Well, DuQuesne had dealt with this small party, but there may be other problems to be addressed...
It had not taken long to ascertain the overall situation. There was indeed a much larger vessel, the carrier or mothership – Maizas' word translated as "Twinscabbard", implying two scout landers within the vessel. That ship currently hovered just outside the gravitational influence of the Sphere; DuQuesne had verified that Maizas really meant what that implied, which had allowed the Molothos a small measure of amusement at their ignorance.
"Hard to get details," DuQuesne said during a short pause in the interrogation, speaking softly to Carl at some distance from the prisoner; he'd have preferred to use direct radio communication, datalink to datalink, but figured it was much more important to continue to jam any frequencies Maizas might be able to transmit on. "but I get the impression of a pretty big ship, probably about the size of a destroyer, as long as Holy Grail but a lot more massive and built for exploration with a real big side order of combat. How're you doing?"
The last question covered a pretty wide area of ground – considering that he'd given Carl an assignment to do, the controls expert could simply report on that. But it also left open the possibility of other responses. Which Carl gave.
"Wishing I had your genes, actually. And some of your training, though not your life," Carl said with a grin. "Sure, it was a shock; and you're one hardass bastard, but then I never thought you couldn't be. But you don't seem all that different to me. Well, no; I get a lot more of a 'do not get in this guy's way' vibe, but it's not in the vein of you being a psychopath or anything; just along the lines of there being no way to actually stop you, so don't be stupid, if that makes sense."
"And I'm also bloody transparent as glass, then?"
Carl shrugged. "Marc, once any of us knew the truth, anyone who watched could see you were like that guy in that poem… yeah, the Ancient Mariner. You had your past hanging around your neck like an invisible lead albatross. One that scared you to death. Why, I'm not sure; you obviously weren't one of the causes of the problem. I guess you were just scared that you could have been… which I suppose isn't completely crazy." He shook his head disbelievingly. "I'm a damn good martial artist – saying this with no modesty at all – but watching you I realized I'm not only not in your league, I'm just barely aware of the rules. I'd take bets that there's never been anyone anywhere in Earth system that could outfight you – leaving out your bioenhancement, too."
"You'd lose that bet," DuQuesne said quietly, remembering one of the partial successes – a warrior with the innocence of a child, who when he'd learned the truth, had refused to come with DuQuesne and the others, instead staying behind to fight for the simulated world that was all he knew. "Sorry, Mr. DuQuesne, but these are my friends," he'd said, looking up at DuQuesne through impossibly spiky red-black hair. "I know… they're not real to the bad men who are coming, but… they're real to me, and no one's going to take them away without a fight."
And they did not, DuQuesne thought with a painful smile. They sent in automated assault vehicles, and he broke them. They sent in augmented troops, and he – and his friends, virtual though they were – sent them running.
And then they sent in gas, and he fell finally, slowed, beaten, and still conscious when they shut it down and his family disappeared in blankness.
"No, you'd lose that bet," he repeated. "But if you said 'outside of Hyperion', you might be right."
Carl had seen the shift of expressions, but decided not to push, apparently. "Anyway, I've done some careful poking around in his ship, like you asked. It's really… well, alien, not to sound silly about it, but the laws of physics are the same for all of us, even if this Arena likes to play tricks with them. So I've scoped out the basic operation of the thing. It's something like a VTOL jet, basically, heating air through a one-way intake to push the thing around – a sort of air rocket, I guess. Jibe with what he's been saying?"
"Pretty much. He hasn't tried many lies at all – one or two minor ones, and he immediately straightened out as soon as I twitched."
Carl looked at him curiously. "Can you really smell if someone's lying?"
He chuckled, observing Maizas was just about finished with the drinkglobe he'd requested (and that DuQuesne had verified didn't contain anything like poison or something else allowing the Molothos to make an unscheduled exit). "Sort of. Most creatures have chemical shifts associated with trying to evade something, with doing something dangerous. I can usually pick up on some of that – with people, too, of course – and he's also got some body language I can read. He's good at controlling it, but if you look real close at his legs, the claws dig in a little more when he tries to lie; it's part of that contract-inward defensive posture." He saw the last of the drinkglobe disappear. "Right. Here's what I want you to do…" he gave Carl some quick instructions, then turned to Maizas and spoke up. "Enough R&R. More questions and answers."
