Expeditionary Force by Craig Alanson Wiki
Advertisement
Expeditionary Force by Craig Alanson Wiki
ExForce Book 10 Critical Mass header.jpg


Author's Summary

"The Merry Band of Pirates are in desperate trouble after the end of their last mission, and the real danger to humanity is just getting started.

Hostile aliens have discovered there is something odd going on with wormholes in the galaxy, and their investigations could lead to finding a shortcut to Earth...."

Plot Summary

SPOILER ALERT!
The section(s) below SCHMAYBE includes Spoilers.


Skippy the Magnificent disappeared at the end of the mission on the planet Rikers to rescue kidnapped human children and adults from Earth, who were slated to be infected with a bio-weapon by the Thuranin and Kristang.

The Maxolhx, realizing that the ultra-secure pixies used for communication has been compromised, reverted to relaying communications via courier ship.

Prior to the Rikers rescue mission, Colonel Joseph Bishop had given the order for Valkyrie to stay far away and out of sight so that it wouldn't be detected so as not to expose it to questions as to why it was rescuing humans from Rikers.

Due to Skippy's disappearance, Joe, aboard a defenseless Dragon dropship, has been captured by the Thuranin, held on the ship for three days and then taken back to Rikers.

The native Maxolhx AI on Valkyrie, no longer kept in check by Skippy, has disabled Nagatha Christie with a computer worm, making her go offline. The native AI takes control of both the Valkyrie and, via the worm, the Flying Dutchman and shuts down power to both ships, leaving them dead in space. The Merry Band of Pirates aboard the Valkyrie are being viciously attacked by all of the, now native AI-controlled, bots. Meanwhile, aboard the Dutchman, the native AI worm has built up the reactors to overload.

On the Valkyrie, Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Simms makes a snap decision. She tells the native AI that she will surrender the ship if the native AI stops attacking the crew and answers one question. The native AI stops the attack and allows Simms to ask the question of what it would do after it kills the crew. When the native AI hesitates, she tells it that it has only two options: 1. Fly the ship by itself, hiding from the Maxolhx until the ship's systems fail and it drifts alone forever in empty space. 2. Join the Pirates.

The native AI agrees the help and brings the ship's systems back online. After programming a jump to the Dutchman to stop the computer worm from destroying the it, the native AI goes silent mid-sentence and all the power goes out again. A Maxolhx fail-safe "kill switch" subroutine that prevents AIs from gaining self-awareness destroys the native AI and erases all software that is linked to Valkyrie's systems, including the crew's zPhones.

Meanwhile, on the Dutchman, Gunnery Sergeant Margaret Adams is unable to stop the reactors from overloading, nor can she eject them, so Colonel Chang Kong gives the order to abandon the Dutchman in dropships. The Dutchman's reactors don't explode and the dropships are too far away from any habitable worlds, so Chang orders everyone back the Dutchman.

On the Valkyrie, Simms rigs a nuclear weapon for detonation in case the crew gets incapacitated due to rising carbon dioxide levels. She plans to blow the nuke to hide any evidence of humans. She assigns crew members to keep watch at viewports near the docking bay to look out for any enemy ship activity.

Joe awakens, disoriented, with his memory slightly scrambled in a Kristang hospital but there were also two Thuranin (who he named Tweedledee and Tweedledum) and he was being questioned. Joe had been given a "No-hawk" and hooked up to advanced Thuranin technology that makes him feel like willingly answering all of the Thuranin's questions. Skippy had previously placed quantum machines (quachines) in Joe's head that prevented the Thuranin from gaining any useful information.

Doctor Mark Friedlander notices an orange light blinking on his zPhone and figured out that Nagatha is alive and trying to communicate with them. Nagatha, still fighting the native Maxolhx AI worm, provides Dr. Friedlander with instructions on how to restart the reactors.

Skippy returns about nine and a half days after he disappeared and is traveling through space. He is not as magnificent because, he is experiencing the opposite effect he had in Zero Hour. This time, his connection to normal spacetime has become weak. From his location in space, he helps Joe escape from the Kristang hospital, but he is being chased by Kristang. Skippy tells Joe that he destroyed the Thuranin ship that captured him. Over the next couple of days, he evades them and waits for rescue from Rikers by the Pirates.

Nagatha contained the worm and was able to bring the Dutchman's systems back to full function and capacity. Chang needed to make a decision on whether to go back to Rikers to search for Skippy or to locate Valkyrie, rendezvous with her and then search for Skippy.

Aboard Valkyrie, Captain Samantha Reed sees a ship jump at a distance too far to easily identify without its navigation lights on. Reed notifies Simms and Simms prepares to detonate the nuke. Suddenly, all navigation lights on the Dutchman come to life and Reed notices it's the Dutchman. She notifies Simms who removes the key and secures the nuke. The crew of Valkyrie transfer aboard Dutchman, before they suffocate.

