alien gangster.

His official title was Commerce Overseer of Rosov 6, but "scary alien gangster" was more accurate. The nine-foot tall robotic battle exoskeleton he wore didn't exactly scream "bureaucrat."

Alitma's two brilliant green eyes looked out at Daniel from every screen in the Afterthought's cabin, including Daniel's eyescreens. The ship's screens were cracked and broken, but Daniel could still see Alitma’s serpent-like face through most of them.

Daniel wasn’t sure what expression Alitma wore—it's hard to read a snake—but Daniel knew it wasn’t mercy.

"Daniel Weissssss," Alitma said coldly.

"Nice to see you, Alitma." Daniel said. Then, gathering what little drunken courage he could, he added, "There’s no ‘S’ in Wei."

"I know,” Alitma said. “I do that becausssssse it drivesssss you crazzzzzzzzy."

Daniel raised his eyebrows. He’d always thought the hissing sound had been a speech impediment.

Daniel felt stupid.

Recovering from the surprise, Daniel said, “You look well, Alitma. … and you still look like a snake.”

Alitma’s crew shrunk back in horror. None of them wanted to be within the boss’s reach when he heard that word.

“Nice try,” Alitma said, the hissing-sound gone from his voice. “You will not taunt me into making a mistake again. Give back what you stole.”

The crews of both ships were stunned to see Alitma keeping his anger in check. The last person who had called Alitma “a snake” had suffered greatly.

That had been Daniel six weeks earlier.

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2.22 - The past

Mar 15 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

Six weeks earlier Daniel had been a janitor at Humboldt Sector Hospital.

He took the position because he still blamed himself for the accident at the Cassandra Cloud Facility. He considered the boring, backbreaking labor a fitting punishment for his mistakes.

It was also a good place to hide from a murderous gangster.

Though the hospital wasn't their ideal home, Daniel's friends stuck with him. Trak worked as a security guard, and Rachel-7, who complained the entire time, piloted a hospital shuttle.

She said she didn't leave Daniel's employ because no one else would hire her, but Daniel liked to think she sometimes, occasionally, every once in a while, enjoyed his company.

Rachel-7 said that was rubbish, and that the reason she stayed was definitely the nobody-hiring-her thing.

After Daniel worked at the hospital for about a year, his past came back to haunt him—his past being an SOS message from his former lover and a visit from Alitma with a city-sized dreadnought and an army of cutthroat mercenaries.

That's when Daniel decided to leave.

Six weeks after his escape from the hospital, Daniel now faced Alitma again.

“Give back what you stole, or I’ll call the authorities,” Alitma said.

His crew laughed at the little joke. Alitma couldn’t call the authorities. He was wanted in seventeen sectors.

"You seem like you're in a better mood since we last met," Daniel said.

"I am not!" Alitma said, pounding his alloyed fist against his captain's throne. Cracks formed in the left armrest.

One of the dreadnought’s repair clouds appeared in the air above Alitma, quickly fixed the damage to the chair, and disappeared. Alitma’s temper kept the repair clouds busy.

"Six weeks is a long time to chase a nobody, so quit stalling," Alitma said. "Where is the extract?"

Stuck On: Rosovs

Altima was not the only member of his species who hated being called a snake.

Alitma's people, the Rosovs, are a limbless alien race, and, unlike serpents, they are warmblooded and sentient, as well as amazing cooks.

They have spent many years trying to stop other species from making the comparison—which they consider insulting—between Rosovs and the slithering earth reptile.

It was a losing battle, according to xenobiologists who had studied the situation, because Rosovs really did look a lot like snakes.

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2.23 - A bluff

Mar 16 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

"Where is the extract?!" Alitma bellowed.

"The thing about that is —” Daniel said.

"Fire on them," Alitma said, to an offscreen subordinate.

"Wait!" Daniel said.

"No," Alitma said.

"Trak, how long till we’re hit?” Daniel said.

"Point three sec—” Trak said.

The L42 missile smashed into the Afterthought's secondary shield, the emergency forcefield that had snapped into place after Alitma's pulse weapon downed most of the ship's systems.

Powered by the barely functioning backup generator, the secondary shield had almost none of the strength of the main shield. And the main shield had been very weak.

So, after deflecting the missile, the secondary shield popped like a bubble, sending greenish whorls in all directions.

Sec shield is gone, Daniel,” Rachel-7 said. “And Trak, Daniel, Alitma, in my final moments, I just want to say, you’re all idiots.”

“Thanks, Rachel,” Daniel said resignedly.

“Thanks, Rachel,” Trak said without emotion.

“Why do you let her speak to you that way?” Alitma said.

“We can’t make her stop,” Trak and Daniel said at the same time.

“Daniel,” Trak said, turning to his companion, “we will survive only one more hit.”

“One hit,” Daniel whispered.

“Apologies. I mean Rachel and I will survive one more hit. Your body will be starpaste,” Trak said.

“Ha,” Daniel said. Trak did like his gallows humor.

"Your antique Mek is right,” Alitma said. “You will not survive another attack. I ask again, where is the Garna extract?”

And then Daniel had an idea. It was a risky bluff ...

"Alitma, did you happen to scan the object we’re attached to?" Daniel asked.

"I don’t need to scan it,” Alitma said, exasperated. “I know my ancient weaponry well. It’s a Z-klik Fusion Cannon."

