Dawn of Chrysalis

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Chapter 13 - Encounter

Captain Hannah Wren was self-absorbed as she exited the lift into the Command Center of the Asiddian battleship Winged Death.

Unlike the rest of her crew, Hannah was bored. Her ship had been on station almost 24 months in the Cuddlur System and had only encountered one unarmed Chrysallaman freighter. The ease with which Winged Death exterminated the freighter was particularly unsatisfying. Here she was, Captain of one of the most powerful spaceships in the galaxy, and she couldn’t find anything to destroy. The situation was maddening! To make matters worse, her ship was being rotated back to Home Base tomorrow. Her next opportunity for combat wouldn’t come for at least another fifteen years after her ship was refurbished at the Chrysalis base.

Hannah was considered beautiful by Asiddian standards. She was a slender 6 feet 10 inches tall with dark-black hair and light blue skin. Her beak shaped slender nose was seven inches long. As with all Asiddians, the bones of her face angled and sloped toward her nose as if her Creator had softened the middle of her face and pulled on the end of her nose to stretch it as far as possible away from her eyes. The result was a bird-like facial appearance. Her eyes were at least two inches in diameter and looked like luminous, brownish-yellow tiger eye beads. Her fingers were tipped by black claws half an inch long, and she kept them needle sharp and tipped with a yellow dye in keeping with current fashion trends.

The hair follicles on an Asiddian’s head could be controlled by scalp muscles. As a result, Asiddians could either flatten their hair around their head like a swimmer’s cap or stand their hair on end so their heads appeared twice as big. In hand-to-hand combat, an Asiddian would screech and fan its hair into a giant fright wig. The non-Asiddian opponent would be so startled by the frightful sight, he’d freeze in shock long enough to be killed by the crafty Asiddian. Hannah had used the technique many times in her career.

As required by strict Asiddian military standards, she wore white combat body armor that doubled as a spacesuit. In the event she was exposed to the vacuum of space, the suit automatically enveloped her head with a clear bubble of nanoglass. Protected by the armor, its wearer could survive outside a spaceship for up to 24 hours. Even though no Asiddian ship had ever been damaged to the point the body armor was necessary, the Regs still demanded the suit be worn by all command personnel.

Leaping over the back of her Captain’s chair into her seat, Wren motioned for her Second-in-Command, Lieutenant Amanda Cardinal, to join her for a conference. Cardinal was shorter than Wren, but her nose was at least 2 inches longer. Her dark brown hair was gathered in a tight bun at the back of her long neck and held in place by a jeweled hairnet. Typing several commands into her keyboard, Cardinal transferred her navigation duties to her understudy and gracefully walked over to join Wren.

“Anything new to report?” Wren asked.

“Nothing remarkable. There have been no other spacecraft within sensor range since we destroyed the Chrysallaman freighter three months ago. All gunnery personnel are undergoing computerized weapons drills in order to remain sharp. We received a coded transmission from the Rock Smasher indicating it expects to arrive and relieve us tomorrow as scheduled.”

Looking around the Command Center, Cardinal said, “I can tell the crew is disappointed. Twenty-four months on station in this blasted Cuddlur system and only one freighter to our credit. I wish we hadn’t destroyed so many Chrysallamans in the first weeks of the campaign. Guard duty is tedious when there’s nothing to do.”

“Know what you mean,” Wren replied just as an electronic warning began wailing.

Wren’s clawed fingers tightened on the arms of her chair as she spun toward the view screen in the forward bulkhead.

“Report!”

Communications specialist Corporal Alice Hawk responded, “Sensors just detected the arrival of a spacecraft on the far side of the planet. We need to clear the planetary rim before I can identify the craft, but computer analysis indicates it’s a Chrysallaman scout saucer.”

“The Winged Goddess be praised!” Wren breathed as she nodded to Cardinal to return to her seat.

“Battle stations! Navigator, get us clear of this planet. I want to enjoy this kill.”

Winged Death was a 1,000 foot long, 300 foot thick dark-brown cylinder covered with one hundred long spines each tipped with a disintegrator beam emitter glowing an eerie light-blue. The center of each spine appeared to have a reddish vein connecting the glowing emitter on its tip into the body of the ship. The design made each spine look like a venomous fang.