Maizas was still nervous at his proximity, but made no attempt to evade answering the questions, even volunteering additional interesting information on occasion. This just confirmed DuQuesne's suspicions; Maizas wanted to stall, and live through the stalling. No problem, my little alien friend. Because you're giving me exactly what I need.
One of the most important pieces of information he extracted from the Molothos was the fact that their ship had in fact travelled to their Sphere the long way – through the weird atmospheric environment (which DuQuesne's treacherous false upbringing insisted on trying to label as "ether") of the Arena – and the journey had taken the better part of a year. This was not unusual; while there were apparently something called "Sky Gates" which could allow instantaneous transportation from one Sphere to another (DuQuesne guessed these to be exterior Arena versions of the Inner Gateway), these only existed for inhabited, fully active Spheres, and linked only to a small set number of destinations; thus any Spheres which were uninhabited, or to which you did not know a route, had to be reached the long way around. The Molothos routinely expanded their reach this way, finding livable Spheres, settling on their outer surface, then building new vessels and continuing onward. Radio was unreliable at "Sphere" distances (roughly 100,000 kilometers) but sometimes one could get a message through to a nearby Sphere.
The important point here, he thought, is that we have to keep that Twinscabbard from ever reporting back – physically or via radio – that they've found us. They've got one Sphere near us, somewhere – can't quite make out the directions from what Maizas says, he's no navigator anyway – and so they might be able to report back fast. And if that Sphere's actually active, they could get a BIG fleet here within a year.
The problem, of course, was exactly how to prevent a ship with several hundred xenomisosic alien troops on board from first exterminating them all, and then heading home for more reinforcements.
A buzz-chime sounded faintly from inside the ship. Maizas' legs relaxed slightly. "Now, alien monster, where were we? Yes. You wished to speak of our power sources. The most common are superconductor storage coil batteries – which is, in fact, the general method used throughout the Arena." The alien was speaking in a calm, measured, perhaps slightly too emphatically cooperative way. Yep. That was a signal you were waiting for.
Carl suddenly bounded out of the landing craft. "DuQuesne! We've got company!"
Far distant in the sky, a bright dot had appeared. DuQuesne pulled out his electronic binoculars and focused on the dot.
Waveringly outlined against turbulent sky, he could see only a general shape, a broad flying wing with hints of lines and other external features, a suggestion of baroque and impractical designs for ordinary space vessels. The range showed that what he looked at was huge, at least 300 meters wide.
The shrieking cough translated as triumphant laughter. "Trapped, trapped now, little beasts!" Maizas crowed."I kept you here and talking, easy for destruction or capture! Not so clever, not so smart as you thought you were! And now comes Blessing of Fire to take your Sphere!"
"Not sending down the other scout lander with troops?"
"Pzkt!" The sound was one of contempt. "Standard doctrine. If one scout lander crew incapacitated, maybe second fares no better. First the main vessel descends to within detailed examination range and a decision is made as to approach." It looked at him arrogantly.
"Excellent." DuQuesne's grin was so savagely triumphant that Maizas involuntarily shrank away. "Exactly what I wanted to hear."
"You think I'm stupid? Think we didn't know you were stalling? I needed you to stall, Maizas. I needed you to feel that your best chance was to tell us anything we wanted to know, keep us interested, so that we wouldn't run off and hide before your reinforcements got here. And your reaction told me that – in all likelihood – your main ship would be doing the backup, which was what I was hoping would happen."
The alien stared from DuQuesne to Carl in shock. "Insane, you are! Nearly were you overcome by my troops before; even now, a full prepared lander would deal with you! You have no defenses against shells and beams that can rend ships of war, and no weapon that could harm so mighty a vessel as Blessing!"
"Wrong," DuQuesne said. He pointed behind the alien. "I have one."
