by Gary ShabooÓ 2000
"I tell ya, that ain't in the rules!" shrieked Spring-Marten.
"Rules," Harrison spat. "There ain't been any rules for the last hundred trillion klicks, craterbrain. Now strap in, shut up, and sync that rayser before you ionize one of our own."
Spinning and shuddering, the cannibalized Shuttle arced behind the madly firing Redcraft, giving Harrison a few hundred clear rayser shots of his own at that "red-ruskie bastard."
But the newer and sleeker Russian ship refused to damn well cooperate.
Flying beyond the feeble range of the Shuttle's weaponry, the Redcraft swooped cleanly to port, firing potshots of deadly light at the already seriously-scarred and glowing skin of the lumbering American ship.
"That ain't in the goddamn rules!" screamed an enraged and terrified Spring-Marten who, in one motion, re-ignited his rayser and whacked a cursing Harrison in the mouth: "Stay away! I'm gonna kill 'em!"
Harrison eyed the raving Spring-Marten calmly for a fraction of a minton and then incapacitated him with a 300-decibel nanton soundblast.
There still remained one small problem.
Still happily poking needle-holes through the fragile shields of the Shuttle, the Redcraft was proving to be a serious --
" -- pain in my astrolabe."
Harrison again swung his craft outside the wide range of the Redcraft and eyed the aging monitoring systems that had finally picked up on his lagging partners.
Behind the two battling warrior-ships, their respective supply crafts winked into view. Harrison hoped to avoid an unpleasant incident, especially if he were the only one caught firing, and he eased his hand off the rayser's leathered pumphandle.
The Arbitrator also registered a few mega-klicks ahead, giving Harrison reason to exhale a sigh of relief -- in essence, the rules may be only a memory but not with the Arbitrator still in sight.
"Anything wrong, Shuttle-Pilot Harrison."
A metallic voice slicked smooth with electronic silk by Fed engineers still sounded like exactly what it was -- a machine trying to sound like a human -- and it now rang throughout the Shuttle's booming intercoms:
A concerto: metal voice against the hisses and hums of a ship in space.
"Good Arbiter! All is quite well -- " everything's just peachy you overteched " -- just a little interstellar traffic, you know: comets, aliens, pison storms and the like."
"Unamusing, Pilot. My instruments detect unusual energy fluctuations within the Fus-1, Fus-2, Fus-10 circuitry of both your ship and the Redcraft. Comment."
Son-of-a-glitch no! Energy fluc-? You're joking! You electronic droidal troll.
"Ye-es, very odd, Arbiter. It is no doubt the engines." Yes, the engines that have been ungodly perfect for a trillion, trillion klicks.
Resignation? A sigh? In a robot?
"It seems another inspection may be necessary.
"Per instance: Rayser Weaponry produces strikingly similar energy fluctuations in circuitry to those recorded by my crew."
-- your crew! Those brainless droids with one pseudopod in the grave, and the other one --
"You do remember ordnance is somewhat illegal, Pilot." The Arbiter never issued questions, only statements.
"Aw, c'mon, Arbie. We've been pretty good. Your last inspection produced only C-Green Habitat Raysers." Ah, once again the Russian's trigger words and once again --
"Another inspection may indeed be useless." Yeah, figured you'd say that.
"But satisfactory analyses and reports on the fluctuations will be required in Dec-oh-Dec decatons. Signing off -- " with the pre-programmed " -- and good luck!"
Good luck, my ash residue, you oilpill-popping son-of-a-circuit.
"Hey, Spring, wake up for Creusa's sake." Harrison kicked the prone Spring-Marten to get his juices juicing. There was a star-crushing amount of work coming up in the next -- the last -- few million klicks.
"Hey, Redcraft, let's talk."
Both ships streaked toward the Door at an easy LEV per decaton.
"Those bastards ain't gonna talk. You kidding, Uke?"
Uke. Or, more specifically, UConn -- the University of Connecticut -- the greatest space-training facility in the entire Northeast.
Well, at least I thought so, groused Harrison, and Spring-Marten enjoyed jabbing at this tender part of his fragile ego.