The disintegrator spines were connected serially in groups of ten. If more power was required to destroy an enemy ship, weaponry computers would merge the beams from as many spines as necessary to effect destruction. The full effect of the accumulated power of ten merged disintegrator beams had never been needed because no Asiddian ship had ever encountered an opponent with defensive armament capable of withstanding the combined power of two merged disintegrator beams, much less ten.

The shell of the cylinder and the spine structures were made of Absorbisteel. The unique sub-atomic matrix of Absorbisteel allowed it to assimilate the power of any known energy or explosive impact weaponry directed against it and use the force to enhance its strength. Any attempt by an enemy to destroy the Absorbisteel only made it stronger. The ship was powered by Proton Wave Accelerator Engines enabling the ship to travel at lightspeed. To say the Asiddians were confident of victory in any ship-to-ship battle was an understatement.

Just as the Winged Death cleared the rim of the planet, Corporal Hawk said, “Sensors confirm it’s a Chrysallaman scout ship.”

The view screen displayed an image of the scout saucer with side bars indicating location coordinates, size, mass and armament.

First Science Officer Ramona Crow said, “I’m getting some strange readings, Captain.”

“Explain.”

“My instruments don’t detect any fusion reactor in operation on the saucer. The mass of the saucer is atypical. It’s as if the fusion reactor is missing.”

“There must be something wrong with your analysis. The ship obviously has the power necessary to arrive in this system. Keep working on the data. Navigator, plot an intercept course and take us in slowly. Let’s see if we can get them to try and run.”

“Captain,” Lieutenant Cardinal said. “The ship just locked a targeting system on us.”

“Excellent,” Wren replied. “Navigator, engage intercept course. Approach them at one-tenth lightspeed so they have time to savor their last living moments.”

As Winged Death climbed toward the Chrysallaman saucer, Wren was pleased the commander didn’t try to escape his fate. She would let the silly lizard flail at her ship with the useless cutter and heat rays for a few minutes. Then she would slice his ship apart and have a technician tattoo another victory oval onto her forearm. Looking down at her right arm, Wren admired her 40 ovals representing the 40 enemy ships she had destroyed as Captain of the Winged Death. She smiled as she imagined running out of room on her right arm and having to shift future kill tatts to her left arm.

As they closed to within 25,000 miles of the saucer, Science Officer Crow said, “Captain, I have confirmed my instrument readings. The ship is not powered by a fusion reactor. I can’t locate any power source within the ship. Do you think it might be a decoy meant to draw us in for an ambush?”

“Interesting idea,” Wren thought as she considered Crow’s words.

Deciding she’d wasted enough time playing with the Chrysallaman ship, she ordered, “Weapons Master. Destroy the saucer.”

On her command, a bright red disintegrator beam snapped at the saucer. Wren’s eyes bulged as the red beam deflected away from the little saucer with no apparent effect.

Leaning forward in her command chair, Wren’s eyes narrowed as the weapons computer activated a second disintegrator beam and merged it with the first one. The enhanced beam also deflected away from the saucer as if it had struck an invisible, impenetrable bubble. Silence filled the Command Center. Not even a scruff in a chair seat sounded as every eye focused on the view screen. A third disintegrator beam was unleashed by the weapons computer and merged its power with the other two beams. Again the beams glanced away, but the invisible shell protecting the Chrysallaman craft began to turn milky.

An evil smile began to perk up the corners of Wren’s mouth. She gave an order she’d never thought would be necessary.

“Weapons Master, activate four more disintegrator spines. Merge them with the first three.”

Just as the additional beams were activated, the Chrysallaman scout ship winked out of existence. One moment the ship was there, the next moment it was gone.

“Science Officer Crow! What happened?” Wren demanded.

“Unknown, Captain. The ship is no longer in sensor range. It just vanished.”

Settling back, Wren mulled what had just happened. A ship capable of withstanding the combined power of three disintegrator beams was no laughing matter. She had to find out what kind of mechanism could resist so much destructive force. Not even her Absorbisteel hull could manage the merged energy level of five disintegrator beams.

