Harrison Burman stepped carefully in his magnetic boots, his hastily-fitted combat armor creaking in his ears as he did. A laser rifle slung over his back slapped into him at every step. Ahead of him, a group of Marines began to vanish over the nearly perpendicular side of Rhylanor's outer hull, seeming to pitch forward over the edge of the world as they did so. A billion stars seemed to fill the sky, each one glaring down at him. Jasmine loomed dim and gloomy above the 'horizon' formed by the edge of the ship. Burman bounced forward a few more meters until he reached the edge. The ship dropped away just in front of his feet for forty or fifty meters. Beyond that was only the stars.
For the thousandth time he wondered how he had gotten into this.
Some one bounced up next to him. He turned his head, trying to see who it was-useless, of course; the helmet of his combat armor, with its swept-back look, characteristic of Imperial armor, had only a narrow eyeslit, polarized black and totally opaque. Computers inside the helmet did most of your seeing anyway, projecting composite infrared and other sensor images into a realistic holographic display.
"Are you going or what?" the other man said. "We'll lose our window soon."
Burman relaxed. It was Asherwal, the computer technician. "Yes," he said. "It's just a little disorienting-"
"For goodness sake, man. It's not like there's any gravity out here. Just get a move on."
Asherwal slipped one foot down the clifflike edge until he had it planted, then pitched forward until he was parallel to the side of the ship. He began to walk towards the Marines, who had stopped moving about halfway down. Shrugging-which nearly knocked him off of the hull-Burman scrambled to follow him.
He reached them a few minutes later, puffing with exertion. He might be weightless here, but it was hard work keeping his feet planted just right so that the magnetic boots kept them connected to the hull. It would have been easier to use his suit's EVA thruster (a miniature version of the engines that moved Rhylanor in space) but they had been told to conserve power.
Sergeant Loki was supervising the other seven Marines. They had set up a device on a tripod that looked like a large, heavy rifle. An elaborate telescopic sight was mounted on top of it. The Aslan nodded at Burman as he approached. "All set," he said.
Burman bounced over to the rifle. He took out his hand computer and attached its leads to the rifle and sockets on his suit. He punched in some numbers on the handcomp's keypad, and the rifle began to move on the tripod, pointing into the empty space around Jasmine.
"Do you have a solution yet?" asked Asherwal.
"Patience, Abel. Those observations I took are an hour old. It might have moved."
Burman lowered his helmet to the rifle's telescopic sight and tried to see if it had found the scout cruiser yet. It was nearly impossible to see through the helmet's small eye slit. He looked up and noticed the Marines staring at each other, almost as if they were amused-right. He pressed a few keys on his handcomp, and it flashed up the scope's video feed on his helmet's tactical display.
Burman sighed. Why did he have to be the only one on the ship familiar with the GORGIAS program? Others on the ship could use the heavy portable laser communicators-for that is what the large rifle was; others were certainly capable of finding the captured Scout ship that bore, hopefully, hidden in its memory banks the precious GORGIAS system. But only Burman knew enough about it to reactivate it, and download it into Rhylanor's computer.
His helmet communicator beeped twice. The scope's display showed the scout cruiser neatly centered in its crosshairs. Burman ran the magnification up until he could make out the ship's antennas. There, that's the main one-better avoid it. What else...sensor array? No.
Traffic control. Perfect.
He bent over the rifle and pulled the trigger. A nearly imperceptible beam of ruby light stabbed out into space, flickering faintly as dust drifted through it. A computer menu appeared on his helmet display.
Burman entered some codes into his handcomp.
"What will we be looking for?" asked Asherwal.
Damn, he must have cut himself in. "I'm not sure-let me see if I can get past the transponder signals. Give me a minute." It was much slower going without his usual virtual keyboard and holographic displays. He managed to get into the ship's diagnostic systems.
Zhodani script began to fill his vision.
"Let's see if we're lucky, and they've only changed the names without altering the interface." He waited as his handcomp slowly translated the Zhodani words. The machine was being pushed to its limits, he knew. "Um. That's what they did. Let's try this-" He began to try to access the computer's file structure. The Zhodani security programs locked him out.
"Try this," said Asherwal. The display cleared, and he was suddenly inside the main system. Memory areas floated like glowing magenta clouds in his helmet display. "Thanks," said Burman. "What did you do?"
"Used some old Imperial security codes I had."
"I see. Abel, what did you do before the war?"
"Five to seven in an Imperial prison. Theft of information."
"Oh." That was the euphemism for computer piracy. No wonder he had been able to access Burman's computer link. "Hey, this is unusual."
"The food service menu...it's bigger than it should be."
"Maybe the Zho's like more kinds of food."
"Maybe..." Burman cautiously entered the food service system. This next part was tricky. Even if he avoided the Zhodani security, he might still run into traps laid by the rogue programmers who had designed GORGIAS. He punched in some codes onto his handcomp, took a breath, and said "Shazam!"
"What's that for?" Asherwal began to say. Burman hushed him down. A
woman's voice was coming over the communication beam from the Scout ship.
"Is that you, boss?" it said. The voice was a thrillingly feminine contralto, with just a little touch of accent to it. Burman shivered despite himself. "Hello, Gorgeous," he said.
"Hello, Boss! Wow, it's been a long time since anyone said hi to me."
"I know, little girl. But we've got some important business to take care of."
"I'm all ears!"
"All right, I'm sending you some data." He typed in the key combinations he had set up before exiting the ship, and files about their situation sped themselves through the laser beam into GORGIAS's memory. "What do you think?"
"It's pretty grim."
"Do you think you can join us over here?"
"Give me a second, boss." The link fell silent for a moment. "No can do," GORGIAS finally said. "I don't have the bandwidth over this antenna. We'll need the main transmitter."
"Do you think you can access it, without the Zhodani knowing that you are?"
"No. I mean, yes; I've already infiltrated the communications systems. But they'll definitely be able to tell there's a message going out."
Sergeant Loki broke in: "Computer, can you access the ship's life support?"
"Sure, sugar. Already have. I'm even in their personnel files. You want to hear me talk like their captain?"
"Not right now, sweetheart," Burman said. "Sergeant, in a couple of minutes she should be able to talk to the rest of the fleet without them knowing it's not a real person."
"I resent that!"
"Can it really do that?" asked the Aslan.
"Yes, as long as only one person does the talking, and the messages are short. We used to set up GORGIAS to handle communications when we had to be elsewhere for a moment."
"Can the program turn off life support?"
"Sure!" said GORGIAS. "The safeties aren't that tough, so long as I don't shut everything completely down. I can take oxygen pressure down to less than five percent. That ought to knock them out pretty fast."
"Good," said Loki. "Run that program in fifteen minutes."
"You got it, mon capitain."
"Meanwhile, baby, try to absorb whatever you can from their systems. I'll speak to you soon," said Burman.
"Already running. This is fun. I've just learned how to run the jump drive."
As soon as the link went dead, Asherwal burst out laughing. He doubled over, barely able to keep his hold on the side of the ship, his braying laugh flooding Burman's helmet. Angrily, he thumbed down the volume. "What's so damn funny, Abel?"
"You-and the computer-her-it wasn't until she spoke-that I remembered-"
"Remembered what, damnit!"
"Well, you said it started out as an entertainment program-"
Burman felt his face flush. He was glad nobody could see his ears-they would be redder than Rhylanor's sun.
"Enough talking," growled Loki. "We have to get ready to go."
"Go? Go where, Sergeant?" said Asherwal.
"I should think it would be obvious. To the ship. We're going to the Scout cruiser."
For the thousand and first time, Burman wondered how he had gotten into this.