The Daring MacAllisters

Standard

“We know where it is. We’ve known for a while. We just can’t get to it. It would require some fairly fancy flying.” The secretary crossed his arms and gazed at the faces of the officials surrounding him.

“Then what are we still waiting for? Let’s throw some Mac n’ Cheese at it,” the old general said, cracking a pistachio and adding the shells to the napkin he had neatly laid on the conference table.

The secretary smiled wryly. “Based on their scores, that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.” He rose, signaling the end of yet another exhausting meeting. The general wasn’t the only one who thought the testing of the pilots was an unnecessary delay.

But it wasn’t just testing. The secretary was training them. Speed, agility, reflex, reaction, recall. None of those things might matter. Perception. Imagination. Were those the qualities they needed? The secretary was unsure. There was only one quality he knew the assigned pilots would need. The one quality they always needed. Adaptability.

He nodded to his assistant, who left to gather the pilots. There were many missions to fly. But the fate of that council—and of all humanity—only turned upon the success of one. They would succeed, he was certain. They would succeed.

The secretary’s smile faded as the council shuffled out of the room.

~~~~~

Mac N’ Cheese was the not-so-secret codename for the team that comprised the best pilots in the elite fleet. The brothers Rodney “Maca-rodney” and Chester “Cheese” MacAllister. Distant relatives to a rich and renowned family from which their ancestor broke a few generations past, relinquishing fortune and keeping only the name under a different spelling, so as to prove that a MacAllister was worth more than money. They weren’t twins, but they pretty much acted that way. They were only a year apart. Friendly competitors. They started off as rescue pilots. Their job was to bolster or support ailing craft. They saved hundreds of people before they moved on to test piloting and flying missions for the planetary alliance.

Very early on, their courage and skill was noted, as was their foolishness and compassion. There were plenty of confirmed accounts of their heroism. But the most popular account was a rumor about them daring to save a plane that had lost its starboard wing and gone into a tailspin. There were no passengers aboard. Just the two pilots. So the brothers plunged their wing—like a sword—into the gaping slot where the ailing plane’s wing had been. The brought the plane out the spin, and then glided it to safety, unlatching and touching down themselves to feather-soft landing.

That was the legend anyway.

In truth, the records for that particular mission were sealed. Even if the brothers wanted to speak of it, to confirm or more likely deny the outrageous details, they couldn’t have. That story was what most believed was the origin of their team emblem, a single outstretched bat or dragon wing emerging from the side of an upright sword.

But the emblem more likely resulted from a motto they’d had since they were children. A simple rhyme they made up.

The sky is blue. My sword is true.
As one wing dies, the other flies.

Their poor mother loved their noodly nickname, but never liked the morbid sound of “dies” in their motto. But it was no exaggeration. When they were kids, one brother saved the other from drowning once. Later in life, the saved child donated his kidney when the replicated artificial one made for his brother failed. Unlike the rumors of their often-classified missions, these stories from their youth could be and were corroborated. It was their way. When one of them faltered, the other would swoop in. They bolstered each other. And when both were strong, they bolstered others. They claimed that when they both were down, they were just a couple of babies. But no one could remember a time when both brothers were in need at the same time.

They’d been faithfully flying missions for the planetary alliance for five years.

***

“That’s what the new craft are all about,” the general said at the pilots’ briefing. “That’s why we’ve been putting you all through those exercises, which I’m sure you were all wondering about. Some of them you haven’t done since you started flight school, easy peasy stuff. Some of it must have seemed like we were actually testing your psychological strength more than your flying skills. We thank you all for volunteering in the first place and for sticking to it. We only had two drop-outs and that was because they had personal emergencies. Some things are indeed more important than whatever we’re doing here.

“So you might be wondering. What are we doing here? What mission have we been training you for? Missions, actually. We’ll be breaking you up in a moment, and sending you to separate briefing rooms. Each mission will be assigned two teams. The primaries, and the back-ups. Don’t feel bad if you’ve been assigned back-up. It doesn’t mean you’re second best.”

“It means you’re more valuable than the schmucks they actually mean to send in,” Rodney said.

A round of chuckles passed through the room. The general waited for them to die down before proceeding. He didn’t fail to notice that the pilots were eyeing the canisters of homegrown pistachios he’d brought for them all.

Some of those canisters disappeared as half the pilots in the room were sent to smaller rooms to be briefed on their specific missions.

The half dozen or so pilots who were left had been tested on the newest craft. The pilots called them the “screaming echoes.” The actual designation was Baldrich QN0-T after the main designer group. The craft emitted a peculiar sound in the atmosphere before breaking into space, where it was, thankfully, silent. The pilots weren’t privy to the details of what made that sound and why, so long as it didn’t affect their safety.

“Those of you remaining in this room are assigned in one way or another to help us retrieve something,” the general said. “It’s got a name, but even I’m not authorized to know that name. Let’s just called it the gilded thorn. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Sounds like I’m sending you on quest to find a mythical, magical thing growing on some golden rose on a verdant mountain guarded by nymphs and monsters.”

Chester turned to his brother. “I’ll take the nymphs.”