“Navigation, begin standard search and destroy pattern. Science Officer, I want sensors at maximum. Find me that ship! Weapons Master, program the weapons computer to fire a full merged cluster of ten beams at the damned Chrysallaman ship the moment they are within sensor range.”

***

Roemer and GooYee hustled from the Control Room for the Engineering Deck to check for any damages to the FLIT gens. Whatsit removed his sombrero and let it hang off his shoulders by the draw cord. Becky looked wide-eyed at Doug and simply shook her head.

“I can’t believe the power of those laser beams,” Doug muttered.

“Did you notice they deflected off the screen at near right angles?” Becky asked. “They weren’t absorbed by the FLIT gen like the cutter and heat rays. Instead their energy had to be defended by the power from the artificial black holes. We’re lucky we escaped when we did.”

“We must return and destroy the Asiddian ship,” Whatsit declared. “If the commander advises his superiors a Chrysallaman scout saucer was able to withstand the simultaneous power of three of its laser cannon, I’m afraid they’ll begin a concerted effort to locate the saucer’s home base. Any such investigation might lead them to Earth.”

“I agree,” Doug said.

Switching on his FLR, Doug asked, “Colonel Yuri-Milost, were you able to collect any data from our encounter with the Asiddians?”

“Yes. We’re still monitoring the ship. It appears they weren’t able to track your FLIT. They’re running a standard search pattern to locate you. I’ve had to FLIT twice to avoid detection. What do you want me to do?”

Yuri-Milost’s voice seemed edgy, as if she was irritated about something. Doug noted the tone but decided it was the result of stress from evading the Asiddian pursuit. If he’d known the real reason for her mood, he would’ve ended the mission and returned to Earth. Yuri-Milost was upset at the incompetence of the Asiddians. They’d wasted a superb opportunity to destroy the Salterr and the loathsome Whatsit.

“Continue to monitor. We are going to attack the ship, and I want a complete recording of our efforts,” Doug ordered.

Looking at Becky and Whatsit with a glint in his eyes, Doug said, “If we aren’t successful, your orders are to FLIT randomly to at least three locations before returning home. Your mission will be to deliver all your data to General Blunt for analysis. Understood?”

“Roger that,” Yuri-Milost replied.

***

Satisfied his orders would be followed, Doug opened the intercom link with the Engineering Deck and said, “Dr. Roemer, what’s the status of the FLIT gens and our defensive screen?”

“The gens appear to be functioning normally. Operating temperatures have returned to optimal level. Based on the data from our encounter, Jamins has made an interesting modification to the geometry of the defensive screen. We’re going to remain in Engineering in case the gens start overheating again.”

Swiveling his flight couch toward Becky and Whatsit, Doug said, “I’m anxious to see if a MA ray has any effect on that damned Asiddian ship.”

Smiling as he decided on a method of attack, Doug continued, “I think the Asiddians need a close shave. The spiked hair look went out back in the nineties. Think you guys can sweep the hull with the MA’s if I line you up?”

The sparkles in their eyes were perfect responses. Whatsit pulled his sombrero back onto his head and wrapped his fingers around his weapons control joystick. Becky took the co-pilot couch and grabbed the joystick controlling the MA ray turret in the dome of the saucer.

“Here we go,” Doug said.

Instantly, the Salterr FLITed to a point 1,000 feet off the stern of the battleship. As if they had been waiting on the opportunity with bated breath, ten spines near the tail of the Asiddian ship fired their merged red laser beams at the Salterr with startling accuracy, striking it amidships. Jenson was dumbfounded by how fast the Salterr had been targeted.

Dr. GooYee’s adjustment to the defensive shield was potent, or the Salterr would have been destroyed. Instead of creating a bubble shaped shield around the saucer and deflecting the powerful red beam away at an angle, the shield took the shape of a flat plane and reflected the beam like a mirror. The reflected beam powered by ten of the spines bounced back toward its source at full power. Striking the huge cylindrical ship 300 feet from its stern, the red beam powered for the first time in Asiddian history by the combined might of ten spines burned a deep 50 foot diameter hole in the battleship.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Doug said.