Of course, you can't jab too hard on a five-year mission, or your heretofore smiling partner may give you a free escort through the hatch into zero-G. And still be smiling.
"What is it, Pilot Harrison."
What is it? Oh, nothing. I just thought I'd play dead-nova and make it easier for you to vaporize the Shuttle, you robotic, iridium-coated --
"Why hello, Bobo, my dear fob. How are you and your fellow atheistic atomheads doing? Wish you the best, good man.
"However, if you insist on trying to disintegrate my ship, I will be forced to fire a few metric tons of Polish vodka up your thruster. There's a good man, wot?"
Vacuumed silence, and then --
"Ha-ha! You make me laugh, Pilot. Of course military raysers are illegal and your insane accusations are unnecessary, and unfortunately displeasing. Been nipping at the Hi-Ball Plasmas, good Pilot?"
-- wha-?, why I'll nip you, you --
"However, if there were some rogue cleaning rays drifting your way --"
"-- I apologize. See you at the Door, good Pilot."
"Let's drift a rayser right up his freon freeway," grunted Spring-Marten.
"I would, Spring, but the guy's an automaton. First he rigged the Arbiter, remember? Now Arbie's on virtual cruise-control leaving that rabid Russian free to do almost what he pleases."
"Yeah, but the Shuttle won't let him, ain't that right, Uke?"
Yeah, that's right. Or, you better hope that's right because if the Ruskie makes it to the Door first --
The Soviets' last gasp as a superpower and the Shuttle as a last-minute opponent from the Americas now neared Armageddon. The possiblities for space travel and exploration forever tabled as a world's greed coalesced into a final, thinly-veiled competition, a game -- but actually a duel to the death in the dearth that was space.
"Spring, let's fire this mother up and put some serious distance between us and that Yesenin yip-yap."
"You got it."
The Shuttle flashed past the Redcraft, "drifting" a few cleaning rays of its own just for good measure. "Later, Bobolink," Harrison whispered and allowed his soul a respite amidst the stars...
Twirling past meteors dulled dark by the absolute icy death that was space, beyond orbitless orphaned rocks that randomly pocked the spacefarers' way to the Door some short LEVs away --
Or "a few pissy megaklicks" as Spring-Marten might spit.
He graduated from a good ole civilian flight center in the Deep South, constantly clutching a bottle of Kentucky Jet Fuel that stoked the byte-sized embers deep inside a brain noted for its decidedly proprietary architecture. His genius finely balanced the Liquor and the Ideas, but it ultimately betrayed Spring-Marten by ensuring his straight-A's greased the wheels for a course ending in a death sentence to outer space --
A course advertised as the salvation of planet Earth, but, in reality, only for one of two clashing ideologies that had yet to burn themselves out on a dying planet; a course that now led to a final battleground fated to end a hundred years of lurid speculation about the end of the world; an arena to hold mankind's final civil war: at the Door, where unimaginable opportunity existed as recounted to a breathless earth population by two long-dead pioneers --
"Two raving maniacs is more like it," grunted Harrison.
Earth. Like she really cared that we were doing this for her, he grumbled. Swollen with scrabbling beggars, random death, deliberate hatred -- one big pile of evolutionary refuse --
"Ain't that right, Spring, you son-of-a-black-hole!" And Harrison punched a sleeping Spring-Marten, thus expediting his awakening process.
"Be-jeesus, Uke! What's with you? And it better be good, or I'll -- "
"You'll what? Wake up, you silver-plated platinum-headed positronic -- Ooh!" That hurt.
Spring is quick as a quasar when he wants to be. And that's pretty quick.
The Shuttle blew past even the Arbiter as Harrison opened the throttle to eight-percent max. He maniacally tested his grizzled defenses against the Arbiter's silicon-perfect X-raysers, which automatically tried to keep the "player" within programmed boundaries. The Arbiter was good -- inhumanly good -- but the Shuttle had the best pilot in the galaxy.
"And you got that right," Harrison breathed, and surprisingly sucked in the last of the oxygen.
Spring-Marten had ruptured the line with his hand-rayser and now pointed it at the stricken Harrison, all the while breathing in the rich oxygen-nitrogen mixture of his spacesuit's tanks.