Before Daniel could say anything else, Alitma leaned closer to the viewscreen and said, "You were going to bluff your way out of this, weren't you? Let me guess, you planned to say something like 'Leave or I'll fire the cannon?'"

Gods, Daniel cursed silently. Alitma had always been perceptive.

"And from the look on your face, I can tell I guessed right," Alitma said. He leaned back in his chair and laughed. "You know, that cannon could do some serious damage to my dreadnought ... if I lived 37 million years ago."

Alitma let out another raspy laugh.

"Sorry, Daniel. It's old and broken and it's not going to fire," he said.

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2.24 - Auxiliary lighting

Mar 17 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

"That's true, but …” Daniel said, trailing off in hopelessness.

“Yes, Daniel?” said Alitma, his voice dripping with condescension.

Might as well try another bluff, Daniel thought. Got nothing else.

“But ... Trak says we can overload it,” Daniel said.

He prayed to the gods that his friend would play along. Trak had never been any good at comprehending the nuances of conversation.

Thankfully, Trak seemed to understand this time.


“It’s true,” Trak said. “I did say that. I can overload the cannon. Yes. I certainly didn’t say that the only thing I might be able to do is activate the auxiliary lighting.”

He’s never been any good at lying either, Daniel thought.

“First, the lights turn on,” Daniel said, in what he hoped was a threatening voice. “Then the cannon ruptures, burning up everything for thousands of miles.”

Daniel couldn't tell if his bluff was working; he couldn't read Alitma's expression. Rosov facial movements are too alien for most humans to interpret.


“You know the force of this thing when it fires, Alitma,” Daniel said, defiantly. “Imagine what happens if it explodes. When the lights turn on, you'll know we only have moments left. Just wait for the lights.”

Nothing happened.

“The lights,” Daniel said again. “The lights.”

Daniel hoped Trak got the hint.

"You would die also," Alitma said.

“I know,” Daniel said.

“You won't do it. You’re a coward,” Alitma said.

"Trak says he’s willing to kill us all if it means getting rid of you,” Daniel said, sidestepping the question of his own cowardice.

"Of course,” Trak lied. “That is true. I will sacrifice the friends that I care about more than anything in order to remove filth like you from the universe. … Really.”

"Just by the by, not actually interested in being sacrificed," Rachel-7 said.

"Be quiet," Daniel said, trying to keep a serious tone.

“I can overload this cannon, Alitma,” Trak said. “I am definitely not lying.”

“That’s enough, Trak,” Daniel whispered. “Turn it on.”

The cannon’s auxiliary lighting blazed bright.

The weapon looked dangerous before, but now it was positively demonic—a jagged-edged silver cylinder forty stories tall with the fires of hells shining through its armored plates.

Alitma’s mouth dropped open.

Daniel felt a slight glimmer of hope until he realized Alitma was mocking him.

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2.25 - Stalling

Mar 18 2011 Published by under Chapter Two

“I am shocked,” Alitma said. “I better give up right now.”

“See, Trak?” Rachel-7 said. “He is a good liar.”

“Ah,” Trak said.

“We hacked your ship’s comm systems two days ago,” Alitma said.

Daniel’s face fell.

“How else do you think I have control of your screens?” Alitma said. “I’ve been listening to everything you’ve said for the past 48 hours. And even though Trak is so skilled with dishonesty, I know he can only turn on the auxiliary lighting.”

“Oh,” Daniel said, and thought for a moment. “Well, I’ll still do it! I’ll do it! I will turn those auxiliary lights up even brighter. Don’t think I won’t!

“That was actually pretty funny," Alitma said. "Fire on them in six, five—”

“Wait! Wait again, I mean! You need us alive! You’ll never find the Garna extract if we’re dead,” Daniel said.

Without hesitation, Alitma said, “Or I could simply destroy your ship and take the information from Trak’s broken innards, Rachel’s charred datacore, or your pulverized brain after I reconstruct it. It will be difficult, but I will find what I need."

“You’ve thought this through,” Daniel said.

“I’ve had time,” Alitma said. “Five, four—“

“Before you kill us, at least tell us what you think the Garage is,” Daniel said, stalling.

“Who cares?” Alitma said.

“That’s what I said!” Rachel-7 said.

“Five, four—" Alitma said.

"Soooo, we’re done," Rachel-7 said.

"Wait, wait, wait!" Daniel said.

"As I said before, ‘No,’ Alitma said. "Three, two—”

“I’ll tell you where it is!” Daniel said.

“Stop the firing sequence! Where is the extract, Daniel?” Alitma yelled. “She needs—“

Alitma stopped himself.

“I need it,” Alitma said quietly. “Where is it?”

Daniel was too nervous to think about who “she” might be.

“Just kidding," Daniel said.  "I don't have it. I’ve been stalling this whole time to ..."

It was time to grasp at straws.

"To give Trak the opportunity to really link with this cannon," Daniel said. "Trak just sent me a secret signal. We finally have control. Leave or we'll use it."

Even as Daniel said it, he knew Alitma wouldn't believe him.

"You just tried this exact ruse literally five minutes ago," Alitma said, stunned at Daniel's incompetence.  “And I told you the cannon won't fire. … Your Aye is right. You are an idiot.”

“Thank you,” Rachel-7 said.

“No longer amused,” Alitma asked. “Fire on them now.”

Then Alitma flashed what Daniel thought may have been a smirk.

“But…” Daniel said.

“Idiot,” Rachel-7 said, sighing.

“Impact in point three sec—,” Trak said.

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