“Fire. Fire. Fire!” Whatsit yelled as he broke the spell of amazement gripping them all.

Thumbing the red firing button on his joystick, Whatsit guided his MA beam in a sweeping arc down the port side of the battleship, shearing off two rows of spines. Chang followed his example, slicing the dorsal spines off the cylinder as fast as she could sweep her MA beam down the top of the long ship.

The Asiddian commander wasn’t idle. The battleship revolved on its center axis like a rolling pin, bringing 20 undamaged spines into firing position. Combined laser beams fired from the 20 spines and flashed against the defensive screen of the Salterr.

Miguel screamed from the intercom, “We’re losing the FLIT gens! Get us out of here!”

Jenson had prepared for this eventuality. Based on their first encounter with the Asiddians, he figured the FLIT gens would overheat again. A healthy respect for the strength of the laser beams called for prudent planning. Touching a preprogrammed icon on his GPC, he FLITed the Salterr 1,500 feet to a spot with coordinates of 15 degrees right ascension and minus 45 degrees declination. The result placed the Salterr beneath the other end of the cylindrical battleship.

A group of ten spines targeted and fired at the Salterr, but this time Whatsit and Becky were ready. Firing almost at the same time, they sliced off the propulsion units jutting from the end of the Asiddian battleship. A massive cloud of blue-white sparks exploded from the ruptured end of the cylinder and the red laser beams winked out as their power source was destroyed.

“Let’s do the same thing to the other end!” Doug exclaimed as he touched the GPC icon once more for the short jump. True to its programming, the Salterr FLITed to the opposite end of the battleship. Whatsit and Becky rayed the forward communication spine array off the other end of the battleship.

Maneuvering as planned, Doug shot the Salterr to the aft end of the cylindrical battleship and said, “MA the bastards right up their hind end! Let’s see how the ship does with its center hollowed out.”

Whatsit and Becky complied with enthusiasm. In seconds, a 1,000 foot long tunnel 90 feet in diameter appeared down the center of the cylinder. The visual impression was like looking down the barrel of a rifle. An eerie yellowish light glowed down the length of the bore and showers of electrical sparks fountained from broken conduits. As they watched, tiny dots of blasted machinery and the mangled bodies of dead crewmen began to float into the empty void where the center of the ship had been.

“Miguel, run a sensor sweep for any life signs on that ship,” Doug ordered.

Moments later, Miguel said, “I’m picking up two spacesuited bodies floating near the far end. Otherwise, the entire ship is dead.”

“Yuri-Milost, join up with us on the forward end. We’re going to attempt retrieval of the survivors. Keep your shield in place and weapons ready,” Doug ordered.

“Will do, Colonel.”

Piloting the Salterr to the other end of the wreck was the work of only a few moments. Tapping into Roemer’s sensor readings, Doug found the two lifeforms and illuminated them with a powerful spotlight. The beings wore white body suits and clear bubble helmets. Details of their anatomy were impossible to discern.

As the spotlight shown on them, the figures darted behind parts of the wreckage. It was clear they intended to defend themselves. Tiny red laser beams flashed from hand-held weapons, but the defensive screen withstood them.

“How in the hell are we going to capture the sons-of-bitches?” Whatsit asked as they watched the Asiddians peek furtively from behind their makeshift fortifications. “We don’t have any spacesuits.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Becky said as she headed out the door. “I’ll be in Engineering.”

***

As each grid in the globe shaped search and destroy pattern on the view screen progressively turned from a yellow color indicating uncleared to the green color of cleared, hope of finding the fleeing Chrysallaman scout saucer dimmed. The instruments aboard Winged Death were so sensitive they could detect operating power sources within the vast area of a medium sized solar system. The search pattern had already cleared half the solar system without a single sensor detecting the telltale photon emissions left by spacecraft using lightspeed drives.

“Your failure to find those Chrysallaman worms is unsatisfactory,” Wren fumed as more and more of the search pattern turned green without a clue to the whereabouts of the scout saucer. “Is it possible they have some kind of cloaking device capable of hiding the craft?”