"Sorry, Uke," Spring barely echoed across the rapidly thinning atmosphere.
"The Ruskie's got a better chance, and I ain't dying -- ain't dying yet, anyway."
He leveled the red-hot nozzle at Harrison's spasming body.
Then he was also on the ground with a thousand-decibel nanton ringing through his nervous system.
Fuck you, Spring-buddy.
Harrison scrambled toward his own airtanks and greedily gasped the fumes into his starving lungs.
"Can't trust a damned astronomer. They like life too damn much."
Harrison holstered his soundblaster, tied Spring-Marten into his control seat, and set up another effectively booby-trapped soundblaster in case Spring-Marten had any really hilarious ideas about giving Harrison extra holes in his body that he didn't already have, desire, or need.
Meanwhile, the Arbiter was still happily firing X-raysers at the wildly streaking Shuttle, and Harrison quickly looped the ship a hundred thousand klicks behind it and sidled up to the Redcraft, which had also begun to take part in the Shuttle target practice.
Harrison programmed the Shuttle for repair of the atmospheric pipe that Spring-Marten had severed for at least the fifth time, and sat down in front of the communications console.
Spring-Marten had never really accepted going without a drink for ten years, and, after only five, cracks had begun to appear in Spring's not-so-constituted constitution.
After two or three of Spring-Marten's crazy little life-threatening escapades, Harrison had the urge to "O-ring" the whole mission: open the fusion drives all the way and just explode in a flash of nova-hot plasma.
By the tenth episode, Spring-Marten had become the only entertainment.
"Hey, Bobo, mon ami. How goes the war?"
"What is it, pilot Harrison."
"What say you stop 'drifting' rays my way and talk for a dec."
"Hmmm. Of course, pilot."
And for the uncountable-th time, Harrison tried to stop this interstellar stupidity that persevered within national -- inexplicably earthly -- boundaries.
"Listen. The Door is three easy LEVs away, you've got the faster ship, I'm the best pilot. Let's team up in this final display of mankind's technological waste in the name of national, spatial, and temporal goodwill. What say, buddy?"
But Bobo wasn't playing fair or for fun anymore, and the good ole Russian sounded downright evil in his answer:
"Prepare to die, pilot."
With the sudden jerk of the Shuttle, Harrison felt the maternal tug of the Arbiter's prison beam, jokingly called "Arbie's Bar-and-Grill." Ha-ha-ha! Get it? Don't that just kill you?
"Yeah. It kills me," muttered Harrison. The Bar-and-Grill inexorably drew the Shuttle through space toward the Arbiter at an incredibly, and quite irreversibly, slow pace.
"The damned Russian's an electronics-freaking whiz -- Wake up, planet-puss!"
Harrison threw a good-sized insulated tube of solid oxygen at Spring-Marten and the bedazzled bundle of sharp angles and jutting elbows and chins unkinked into a threatening leap -- and saw the rigged soundblaster.
"Hey, Uke, buddy! What's happening!"
"Can it, chum. You is incarcerated. Now strap in and point your oversized pion-shooter at Arbie. We aims to knock his godless electronic socks off."
Spring-Marten opened his mouth to either inject, reject, project, or some-ject, but Harrison mouthed some interesting form of bodily disintegration if Spring even looked displeased, and they were the best of buddies again.
And then that silky infertile voice: "Pilot Harrison. There are no targets in your area. Please explain your operation and the coordinates of the Large Mass Incinerator, Pilot. "
When does the hunter sense it it is the hunted --
Destroying the Arbiter would ensure that this "game" would now become an overt battle, a duel to the death where the better team -- the surviving team -- reached the Door, too mentally scarred to remember the treaties and pacts made by nations trillions and trillions of civilizations away.
"Arbie! Salut. Sorry, bud, but you're the last DMZ. Like, it's been real, but, like, later."
"You cannot destroy me, Pilot Harrison."
But the Arbiter was right for it had zipped -- it had actually blinked as Harrison later realized -- out of sight to join its new compatriot, the Redcraft.