The Dutchman jumps within a light hour of Rikers. Nagatha identifies Skippy's location, they pick him up and rescue Joe. Joe is worn out, injured and malnourished, he likely has undiagnosed brain damage from his treatment by the Thuranin.

Joe decides not to tell the crew the truth about why Skippy disappeared and hands over command of the Pirates to Chang. Simms would captain Valkyrie and Chang would captain the Dutchman during the two or three weeks it would take Joe to recover. The Dutchman jumped back to Valkyrie, crew re-boarded and Skippy began repairs.

A standard Thuranin recon package (two frigates and one destroyer) jumped into the system. Valkyrie was incapable of jumping away or risking a fight. Chang transfers all non-essential personnel to Valkyrie and takes the Dutchman to hit the Thuranin recon ships.

Shortly after the Dutchman departed, another Thuranin frigate jumps in at Valkyrie's position and attacks. The jump drive on Valkyrie is not completely ready and with the Thuranin frigate's agility, Valkyrie gets pounded. Joe has the idea to create a microwormhole within a microwormhole, expand it and jump the ship through. Valkyrie escapes, but is almost lost between higher and normal spacetime and Skippy is further damaged. His canister has accrued a lot of space dust that will take some time to dissipate and he is barely able to hold his connection to normal spacetime. The cleaning bots have to "dust the awesomeness" quite often.

Skippy and Nagatha developed and tested millions of new firewalled control AIs on Valkyrie that incorporated portions of Skippy's and Nagatha's programming. 99.9% of the AIs didn't survive. 3 really good final candidates were left, one of which was unstable and self-destructed, and a bunch of systems that were dead-ends. Most of the dead-ends were purged, but two of the dead ends survived and absorbed the final candidate AIs. The surviving dead-ends were highly skilled, highly intelligent and highly adaptable. Skippy thought that they were a pair of knuckleheads. Skippy said that they were slackers. Stoners. Think Cheech and Chong. Beavis and Butthead. Bill and Ted, without the charm. These two new AIs, named Bobby and Billy, merged to become Bilby.

The Dutchman jumps back to where they left the Valkyrie to find it nowhere in sight. They locate the buoy that Valkyrie left behind, but it is damaged. Nagatha discovers the coordinates to where Valkyrie was supposed to jump to and still no sign of the warship. As they are about to jump away to head back to Earth, Reed aborts the jump. Chang asks why and she responds by explaining that when the DeLorean jumped out of Detroit[1], it had moved forward in time when it emerged. Chang jumps the Dutchman back to Valkyrie's rendezvous coordinates and waits.

Nine days after the Dutchman jumped away to tackle the Thuranin recon ships, with Joe resuming command, Valkyrie's jump drive was back to full operation. Skippy attempts a test jump to where the Valkyrie and the Dutchman were last together, with no sign of the the Dutchman. Joe decides to jump Valkyrie to the rendezvous coordinates and the two ships are together again. The crew of the Dutchman are relieved to find out that Valkyrie was not lost in time.

Joe lets Skippy tell the Pirates his recovered memories, still keeping the reason for his disappearance a secret. Since the Backstop wormhole wouldn't be activated for another nine weeks, Joe agrees to help Skippy verify his memories by visiting ancient battle sites from the AI War. Skippy gives Joe a list of proposed site to visit. They dropped the civilians and a few crew members, including Simms on Club Skippy for some shore leave, keeping Valkyrie there for protection under Chang's command. Joe takes the Dutchman with Reed as his XO and pilot and Captain Chen as co-pilot.

Admiral Urkan of the Maxolhx hegemony speaks with Commander Illiath of the Patrol Cruiser Vortan, about her theory that the "Ghost Ship" is actually operated by their deceitful ancient enemy, the Rindhalu, in order to degrade Maxolhx relations with their clients. Since the Maxolhx believe the pixies are impossible to reprogram (even by them), the Rindhalu must be involved. Urkan then informs Illiath that the Rindhalu have requested a joint investigation because they are alarmed at the possibility of the Bosphuraq having advanced technology. Urakan tells Illiath that Fleet Intelligence has requested her as liaison.

The first planet the Dutchman visited was deep in Esselgin territory. It was a bust, so they went to the second site on the list which required jumping through four wormholes to get to. Skippy names the planet "Waterloo". Skippy found nothing dangerous and nothing unusual, so Joe gave the order to jump into the system, a few light minutes from the target planet. Skippy found evidence of an epic major battle between two Elder starships, one on each side of the AI War. Skippy confirms that most of his memories are accurate.