“I can’t explain why sensors haven’t picked up the photon trail,” Crow responded. “It’s as if they leapfrogged out of the solar system without using lightspeed which we know isn’t possible. If they had a way to make their craft invisible, I think they would’ve used it when we first detected them.”

The proximity alarm began blaring, and the weapons computer fired a blast of ten merged disintegrator beams at a target. The victorious grin on Wren’s face was replaced by shock as damage alarms began screaming their warnings at an even higher pitch than the proximity alarm.

“Damage control. What’s the problem?” Wren demanded.

“Crew quarters and the entire food and water supply for the ship have been destroyed, Captain!”

“Impossible!” Wren screamed. “The Chrysallamans don’t have a weapon capable. . .”

“It was our own disintegrator beam, Captain. Somehow they reflected our own beam back at us!”

As Wren struggled to bring her spinning thoughts under control, Crow yelled, “Captain! All the weapons columns on the port side and top ridge have been destroyed!”

Thinking furiously, Wren yelled, “Navigator! 180 degree axis spin. Weapons control! Fire at will!”

Wren heard the familiar growling of the disintegrator beams firing, but power in the Command Center shut down. Emergency lights instantly lit the room as a dense, light-brown smoke began to fill the cabin.

Static garbled reports rumbled from the overhead speakers, “Af . . engi . . destr . . Lif . . sup . . des. .”

A few seconds later, “Forwa . . comm. . destro.”

As if things couldn’t get worse, the deck disappeared. One moment, the deck was under Wren’s feet as she sat in the Captain’s chair and the next, the deck wasn’t there. Lieutenant Cardinal had been standing hunched over the navigation panel when the deck vanished. Wren watched wide-eyed as Cardinal dropped into open space, and a white beam filled with sparkles that winked on and off and flowed in dazzling swirls cut her in half.

Abruptly, a clear nanoglass bubble snapped into place over Wren’s head. Looking about, she saw Ramona Crow’s suit bubble snap into place. There was no doubt the Winged Death had been gravely wounded. Wren realized the only viable way she was going to survive was to hide and wait on the arrival of Rock Smasher for rescue.

“Ramona, is your armor intact?”

Crow responded with a silent nod.

“Let’s find cover. I don’t think the Chrysallamans are going to leave until they’ve either captured or killed us. We may be able to hold out until Rock Smasher gets here in a few hours.”

All Ramona did in response was nod. Her eyes showed white all the way around her irises. Not a good sign. Wren was beginning to think her Science Officer was suffering from shell shock.

Launching herself across the empty space between her command chair and the science panel, Wren grabbed Crow by the arm. Activating her suit impellers, she dropped them down into the huge open space that had once been the center of her ship. Movement caught Wren’s eye, and she saw the Chrysallaman saucer swing into view in the huge hole drilled through the forward communications array.

As a powerful spotlight from the saucer illuminated them, Wren drew her disintegrator pistol and fired. She was surprised when Crow did likewise. Both beams reflected away from the craft and burrowed into the ruined structure of Winged Death just a few feet from where Wren and Crow floated. Wren activated her impellers and pushed Crow and herself behind some of the structural wreckage.

“Did you see our disintegrator beams reflect off the saucer as if they struck a mirror?” Crow asked in wonder. “Incredible! Our first shot of ten merged beams must have reflected back the same way. Winged Death destroyed herself.”

“All I know right now is we have to survive long enough for Rock Smasher to rescue us. It’s our sworn duty to report all we know. Princess Peregrine must be warned!”

“Why haven’t they killed us? Their weapons are capable of hollowing out the center of a battleship. They could burn us into our constituent atoms, and yet they hesitate.”

Wren replied as she searched for a better location to defend, “My guess is they want to capture and torture us for information about our weapons, power systems, ship deployments and future plans.”

Focusing on Crow with deadly intent, Wren declared, “I’ll kill as many of them as possible. If capture is eminent, I’ll terminate you and kill myself to prevent any possibility we could divulge information harmful to our people.”