Together, the Redcraft and the Arbiter would be nearly impossible to defeat.
"Mother humper." Once again the wit and wisdom of Spring-Marten continued to pithily describe any idea, thought, thesis, religion, or situation that the universe might meekly offer.
"Mother humper, Uke. Know what I'm saying? It's over. No freon way are we going to do space-spooie now."
Meanwhile, Harrison continued insanely firing rayser bursts into decidely empty space. One would have acknowledged his insanity if one could have seen him, but Spring-Marten was not this "one." He was crazier than Harrison.
Futile five-year space missions have that effect.
"Let's throw on some heavy rock, Spring."
"You got it, Uke."
The metal notes rasped at Harrison's ears and gradually he could think rationally again -- no, make that only more rationally. Your thinking had to take you to the extremes, allow you to dance on the periphery of madness, glance over the side, glean ideas on how to stay alive in this less than rational race in space if you were to have any hope for survival...
The Arbiter was only an image, Harrison surmised. He had actually been at the side of the Russian for some time, while a projection good enough to fool the less than futuristic sensors of the Shuttle led me and Spring by the nose.
Pretty good, Bobo.
"Bring out the nuclear guitar."
"Thought you'd never ask."
Spring-Marten dragged out the nuclear guitar, the electric's acoustic and economic replacement. The "Nuke" only played at one level -- irreversibly injurious to human ears -- and both crewmen put on their sound-deadeners accordingly. The beauty of the Nuke was its deadly resonance that carried even through the deadeners, and Spring-Marten brought out the best of the instrument.
It may be true that Nuke-musicians have a higher cancer rate than even fusion plant operators, but it's a small price to pay for fine music...
T W A A N N G !!
Harrison and Spring-Marten represented the finest of the Americas current crop of spacemen -- which didn't say much for its space program. But, of course, anybody in this last ditch drive carrying the torch for humanity didn't really amount to much -- no millionaires sacrificing their lives in this "glorious achievement" -- and both men had personally shot off their mouths one too many times for any bones to be thrown seriously in their direction.
So, instead of Climbing The Ladder in quick, blurred, and unfeeling steps, they languished on every rung, spilling their guts about whatever happened to have wrong them or the space program they loved too much. As a result, these two -- and the hundreds of equally yet fatally brilliant crew members trailing behind them in the supply ships -- were all inexplicably sentenced to die by flying one-way into the middle of nowhere sane...
T W A A N N G !!
Spring-Marten picked and pulled the eight hair-thin cooling rods that controlled the reaction inside the Nuke producing the loudest and truest music mankind had yet experienced. Of course, the musician had to be uncannily perfect to make such beautiful music for a rod too long pulled or a sharp too long reverbed, and the reaction inside the guitar would spin out of control and result in a devestating nuclear explosion...
T W A A N N G !!
"Play that metal mean!" spluttered Harrison under the influence of his Hi-Ball Plasma, which had gone straight to his old, hippie-ass heart. Now, however, his metalhead had decided to take center stage within the decidely interesting confines of Harrison's decidely interesting thinking processes, and look out when that that iron-brained bastard got revved...
T W A A N G !!
"Let's bust outta here."
"You got it, Uke."
The nuclear guitar did little to physically extricate the Shuttle from the Arbitrator's prison beam, but it did set ablaze the simmering coals of the best NASA Shuttle pilot America ever had -- and threw away.
"Full Mags. Full beams. Full fusion."
This ain't no disco anymore, thought Spring-Marten. Ole Uke's going for all the marbles -- or he's losing them and, if that's the case, then we're as dead as a thrustless space cruiser in a black hole's x-ray influx.
And that's pretty dead.
T H R R U U S S S T . . ! Zip right by them mothers..!
"Direct up! Direct up!"
"We're gonna hit, hit, hit..!"
. . . P A A A S S S T ! YEE-HaaH!
"Move, baby, Move!" Gotta go! Move it!"
Made it, general, and look at this streaking sombitch move! thought Harrison. With the Redcraft's power mainly concentrated on towing the Arbiter, it was left a few milli-LEVs behind -- but not for long. Once those two power sources got there respective rubberbands cranked up, then the space-spooie would fly, as Mom used to say.