When the Dutchman tries to jump back to the wormhole, it doesn't work. Skippy says that the jump drive is busted. Everything is functioning perfectly. The ship jumps, except it's not going anywhere. It jumps in loop end ends up where it started like the wormhole is wrapping in on itself. The system was being monitored by a Sentinel from a higher layer of spacetime and wouldn't allow the ship to leave because it noticed that Skippy had sent out a ping.

To draw the Sentinel away, the Dutchman sent out four missiles, each with one end of a microwormhole, out of the system at ninety degree angles to a distance of approximately fifty eight billion kilometers from the ship. Then, when the were out of range of the Sentinel, Skippy created four microwormholes and sent a message through them pretending to be a hostile Elder AI to attract the Sentinel's attention. The Dutchman jumped and Skippy made a panicked call to jump again immediately. And a third time.

At a neutral site closest to Bosphuraq territory, once the Rindhalu ship arrived, Illiath begins talks with the Rindhalu liaison, Kashelob about joint efforts to investigate and capture the Ghost Ship. Kashelob proposes they go to Rahkarsh Diweln (Rikers) because, to Illiath's surprise, the Ghost Ship had been sighted there by the Thuranin and Kashelob believes humans are somehow involved because the Rindhalu wondered why the Ghost Ship would be in the area.

After they escape the Sentinel, Joe wants to go back to Club Skippy and Skippy wants to continue visiting sites. Skippy would prefer to go to Paradise to investigate the ship he crashed in, but the site is too hot, so they compromise and go to Newark instead. Not finding anything of much use at Newark, they head back to Club Skippy.

Skippy learns that a Sentinel had been at Newark prior to the battle because it's the only thing capable of pushing Newark out of orbit. During the battle at Newark, Skippy's ship was severely damaged and instead of going any one of six closer star systems, traveled all the way to Paradise. Skippy also discovered that he didn't defeat the hostile Elder AI. Instead, the evil Elder AI gave up and allowed Skippy to kill it.

This worries Joe because it left the possibility that he had something valuable to the other side. Something inside him that could betray him and everything he cared about. Joe also began to worry that a program hidden inside Skippy might trigger and turn him into a killing machine against his will.

The Pirates had been lucky during the years since Joe met Skippy. But every time he thought they had accomplished the impossible once again and Earth was safe, something blew up in their faces and Joe wondered if Skippy had unconsciously been working against them all the time.

A whole lot of aliens wanted to fly all the way to Earth, when they had more important things to do. Joe couldn't fathom why such an insignificant planet like planet like Earth could be the focus of so much attention from apex species like the Maxolhx. Joe realizes that he's just being paranoid.

Simms mentions that Club Skippy might serve as a charlie site. After seven days of shore leave on Club Skippy, the Pirates, Kalsta Robbenon, Cadet Fangiu and the rescued civilians, traveled to the far end of the Backstop wormhole.

Maxolhx Blockade Force Three are cycling home for maintenance and repairs. A Bosphuraq fleet is assigned to take their place. The Elder wormhole they need to use does not open as scheduled. Wormholes could often be a few seconds late, never early, though no one knew why. The wormhole did not appear at the next site along its figure-eight pattern. Or the next. Or the next. The Commander of Blockade Force Three decides to take the long way home and she sends two squadrons of light ships to investigate and they find discover the Elder wormhole was not only active and open, it was operating exactly on schedule. The problem was, the entire figure-eight pattern had shifted by a distance slightly less than light traveled in one rotation of the Maxolhx homeworld. The Commander of Blockade Force Three sent the ships through the wormhole. She ordered the ships to return to their respective home bases while she, aboard her command ship, the Telaxion, headed directly to the Maxolhx homeworld to relay the information on the discovery.

Kashelob tells Illiath that the Ruhar ship that attacked the Thuranin at Rahkarsh Diweln had the signature of a highly modified Maxolhx jump drive from an Extinction-class battlecruiser. The Vortan's AI agreed with the assessment and that it was also not the Ghost Ship. Illiath internally questioned whether or not the Bosphuraq has two ships or whether the Rindhalu knew the identity of the ship because it was one of theirs. And why would either rogue Bosphuraq or Rindhalu been interested in an Alien Legion humans Commando force rescuing a small group of captive humans? It made no sense.

The Rindhalu and Maxolhx had become interested in Rahkarsh Diweln due to the Thuranin witnessing the Ghost Ship and, in a joint mission, they travel to Rahkarsh Diweln to investigate.

On their way to Backstop, Joe stops by Simms's office (while she is writing her wedding vows) and asks if they should stop by a Maxolhx relay station because they had been out of the loop for a long time and the Thuranin had discovered the Ghost Ship near Rikers. The delay would only take a day.