Maizas whirled and stared uncomprehending for a moment; then the buzz-shriek showed he understood all too well. "No! You… you cannot! You know nothing of our technology, the systems will not recognize your commands, it is impossible –"
"All I need," DuQuesne said, yanking tighter the bonds on Maizas' body, "is power and control. I am a power engineer, and Carl Edlund is a master of controls. And you – you pathetic sap! You've told us everything we absolutely needed to know while you were busy stalling!"
"DuQuesne, that ship will be in good detailed scan range in about nine minutes," Carl warned him.
"With what we've figured, that's enough; and we don't know what their telemetry might say, so we had to wait until now. Be glad it has to come through atmosphere, or we'd have about nine seconds." DuQuesne vaulted inside the ship, with its oddly triangular corridors, and started ripping out the control runs Carl had pinpointed earlier. I need to arrange a controlled short across the main drive… here… here… linked in with Carl's designs…
Maizas was now struggling desperately against his bonds; the alien commander was now no longer nearly so certain of the outcome as he had been a moment before. "Struggle all you like, Maizas; you're going nowhere. That's ring-carbon composite, a hundred times stronger than any steel ever made. I couldn't break a length of the stuff that was a tenth that thick."
"I've rigged what amounts to a couple joysticks, Marc, but … it's gonna be very, very dicey. We're having to shunt control though our stuff, which wasn't meant to handle the power, and cut out all of their controls. I've put in all the redundancy I can but… This thing's going to have almost no margin for error."
"Just give me the best you've got," DuQuesne said, using one of the Molothos sidearms to blow holes in the control panels at critical points. "I've set up the simple cross connect to the engines. This only has to hold together for one really short flight, Carl; all I care about is that the remote will hold the signal for long enough."
Blessing of Fire was growing in the sky, now visible as a dark dot with a hint of shape.
"You'll have to drop the scrambling to do it. I can run an antenna to the hull to amplify the reception, give us the range, but what about his headware?" Carl indicated Maizas.
"Oh, I think I've got something for that problem." He grabbed Maizas by one striking claw and began dragging him up the ramp. "Come on, Maizas. You're going on one last ride."
The alien struggled futilely as the former Hyperion pulled him into his scout craft. "This cannot work!"
"Oh, I rather think it can. Maybe not a good chance – only one chance in a thousand, say, given other issues involved – but a chance more than worth taking," DuQuesne said; he noted that this statement seemed, for some reason, to shock the Molothos even more.
He finished dragging Maizas into the shattered control cabin. "I think we've killed off most of the relays in here, and the hull will shield any direct headware transmission. Now, you guys do talk – like us – with part of the same apparatus you use to eat with. It's possible, once the scrambling goes down, that you'll be able to trigger something like a voice-command relay, even if I think I've got them all. I doubt it, but just in case…" He rammed the point of a Molothos trooper's leg into Maizas' mouth. "Here we go. All you have to do in order to activate any such thing… is finish eating."
He needed no words to translate the utter horror in Maizas' contracting stance.
"DuQuesne! It's speeding up! I think they guess something's happening!"
The black-bearded power engineer hooked the ends of Maizas' bonds to what had been landing restraint points – sort of the equivalent of seatbelts – and headed for the door. "Coming!"
The Twinscabbard-class vessel Blessing of Fire loomed larger in the sky; thunder of engines was now faintly audible, though seeming to come from a much more distant point, sound still slower than light even in the weird conditions of the Arena. "At least the design of their ship utterly precludes supersonic speeds in air," he said to Carl, accepting the clumsily-assembled control rig. "Not surprising, given other considerations, but it's a good thing for us."
"Especially," agreed Carl with a grin that echoed his own predator's smile, "since their landing vessels can, if you push them."
He waited. The problem was judging the exact critical distance and the reactions of the aliens. At a far longer range, of course, a ship like Blessing of Fire could have rained destruction down on them with almost pinpoint accuracy. This argued that, whatever their genocidal views towards other lifeforms, they valued the lives and health of their own people, something that Maizas' various statements generally confirmed. So they'd want to wait, get really close, see whether any of their people were still alive, and if there was any way they could manage to save them, rather than just pounding the site to slag from a distance.