"Ease it back, Spring, and gimme a light."
Spring-Marten flicked the globe above Harrison's maps and began to shave.
"Wish we had some razors," idled Spring-Marten for the forty --
" -- billionth friggin time. Keep dreaming."
Spring burned off the scrubby hairs on his mangled chin with drops of his gurgling Hi-Ball Plasma. Harrison sat down to gulp his own drink, either to quiet the beat-beat of his heart or murder whatever might actually be alive and sane deep down inside his meteorite-pitted soul.
"Okay. We're fifteen milli-LEVS from the Door, and I see no problems ahead. Even if Bobolink finally gets his happy Russian rubles running, we can still make it."
Except for those damn sentients of Vesuggs-Proper.
"Except for those damn sentient bastards of Vesuggs-Proper, Uke. Check it out."
Purple pulsating matter coated the entire Shuttle for the forty --
" -- billionth friggin time. And this time we can't afford to quark around the outside of the Shuttle and rayser them off. Speed?"
"Dropping like a drunk droid." Once more, Vesuggs-Proper's finest organic representation of "intelligence" made yet another guest appearance, and another likely futile attempt to gain vengeance for dire deeds done to their detriment, lo, many, many decades ago.
"Bastards. I thought we frapped their protoplasmic pusses back on that meson pile of an asteroid some decales back?"
"You were shooting at shadows, remember? They up and wafted for the forty -- "
" -- billionth friggin time. Well this time we get tough as terbium."
Harrison redirected hot exhaust gasses out of the nose of the Shuttle, and lathered the sentients in temperatures in excess of a few --
" -- thousand friggin degrees. That should do it." The sticky slime burned quickly and --
Z A A H H H H H Z Z Z Z !!
It was the sound of a billion cells screaming in orgasmic agony searing warning go back warning smoking death white eternal --
"Oh, my God, it's -- " turning white brown black purple thicker and thicker no air --
"To the suits, the suits!"
Both men scrambled to their spacesuits as the atmosphere hissed wickedly out of the microscopically cracking walls of the Shuttle as the dying sentients adhered rigidly to the outside of ship. Loose material skittered uncertainly about the hull, occassionally bouncing off the heads of the two dazed spacemen.
"Uke, what's happening?" wheezed Spring-Marten.
The billions of Vesuggs-Proper corpses solidified on the outside of the Shuttle forming a permanently welded fixture, first burned to death by the noxious fission gasses and then frozen deathly cold by the absolute-zero frigidity of space.
The Door appeared ahead.
* * *
"Well, Bobo. Any word, yet?"
"None, Arbiter. Now leave me alone." Boborska bridled at the machine's familiarity.
"We have a deal, Pilot Boborska. You will abide."
Boborska glared impassively -- a mien perfected by the russian -- at the intercom, and then slowly smiled.
"I own you, you imbecilic machine. Deals with robots are void the moment they are made. Your power supply is mine. Your own defects -- such as your interesting yet idiotic robot ambition -- are your own problems."
"Don't cross a robot."
Before Boborska could wrench away from the binding force that held him and the Arbiter together, the Arbiter shut down all of its own power, previously manipulated by the Redcraft. Now, the two crafts revolved silently in deep space, joined together like two insects grasping each other's throats while mating in the dark.
"No power-? The Arbiter," sweated Boborska.
He had tied his own power supply in with the Arbiter's systems earlier, and now there was no way for either of the two ships to fusion independently.
"Perhaps I misjudged you, good Arbiter," Boborska diplomatically proposed.
The static hum sounding through the intercom could only be described as a robot purring.
"That's better, Pilot Boborska. But please accept my own monitor robot crew aboard your ship so that we can communicate more effectively and become much more effective partners."
Boborska wasn't statically humming.
"Impossi-!" he began, but the overwhelming realization that no alternatives yet existed forced Boborska to concede.
"Er, of course, Arbiter." Inwardly, he seethed but had to allow the Arbiter's "requests." After all, they both now saw the glorious boundaries of the Door, and Bobo could already feel its presence working on him.