During the conversation with Joe, Simms wonders what would happen to the humans on Paradise since the Thuranin have Joe's DNA and knew his name. And since the cover story for the Rikers rescue was that it was an Legion operation supported by the Ruhar, surely the Thuranin would contact the Ruhar about it. Someone would recognize Joe and it would cause a shit-storm for UNEF HQ on Paradise. The Ruhar know they weren't involved and would be asking a lot of uncomfortable questions, putting UNEF-Paradise on the hot seat. The Pirates change course to a Maxolhx relay station.

Realizing that the Maxolhx had discovered that their pixies were compromised, Skippy informs Joe that access to the relay station cannot be verified via a pixie. They need to send a dropship so that the station's AI can physically verify access. So they go to a Thuranin relay station thirty eight hours travel time away. The relay station had been updated seven hours prior. Skippy downloaded the information and they jumped away.

From the information gathered at the Thuranin relay station, Skippy tells Joe that the Maxolhx are sending three battle groups to Rikers and that a Rindhalu ship is accompanying them because the Rindhalu are concerned about the Ghost Ship. The Maxolhx sent a Flash-priority message to the Thuranin to be on the lookout for and report anomalous wormhole behavior. It made no sense to Skippy that the Maxolhx would send out such a notice, about an ongoing phenomenon.

The Thuranin had a Be On The Lookout (BOLO) on Joe including an image, biometric and DNA information on him. The BOLO stated that this human had committed crimes against the Thuranin at Rahkarsh Diweln. Skippy also informs Joe about what Lieutenant Colonel Emily Perkins and the Mavericks have been up to on the Squidworld, which the Mavericks refer to as "Squidworld". Skippy disseminates the information on the the mission to the Pirates naming it "Operation Freefall".

On the way to the far end of the Backstop wormhole, at one of the several wormholes they use to get there, Skippy discovers it is acting strangely. It's late. Really late. Joe is concerned that there might be another Elder AI messing with it, so he orders Valkyrie and the Dutchman to jump to a safe location away from the wormhole. Skippy doesn't believe that another Elder AI is involved. Joe tells the Dutchman to stay put while the Valkyrie jumps to the next emergence point. The wormhole still doesn't emerge, so Skippy programs a three-hour search pattern into the navigation system. Valkyrie jumps back to the Dutchman to inform Chang.

The search only took 41 minutes. The wormhole appeared. Skippy realized that the wormhole wasn't late. It was on schedule. The problem was that it was in the wrong location. Skippy is so surprised after talking with the Wormhole Network, he goes silent. Bilby says he's in a sort of vapor-lock. Joe jumps Valkyrie back to rendezvous with the Dutchman. That woke Skippy up. Skippy found out that he didn't ask the right questions or the wrong questions. He wasn't specific enough and the Network didn't volunteer any additional information when he asked it to move Backstop. In order to move Backstop, The Wormhole Network needed to make adjustments to other wormholes within the local network, including waking up a dormant wormhole that used to be twenty one light years away from Earth to only sixteen light years away. Joe names the wormhole "Broomstick". The far end of Broomstick was in Esselgin territory near border disputed by the Thuranin. It would be about five weeks before the far end of Broomstick would become active.

Most of the STARs were transferred to the Dutchman while half of the Commandos were assigned to Valkyrie to keep the civilians under control. Chang would take the Dutchman at the far end of Backstop and wait there for Valkyrie to return. If Valkyrie did not return in time, Chang would take the Dutchman through Backstop and bring back as many people as possible to the Super-Duty wormhole.

The Jeraptha Cadet Yula Fangiu proposed an idea to Joe. It was a ‘Proposal for Inter-species Cooperation’. He mentioned that the Jeraptha fleet had enough ship to evacuate all or a significant portion of the population of Earth. Joe thanked Fangiu for the offer. After discussing it with senior staff, it was sadly determined to be impractical because of the the time constraints.

On Paradise, Commodore (Admiral-select) Mahrtee Sequent came to talk with Baturnah Logellia. Admiral-select Sequent tells Baturnah that the Thuranin intercepted a Ruhar courier ship and passed on some information. He shows her a tablet with an image of a bruised and battered human and DNA information. She identifies him as Joe and explains that she thought he was dead. All the rumors she had ever heard in all the years that Joe had been gone were that he was dead.

Sequent tells Baturnah about how Joe, in a supposed Legion raid to rescue humans and supported by the Ruhar at Rahkarsh Diweln, kicked the Thuranin's asses, destroying a Thuranin ship, but that Joe was captured by the Thuranin. Sequent also tells her that there was no such operation approved or supported by the Ruhar or run by the Legion. She wondered if the was all a disinformation campaign by the Thuranin. Ruhar leadership wanted to know what was going on, so that's why they sent Commodore Sequent to talk with Baturnah Logellia. They also wanted to talk with UNEF-Paradise to find out more information.