Nodding, Crow tightened her grip on her pistol and began looking around for signs of assault on their position. A shadow moved across her field of vision, and she looked up to find a black ball gliding at her.

Screaming shrilly, Crow said, “Captain! Behind us!”

Hannah Wren spun and fired her pistol at the ball, but the red beam deflected away. The black ball appeared to be dragging something, and Wren realized it was tethered to a second black ball by some kind of netting. Acting in tandem, the two balls swept around Wren and Crow in ever constricting circles, trapping them in a mesh blanket. Unable to move their arms or legs, Wren and Crow felt movement and watched in horror as they were carried toward the Chrysallaman saucer and into an airlock. The outer hatch slid shut behind them with a muffled thump.

***

As soon as the outer hatch closed and the chamber pressurized, the inner hatch slid aside, and a Chrysallaman wearing a long, green coat and broad brimmed hat walked into the cabin. He was the first Chrysallaman either Wren or Crow had come in close contact with who wasn’t shackled.

Moving with purpose, the lizard removed the disintegrator pistols from the trapped hands of the captives. When Wren resisted his attempt, the Chrysallaman broke two of her fingers and wrested it from her weakened grip. Patting down their bodies for any other weapons they might be hiding and finding none, the lizard walked out of the airlock. Wren and Crow, still embraced by the netting, floated after him down a wide, brightly lit passageway to a hatch painted in alternating black and yellow chevrons. Pressing his palm against a glass plate in the wall, the Chrysallaman opened the hatch and stepped aside. Reversing the spins that had wrapped them within the netting, the black balls pushed Wren and Crow inside the cabin, and the hatch closed with a solid thunk.

The first thing Wren and Crow noticed when they were shoved into the bare cabin was another Asiddian sitting in a corner with her ankles and arms crossed. She was 6 feet 5 inches tall, although it was difficult to tell because of her posture. Her eyes were deep black and her hair auburn with dark brown highlights. Her long nose was gashed with a deep cut on its left side. It was obvious she’d been a captive for some time because her white body armor was marred with stains of blood and dirt. As Wren and Crow were shoved into the cabin, a look of despair ghosted across the woman’s face.

Wren pushed a button on her sleeve that retracted her nanoglass helmet. It was obvious the air in the cabin was breathable since the captive had retracted her helmet.

“Who are you?” Wren demanded.

The captive looked around the cabin as if she was trying to find a hidden camera and said loudly, “You can stop the mind tricks. I’m not going to play. Leave me alone.”

Astounded by the response, Wren marched over to the woman and slapped her knee.

“Don’t ignore me! I asked you a question.”

For a moment, the captive looked scared. Sweat dripped off her forehead, and her eyes were fixated as if she was putting enormous effort into concentrating. With a sigh of relief, she got to her feet and wrapped her arms around Wren as if she was a long lost relative. Releasing the hug after about three seconds, the captive strode over to Crow and hugged her. Tears of joy mingled with the sweat on her brow dripped down her face as she turned again toward Wren. The fixated stare continued.

“I thought I was the only survivor!”

“What do you mean?” Wren asked. “Who are you? Name your ship and crew assignment.”

“I’m Lydia Dove. I was a maintenance worker on the Flying Dragon.”

“Only command personnel wear body armor, not maintenance workers. You’re lying,” Wren snarled.

“No. No. Our ship was destroyed by the Chrysallaman devils! Lieutenant Swan was our Engineering officer. A structural member fell and killed her. I managed to pull her body from the wreckage after the artificial gravity shut down. I stripped the armor off her. It’s the only reason I was able to survive. I was captured five days ago. They’ve tortured me every day, but I haven’t broken.”

Clutching Wren’s arms, Lydia’s eyes grew wider and she shrilled, “They have some kind of white ray that chews through Absorbisteel like it was paper! Our disintegrator rays were useless; blocked by some kind of deflector screen.”

The terrified look in her eyes made her story ring true. Wren softened her approach and asked, “Where was the Flying Dragon assigned to patrol?”

“The Ponndomer system,” Lydia said with nervous nods. “We were just completing our tour of duty when the accursed Chrysallaman scout saucer appeared.”