But exactly what was that distance… and how long would it take for them to make their decision? What would their reactions be? What sort of defenses would the ship have active under these circumstances? Part of this plan… well, a very large part of it… depended on the Molothos being overall as arrogant as the individuals he'd already met, and being really unlikely to assume that any ground-based threat could harm Blessing of Fire, especially in the absence of any evidence of civilized natives who might have notable weaponry.
"Five kilometers out and they're slowing, DuQuesne."
Blessing of Fire loomed huge now, bronze and silver and gravel-gray and monstrous, casting knife-edged shadows on the mountains. "Four kilometers, DuQuesne!"
A low thundering snarl came from the Molothos landing craft; it began to rise, tilting to port. Damnation! DuQuesne jiggled the lefthand joystick, incrementing thrust, balancing the scout lander with clumsy care, like a man trying to balance a long box half-filled with water. This has to look like at least a somewhat controlled takeoff.
He fed more power into both engines, adjusting the balance by pure instinct; Ariane would do this better, he suddenly thought, and realized that he really wished she was here to do this. Cut it out, superman. This is not the time for self-doubts. Beside him, Carl sucked in his breath as the ship nearly clipped its wing on a nearby tree.
His internal telemetry, from the sensors they'd scattered through the interior, showed Maizas standing almost frozen in the center of the room, leg still stuck in the Molothos' mouth; Maizas was making furious keening noises but obviously accomplishing nothing.
Cleared the trees. Now… he pushed gently forward, while still increasing power. The ship began to move forward.
Blessing of Fire slowed and began to circle around, clearly trying to decide what this new development meant. "They're transmitting to the scout lander, trying to get an answer, DuQuesne," Carl said.
Not much time now. But… The scoutship was moving forward now, engines almost in full forward alignment. He began turning the ship towards the Twinscabbard.
"I have a coded transmission! I think it's a remote override!"
That wouldn't do them any good… but they knew, now.
Just one little second too late.
DuQuesne wrenched power higher on the starboard engine – seeing the condition telltales on their controls reaching critical points – and slewed the fifty-meter long scout vessel around to point directly at Blessing of Fire… or where she would be, in about seven seconds. "See you in hell, Maizas!"
Then he slammed both engines to full.
The whining rumble of the air-rockets changed abruptly to a scream as the entire power of the scout lander's superconductor storage coils was directed to the engines, a single catastrophic surge of power that kicked the low, armored vessel forward at multiple gravities, far beyond any design tolerances. At almost the same moment, blazing spears of energy streaked from Blessing of Fire, one scoring a dark line across the swiftly moving scout vessel, the others missing by mere inches. With only a few more seconds, the antimissile batteries of Blessing of Fire would have turned the lander to vapor.
But there were no more seconds to spare, as DuQuesne's improvised missile annihilated the three kilometers between it and its target and smashed at nearly a kilometer per second straight into the main body of Blessing of Fire.
The massive Twinscabbard-class vessel seemed to stagger in midair, tilting, slewing out of control, plummeting from the sky. Carl punched a fist exultantly skyward. "YES!"
DuQuesne grabbed Carl's shoulder. "GET DOWN!" Both men hit the dirt, just as Blessing of Fire, continuing forward on a course to destruction, struck a mountaintop five and a half kilometers away. Metal and composite screamed in tortured agony at the unstoppable impact and – somewhere, deep inside the vessel's stricken core – ripped across the energy-saturated superconducting storage coils that supplied the power for a journey a hundred thousand miles long.
The flash of light ignited the tops of trees for nearly three kilometers around; the concussion blew many of them flat like matchsticks. Wracked by the shockwave and temporarily deafened, the two men slowly rose and looked up in awe, to see a monstrous mushroom cloud towering above them, slowly, slowly dissipating into an ordinary cloud of smoke above the burning remnants of the destroyed starship.
And both men felt, at the same time, the oppressive weight of gravity lessen and return to normal.
And dealt with it was. :)