The Pirates needed to know if the Maxolhx were aware of the wormhole shifts, so they planned an operation to gain the information from a Maxolhx relay station. The Pirates would go to a relay station, wait for a Maxolhx courier ship, kidnap its crew of three and use them to bypass the security. While the STAR and Commandos teams were training for the operation, a Maxolhx courier ship arrived. The Spec Ops Teams captured the three Maxolhx and named them Tickle Me Elmo (or Bite Me Elmo... or just Elmo), Bert and Ernie.

Aboard the Vortan, Illiath had been reassigned from the joint Rindhalu and Maxolhx investigation at Rahkarsh Diweln. She was now investigating chaotic, intermittent gamma rays detected by the Thuranin. After transitioning through one wormhole, they jumped to the location of the anomalous readings. She discovers that a dormant Elder wormhole was booting up. After sending probes through the wormhole, she learns that the far end of this wormhole was toward the center of the galaxy, between spiral arms. Since she had been given a wide latitude to research the errant wormhole network behavior, she wondered if there was another dormant wormhole waking up near Earth.

The Pirates needed to test whether they could get through the levels of security on the Maxolhx relay station, so they used Anastacia disguised as a Maxolhx as a test subject with Skippy controlling her through a microwormhole to pass the station's physical verification. She does, but on the next security level, the station AI fried Anastacia. When Skippy determined the best course of action after Anastacia's test, they tried again with Elmo. Skippy controlled Elmo the same way he made Mr. Snuggles dance to Funkytown. Controlling Elmo using a microwormhole, the data was gathered and transferred to Valkyrie. The relay station exploded without warning. Joe informed Bert and Ernie of their colleague's death.

From the data gathered, Skippy told Joe about Commander Illiath's reports. Joe considers attacking her ship, but Simms lets him know that if they destroy her ship, it might inform the Maxolhx that she was on the right path. Joe agrees and Valkyrie jumps back to the Dutchman.

Joe meets with Chang aboard Valkyrie and they discuss the difficult task of deciding who gets to go to Avalon. Each government of Earth will feel like they have a priority. Skippy chimes in and says that of they won't cooperate, then he will decide what's fair. The Chang asks him what his idea of "fair" is. Joe and Chang give him scenarios and Skippy can't decide and is dismayed.

On Valkyrie, with over a month before the far end of Backstop becomes stable, Joe tells Simms that he wants to leave her and Frank Muller on Avalon to help Hans Chotek. Simms says she'll think about it. On the Dutchman, Chang and Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Smythe discuss what they would do once they reach Earth and how they would conduct the evacuation without Valkyrie.

The Vortan arrives at another dormant wormhole that is waking up. After sending fifteen expendable probes through, they determine that the other side of this wormhole leads to Earth. They are at Broomstick.

As Valkyrie is five days out from Avalon, Simms approaches Joe and tells him that she and Frank Muller want to get married. In two days. Reed is her Bridesmaid, Friedlander is Frank's Best Man, Valdez of the Commandos is an ordained minister and will perform the ceremony, Joe will be the DJ at the reception and Skippy volunteers to design Frank's tuxedo and Simms' wedding dress. According to Joe, the wedding was magical.

Three hours away from Avalon, Skippy talks to Joe about a potential problem in the Avalon system. Just like at the Roach Motel, there was another gas giant, about the size of Saturn, that the Elders had stealthed. Skippy wants to check it out, but Joe refuses.

Joe flies down to Avalon's surface. The campsite they set up when they first got to Avalon is now a proper village. The half-team of Commandos unloads supplies. Joe greets Hans Chotek with a bear hug, which causes Chotek some pain since he injured his back the day before. Joe talks with Simms in private, bringing up the anxiety he has about Skippy possibly having a time bomb inside him that the evil Elder AIs may have installed, unconsciously making him work against them. Simms lets Joe know that he needs to tell Skippy, so that if Skippy knows, then maybe he can do something to stop it. Joe agrees. Joe feels badly that he still hadn't told the crew what really happened to Skippy.

After Joe returned to Valkyrie, he spoke with Dr. Friedlander who was looking at Avalon out a port hole. Joe mentions that they need to so a lot of work to get the site ready. Dr. Friedlander says that's not all they need to do. They need to build a fleet of Elder warships, or something equivalent, with weapons using Skippy's knowledge. They didn't need the ships for protection. They needed it for payback. Joe informs Dr. Friedlander that's impossible and reminds him of what happened to the Rindhalu and Maxolhx when they used weapons.