I'll deal with the machine soon enough, thought Boborska, methodically grinding his teeth. Very soon.
Yet, in the unkempt niches of his ordered mind, Boborska reflected nervously on pacts with devils and similarily soulless robots whose silicon motives were somehow "forgotten" and who seemed to strive quite humanly for one thing when pushed to limits not foreseen by earthbound programmers -- survival.
* * *
"There's our boy."
The Door loomed ahead, disgusing its secrets in a plume of nebulous gas streaked red and purple, colored as though a king had dripped blood onto his royal robe.
"No hero-time, no paranoia, no fripping with the sound raysers, OK, chiggerhead?"
"Sure, Uke, you can trust me."
Sure, Uke, you'll get it when you land me safe. God, I hate it when he smiles, thought Harrison.
As the Shuttle slipped into the swirling gasses, stars flickered unsettlingly to stern and -- even more unsettlingly -- disappeared. Harrison thought it best not to alarm the insane Spring-Marten --
"Oh, my God!"
-- well, so much for that. "Spring, relax. Gravitational lens, all right? Now get a hold of yourself."
"Who's the Celestial Mechanical Engineer here, Uke, huh? Not you. That ain't no light refraction; those stars are GONE!"
The Shuttle drifted at the mouth of the Door's immense opening. Based on the blatherings of the Two Pioneers, it measured about a moon across, like in THE Moon. In front, bloodied purple; behind, random bursts of light and a slow progression of the increasingly active starry sky.
Insanity is the acceptance of the breakdown of natural laws, thought Harrison. Well, might as well accept it and get on with it.
"We're going in."
Harrison gripped the handle of the blaster and fixed a steady eye on the increasingly restive Spring-Marten. The maniac had begun reading a textbook.
Crazed, but brilliant. He might actually figure all of this out, God help him.
The Shuttle crossed the boundary, and Harrison swore he saw it exiting as it entered.
Boborska gaped at the vid-screen as the Shuttle disappeared into the angry red swirl of clashing colors and twinkling energy flashes. Visually, the disappearance meant nothing. What caused the Russian to gape was the vanishing of the Shuttle from the instruments. Nothing there.
"Impossi-!" he began, but that was one word that the Russian rarely ever uttered. The commissars did not keep alive those that uttered it habitually.
"Pilot. What have you done with the instruments. There can be no other explanation for the Shuttle's disappearance."
Idiot. Spitting out predictable phrases like the programmed scrap metal that it is -- Impossible Situation? Then utter one of my many phrases! Idiot!
But Bobo kept quiet. The machine's metal minions now roamed his ship, and Bobo merely acted the living data terminal into which the machine tapped when need be -- or switched off when it became hazardous to the functioning of the rest of the instruments.
"Arbiter, the situation is as is. I have done nothing. Now, power us closer so that we may investigate."
"Pilot. I assure you that the observed events are impossible, or, at least, unrecorded by mankind and unknown by me. Since we have no guidance, we must turn back and evaluate the readings more closely."
"Arbiter, the longer we wait, the quicker the Americans gain the treasures of the Door! As Game Arbitrator, you must allow me to compete!"
"You have already lost, Pilot. They have beaten you. You grow tedious in your plaintive grousing. My orders are to incinerate your ship upon completion of the -- "
And that was all. Bobo shouted the destruct signal which he himself had hardcoded into the machine's circuits some time ago. It was time for the destruction of the American ship, and time for the plundering of the Door.
A crackle of uneven static and the intercom buzzed --
"pilot you are doomed the Americas have already won I know the future"
Boborska sidled to the intercom.
"You strain yourself, Arbiter. The end is near." But Bobo bit his mustache uncertainly as he now poked into a few more unkempt niches.
"two pioneers the two pioneers have already won the Americas they all"
The insipid machine was spitting out random phrases. Or was it?
"You make no sense," but the machine continued to dredge up phrases from the lowest layers of its programming, layers kept hidden from even an expert like Bobo: phrases echoed as last chance, silicon-coded, inevitable commands executed while the last of the machine's survival code ran its last program to the last binary digit --
"Harrison and Spring-Marten are the Two Pioneers."