“Dove,” Crow said. “Get hold of yourself. The Ponndomer system is seven light years from the Cuddlur system. At lightspeed your ship couldn’t have been destroyed five days ago and you be in the Cuddlur system now.”

“What are you talking about?” Dove exclaimed. “I agree with you. We can’t be in the Cuddlur system.”

A look of suspicion clouded the woman’s face, and she moved away from Wren. Holding her hands over her ears, she shouted, “Stop trying to get information from me with your mind tricks!”

Wren and Crow looked at each other with dumbfounded stares. Neither of them had ever encountered an Asiddian soldier who was so freaked out.

Crow decided on a different tact. Walking to the quivering Lydia Dove, she placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t be afraid. The Rock Smasher will arrive within the hour and destroy our enemies. Asiddians won’t be defeated by these Chrysallaman devils.”

Behind them the hatch slid aside and the oddly dressed Chrysallaman walked toward them with a drawn cutter ray pistol. Both Wren and Crow growled, and their fright wigs blossomed from their scalps as they backed away from the threatening lizard. Brushing them aside, the Chrysallaman grabbed Dove’s arm and led her toward the hatch. Fighting feebly against the overwhelming strength of the Chrysallaman, Dove lost her footing, stumbled and was dragged screaming through the hatch which closed behind them.

Crow looked at Wren and breathed, “What in the universe have we gotten ourselves into?”

Out in the passageway, the air shimmered around Lydia Dove and the familiar face and body of Becky Chang appeared as her illusion faded.

Wiping at the sweat dripping off her forehead, Becky said, “Whew! Glad that’s over. Maintaining my illusion through their lead-lined heads was grueling. The only way I could wiggle into their consciousness was through their optic nerves and ear canals.”

Jumping to her feet, Becky slapped Whatsit’s upper arm and said, “You can be pretty intimidating when you want to be.”

Shrugging and cocking his head to the side, Whatsit replied, “Nothing like watching reruns of Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th to hone your scare factor.”

***

“We need to leave this system now,” Becky announced as she entered the master control room with Whatsit. “Another Asiddian battleship named Rock Smasher is going to be here within the hour.”

“Crap,” Doug said as he pushed the intercom button. “Miguel, have you found any computer data we can tap into? We’ve got to leave.”

“Bad luck. When we blasted the center out of the ship, we destroyed the main computer banks. They were on the deck just below the command center. I’ve been able to salvage the cache from the navigation and weapons peripheral systems on the Command Deck. Nothing else.”

“Understood,” Doug sighed.

“Thought you might like to hear I retrieved some of the physical wreckage from the Asiddian ship,” Miguel continued. “Before I removed the netting from the Bowlers, I used them to acquire samples of the hull structural material and the emitter end of a spine.”

“Great work, Miguel,” Jenson said as he pushed the button for ship-to-ship FLR.

“Colonel Yuri-Milost, I’m slaving your GPC with mine. We’re jumping to the Chrysalis system.”

“All my systems are optimal and at your command,” Yuri-Milost answered.

“I’d say the Asiddians onboard the Rock Smasher are in for quite a surprise when they arrive,” Becky deadpanned.

“What were you able to get from the Asiddians?” Doug asked.

“Nothing,” Becky frowned. “It’s like they have a brain encased in lead or something that blocks direct telepathic communication. I was able to read their thoughts and impose my illusion by focusing through their eyes or ears where there are small openings in the skull, but I’ll have to practice. The effort of concentration it took to maintain my illusion made me sweat buckets. The only information I could get from them was what they volunteered when they were convinced I was one of them.”

“I guess you’re on the right track,” Doug said. “The Asiddians would’ve been defeated by the Chrysallamans if they didn’t have some kind of natural defense to mind control. It may very well be they have no comprehension of telepathy since they have natural biological shielding.”

Yuri-Milost cut in and said, “Sensors just picked up an incoming battleship 15 light minutes away. Punch us out of here!”

Responding with action rather than words, Doug touched the GO icon on the GPC. Both scout saucers FLITed to the Chrysalis system.

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