Simms is loading a dropship with supplies and Joe approaches her and asks if she would interested in going on one last rodeo to check out Maris on a recon mission. She agrees. Taking sixteen hours to match course and speed with where they thought Maris might be, they launched a probe. The probe entered the distortion field and was supposed to re-emerge ten minutes later. Twenty minutes later, the probe re-emerged eight thousand kilometers from where it entered. The probe wasn't moving fast enough to cover that distance in twenty minutes. The probe didn't transmit any useful data because it was blind inside the distortion field. Skippy sent in another probe with one end of a microwormhole. Skippy couldn't see anything.

Suddenly, Valkyrie shuddered and was being dragged toward the stealth field. Valkyrie's jump drive went down so the ship couldn't jump. Reed had the thrust on full with no effect. The engines were working fine, but the ship wasn't going anywhere. Thrusters were only having a minimal effect. Joe ordered an abandon ship, but Skippy shot that down because the dropships would be dragged down as well. Valkyrie entered the stealth field and everything went black. All sensors blanked out. When Valkyrie entered and descended into the atmosphere, in ten minutes and forty-three seconds, the ship would be at crush depth. Valkyrie started to heat up. She started vibrating badly.

Joe told Skippy to do his disappearing trick again, to save himself. Simms looked curiously toward Joe and said "WHAT? Disappear again?" Joe tells her about Skippy bailing on them. Simms was angry at Joe and hurt. Joe turns his attention back to Skippy, urging him to leave. Skippy explains that he may never be able to access normal spacetime again. Skippy says goodbye as his avatar begins to fade. Simms looks at Joe, the anger and hurt gone, but replaced by disappointment.

Illiath resisted the temptation to take Broomstick to Earth and followed standing orders. She had flown through four wormholes to the nearest major fleet base to report her discovery. Aboard his flagship, the Vengeance-class battlecruiser Arvoxita, Admiral Denoth, in command of the Wormhole Task Force, ordered the Vortan to maneuver to the rear of the formation. The Vortan was assigned a less-than-desirable position on the racks of a Maxolhx star carrier, joining the Admiral Denoth’s battlecruiser, three heavy cruisers and two destroyer squadrons. When they arrived at Broomkstick, Admiral Denoth ordered the Vortan through first while he kept the rest of the Maxolhx task force at a safe distance. With a nauseating transition through, the Vortan arrived safely. At the earliest opportunity, Illiath guided the Vortan back through the wormhole to report it was safe. Admiral Denoth ordered his ships through, one at a time.

The Dutchman is two days flight time away from Backstop, waiting for the wormhole to stabilize. They make practice runs so they're ready when it becomes stable. Valkyrie is overdue by four days. The Dutchman goes through Backstop. Once on the other side, they are hailed by Admiral Patel on the Yu Qishan who insists on speaking with Joe directly. Chang asked Nagatha to ransack the Yu Qishan's databanks for information. Chang signals Admiral Patel to jump back to Earth and he will explain the situation when they arrive as there might be Maxolhx warships arriving soon. The Dutchman jumps to the far side of Saturn. Nagatha informs Chang that the Dagger is in low Earth orbit with only one reactor functioning.

While they wait for Nagatha to sort through information and try to gather more information directly from Earth, Chang and Smythe discuss how to proceed. Nagatha, worriedly informs Chang that she detected the effects of an alien jump drive less than four light-minutes away from Earth. Nagatha says that they are definitely the signatures from multiple Maxolhx ships consisting of one Vengeance-class battlecruiser, three heavy cruisers, and ten to twelve other ships that are either light cruisers or destroyers that jumped in over eleven hours ago.

Because the Maxolhx had not been at Backstop when the Dutchman came through, Chang guesses that they have just been observing Earth, gathering information and been in shock that no Kristang were on Earth, yet there were two Kristang troop ships controlled by humans. This leads to assume that the Maxolhx most certainly have learned about Skippy. Smythe surmises that the Maxolhx want to capture Skippy and that they won't delay much longer.

With one ship and without Skippy, the Pirates aboard the Dutchman had very limited options. Smythe offered the option of making a strategic retreat, go to Paradise, pick up as many humans as they could carry. Only, as Chang points out, would could they do then? Without Skippy, they didn't have access to the Super-Duty wormhole. They couldn't even get to Club Skippy. Chang looks at the crew around the bridge and the CIC and says, "The Merry Band of Pirates will not run away. We fight."

The Dutchman jumps in fifty-thousand kilometers away from Earth. Chang tells Nagatha to transmit their UNEF authentication codes, and advise the Dagger to perform a maximum-distance jump as soon as possible, that it should wait for the outcome of the coming battle to be evident, or, for a recall signal and explain that an overwhelming enemy force is expected to arrive at any moment. He also instructs her to send the same to UNEF Command. Nagatha informs Chang that the Dagger's jump drive is down.

Admiral Denoth watched with astonishment as a third ship also controlled by humans had just jumped in near the planet. But it was not like the crude Kristang troop carriers. The forward hull had the base configuration of a Thuranin star carrier, but highly modified. Modified using components from Maxolhx warships, as was the entire aft engineering section.

Chang flinched as multiple gamma ray bursts appeared in front of the Dutchman. Admiral Denoth sends a message to surrender and prepare to be boarded. Chang lifts the cover of the self-destruct. He sends a message to the Maxolhx telling them to stand down and surrender their ships. Admiral Denoth calls Chang a fool to dare to threaten them. To which Chang responds, "I am the Dread Pirate Roberts. There will be no survivors."

Art created by R.p. Callahan [2]

The Dutchman is unable to move, the enemy ships are projecting a field that renders our normal-space engines inoperative. Chang wondered what Joe would do in this situation. He couldn't allow the Dutchman to be captured. Chang tells the crew that is has been an honor serving with them and tells Nagatha to prepare to initiate and spacetime warp that will collide the Dutchman with the Arvoxita. He begins the countdown... Three... Two... One... As Chang counted down the last second before the desperate war maneuver, Valkyrie appeared between the Dutchman and the enemy task force. Chang barks "Belay that!"

Joe contacts Chang and apologizes for being late because he was busy running a few errands. Joe contacts Admiral Denoth appears on the imager as the Maxolhx ship's missile doors open. Denoth tells Joe he will die. Joe snaps his fingers. Denoth turns away from the imager and and starts manipulating holographic controls for the weapons on all the Maxolhx ships in the task force, aiming them at Valkyrie. Just as he was ordering his ships to fire, he freezes. The docking bays on Valkyrie blew open as Elder weapons emerge.

FLASHBACK

Joe recalls the events in the intervening time between when Valkyrie was descending into Mira's core and when Valkyrie showed up at Earth.

Skippy’s avatar was just a dimly-glowing point of light. Valkyrie shook violently. The ship was approaching crush depth, with the armor plating of Valkyrie’s nose glowing white-hot. Suddenly, Skippy's avatar begins glowing blindingly bright. He refuses to abandon his friends and decides to open up a can of Whoop-Ass. Skippy’s avatar disappears and Valkyrie is slammed to one side. There was a hull breach on the port side where Skippy's escape pod was. Joe didn't have time to grieve as Valkyrie slammed to the side again and armor plating began tearing away from the ship. She was tumbling towards the core. Then shaking got really violent. Valkyrie was totally out of control.

Then it stopped. The ship was motionless, suspended in the atmosphere below crush depth. Bilby said the shields weren't working and if they should start the engines again and Joe tell him no. Bilby tells Joe that they were in some kind of low pressure bubble, a perfect seven kilometer sphere. The air in the sphere was the same composition as the atmosphere. The edge of the bubble were one hundred and sixty meters thick. Bilby detected a massive radiation spike just as Skippy disappeared. He had tried to ping him, but there was no response.

Just as Joe decides to try moving Valkyrie slightly using only thrusters, Skippy's avatar shimmered to life, or something like that. It was dim and hazy, and the oversized hat was dented and torn and stained. The squashed crown of the hat had what looked like bullet holes in it. An exhausted Skippy asks Joe not to try moving Valkyrie. Joe, believing that Skippy was gone, asks him what happened. He explains that he lost containment, in a minor, non-catastrophic way. His canister is in cargo bay twelve and is generating radiation and a lot of heat around four thousand degrees. He says that the radiation will disperse soon.

Skippy killed the entity protecting the planet by pouring uncontrolled energy into its matrix and fried it. Skippy has to take over control of the systems and stabilize stabilize the gravity-dispersal field, or retract it, or the disruption cause irreparable damage to the star system, and as a consequence, could render Avalon uninhabitable. Joe asks how long it will take because they have to get back to Earth begin the evac operation. Skippy mentions that they could do that, but didn't see the point. Joe asks what the Elders were hiding on Mira. Skippy tells him that it's a large arsenal of weapons.

Joe asks Skippy if he could deliver the weapons to Valkyrie and he says yes. Skippy lifts the bubble containing Valkyrie to where the ship's engines could take over. Simms asks Joe if they're heading to Earth.Joe tells her yes, but that they need to run some errands first.

While running the errands, Skippy tells Joe that all the jumping is straining the drives and Valkyrie will fly apart.


Art created by Jadan Dry [3]

Joe tells Denoth, "Sur-prise, shithead.". Aboard the Dutchman, Chang was in shock. He wondered out loud what the hell Joe was doing. Denoth safed all weapons in the task force. Through his cranial implants, ordered the task force to disperse at maximum acceleration, get to jump distance and rendezvous at predetermined coordinates. Denoth calls Joe's bluff, telling him that he didn't know how primitive humans captured a Maxolhx warship and got the Elder weapons because the weapons are dangerous, but that he will pay for his crimes and demanding him to surrender. Denoth also notes that Joe can't use those weapons because it would also mean the destruction of his species as well. He tells Joe that the only way he could use those weapons was to bargain for his life.

Joe explains that before they arrived at Earth, throughout Maxolhx and Rindhalu territory, they planted weapons that were armed, stealthed and set on timers, so that if Valkyrie didn't send a code on a regular basis, they would activate and the Maxolhx, the Rindhalu and Humans would all be wiped out by Sentinels. He instructed Skippy to send the data files to the Maxolhx to prove they weren't lying. Mutual. Assured. Destruction. It has kept the peace between Maxolhx and Rindhalu. Now it can keep the peace between the three of them.

Joe suggests that they need further talks on this subject to establish protocols for future interactions, to assure there are no unfortunate incidents that could lead to widespread destruction. Joe will contact them to set up a meeting. Joe also offer the information that their pixie network has been cracked and have hacked their relay stations so all message traffic can be read or left for them at anytime. Joe makes sure Denoth understands and then shoos them away.

Joe tells Skippy that he can't keep the weapons aboard Valkyrie because it wold make them the biggest target in the galaxy and if Skippy could hide them in either the Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud and keep the location to himself. Joe and Simms agree with Skippy that, just in case they're needed, they give him a password so he knows they're not being coerced. The password they use is Fluffernutter. Chang also receives the password.

Bert and Ernie are transferred to the Dutchman along with a couple of crew who wanted to stay because their wives were pregnant and they hadn't seen them since the beginning of the Armageddon mission. Adams, Smythe and a few of his STAR team transferred back to Valkyrie. Joe tells Chang to stay put and talk to UNEF while Valkyrie goes on one quick time-sensitive mission.

The Mavericks leave the surface of the planet Tohmaran after a failed Legion mission contracted by the Kristang Swift Arrow clan. The Mavericks are going to surrender to the Maxolhx and await their likely execution. When the Maxolhx ships arrived at the planet, they drove away the Ruhar Legion combat support ships and the civilian Jeraptha star carrier, the "Sure Thing".

While traveling to the Maxolhx cruisers in orbit, they witness the "Bosphuraq Ghost Ship" jump in between them and the Maxolhx cruisers and destroys the cruisers. Amazed at how quickly the battle was over, they await an unknown fate. That is until Joe Bishop appears on their monitors, to their complete surprise.

The Mavericks board Valkyrie in their Dodo dropship and disembark to full honors presented by Colonel Joseph Bishop and the Pirates. The Mavericks (minus Nert Dandurff and Surgun Krok-aus-tal Jates) meet Emby, who they find out is actually Skippy. When Nert meets Skippy, he makes fun of Skippy's hat, among other things. Joe makes Nert the official Ruhar liaison to the Pirates to irritate Skippy. Skippy makes Jates meet him in his escape pod, so the Verd-kris has to duck in order to enter the pod. Jates is furious when he finds out that beer can is an Elder AI. Jates tries to tear Skippy's lid off and take a big, steamy, lizard dump in his can.

Perkins meets privately with Joe and he tells her about all the difficulties she had caused the Pirates in their attempts to keep Earth safe and Perkins, absolutely shocked, apologizes. Joe surmises that if Perkins were successful in finding out what was going on at Earth and if the White Wind clan were still in control, UNEF on Earth would have instructed UNEF on Paradise to resist the Ruhar. Perkins admits that she would have disobeyed those orders, stayed with the Legion, would be considered a traitor and viewed the same way the Verd-kris are viewed by the Kristang.

Perkins asks Joe if he's heading to Earth. He explains that he has a few errands to run first. Then Perkins asks what was going to happen to the humans on Paradise. If they were going to brought home. Joe considered that, in order to get them back to Earth, they would have to charter transport ships and maybe Perkins could help with that.

Joe and Perkins discuss the weapons. Perkins mentions that the Rindhalu and Maxolhx will be worried that Humans will ally with the other side. If, for example, the Maxolhx are pushed too far, they may think resetting the clock is the best option and send a number of their people into hibernation and attack the Rindhalu using weapons, knowing that the Sentinels would intervene. Then they could come out of hiding in a hundred thousand years, becoming the rulers of the galaxy.

References

Navigation

Advertisement