“I’ll eat the monsters.”

Another quieter round of chuckles passed through the much emptier room.

“The nickname has a purpose,” the general continued. “This thing will be a thorn in our sides, if we don’t retrieve it and contain it. A thorn made of gold is a valuable thing, but at a price. Thorns are prickly, sharp, unyielding. They only have one purpose. Defend. At all costs.”

“What is it defending, sir? Or…can you tell us?” another pilot asked.

“I cannot. And only one team will get any details about what we believe it looks like and where it can be found.”

“You know where it is?”

“We know where it is.”

***

“You’ll need to stop once you get to the border,” the general said, standing in the tower before the window that looked out upon the concourse, beyond which was one of the three screaming echoes. The one designated QN0-T-2. The brothers had started calling it Rose.

Chester and Rodney MacAllister were geared up and ready to go. Their back-up team would accompany them up to the halfway point, after which the brothers would go communications silent.

“Border to what?” Chester asked.

“You’ll know it when you see it.”

The brothers nodded. They were used to receiving the details of their instructions piecemeal. They noted that the secretary was lingering at the back of the viewing room. He only did that for the most critical missions. They gave him a reassuring nod as they passed by, but he merely stiffened.

***

“I think Mister Secretary’s actually worried about us,” Rodney said as they walked down the concourse to the flight preparation area.

The red lights were rotating, reflecting off the backs of the people clearing the concourse. Over the public address system, a voice announced a countdown to launch and instructed all personnel save pilots to clear the runway. The brothers spotted the deck crew ahead, securing panels and detaching QN0-T-2, Rose, from fuel tubes and anchors. An electric odor permeated the concourse.

The brothers lightly bumped their helmets together and nodded to each other and then to the passing mechanics and lab-coated technicians and inspectors.

One of those technicians called out to Chester.

“Five o’clock,” she said, somewhat breathlessly. “Don’t forget.”

She was walking with a colleague and they swept by, their heads once again bowed toward the clipboard she was holding.

“I thought your date was at seven,” Rodney quipped.

Chester shrugged. “I’ll sort it out when we get back. Wait, how do you know—”

“She looked kinda sad. Did you bore her last time?”

“I don’t see how. We went to the laser funfair. She loves the funfair.”

***

Once they arrived at the pre-determined location, the so-called “border” that the general spoke of, the brothers stopped. Space looked much the same in all directions. There were no markers or beacons to indicate any border. This wasn’t even the furthest they’d been out of the solar system. They were just dipping into the interstellar medium.

Within seconds, a pre-recorded message from the general began to play on their screens with further instructions about their mission. The salient details included an image of the so-called “gilded thorn.” It was indeed golden, and looked like some kind of chip shaped like a key, housed in a protective box made of a rare alloy that could withstand most forms of long-range detection. The brothers wondered how it was, then, that their leaders were so certain of the thorn’s location. But the message did not say.

They had wondered, only half-jokingly, if the thorn was something alien. There were indications of alien life out in the universe, but it was too far away, at least as far as the public knew. The brothers had speculated how some device that worried their leaders so much had gotten out there. Perhaps it was something from an earlier age of exploration…or war.

The brothers were instructed to first launch a beacon that would help to guide them back to that very spot. They were then to activate a special onboard device, a plasmic resonance generator. It would allow them to enter what the general called “plasmic space.” Chester, who was in the rear cockpit, performed all the activation tasks.

They tested the beacon, moved Rose some distance farther away, then activated the plasmic resonance generator.

The space around them seemed to grow foggy, misty and gaseous, like a cloud flickering with many colors. A familiar screaming echo sounded, not quite as loud as when they were flying Rose in atmosphere. Though shocked at the sudden change, the brothers again tested the beacon, which they no could not see anymore through the soupy plasmic space.

“It’s still working,” Chester said.

“Then let’s proceed.”

Rodney flew Rose as deliberately as he could through the plasmic space. He felt a strange drag on the throttle, but the craft continued to respond properly. The brothers kept up a conversation to mask Rose’s eerie quiet screaming as she plowed through plasmic space.

“She’s a high-level specialist though,” Chester said, of his date. “She probably knows about the thorn.”

“Probably,” Rodney said, trying to concentrate as he began encountering debris.

“You don’t think she went out with me just to get close to this thorn, do you?”

“Probably.”

“Dammit.”

The craft had a guidance system that was taking them to a pre-programmed spot. But for some reason its sensors—as sophisticated as they were—weren’t as good at maneuvering around the obstacles of the space as Rodney’s eyes. They avoided collision with several bits of flotsam and jetsam, parts of other craft, some familiar, and some not.

They passed by the inert body of something that looked distinctly whale-like. It could have been a ship shaped like a creature, with large bulbous eyes, and a mouth. Maybe it wasn’t a mouth but the opening to a vehicle bay. If it was a creature, it wasn’t alive.

Most of the debris, the ships, and strange creature-like things they saw were trapped in place, as if plasmic space were a web. But some things were rotating or floating by sluggishly, as if plasmic space were some thick viscous liquid.

“What do you suppose this is?” Chester wondered aloud. “Some kind of dimensional crossroads?”

“I don’t know about that. Seems more like some kind of cosmic junkyard. Or…graveyard.”

The QN0-T crafts had obviously been constructed by those who had at least a basic understanding of plasmic space and how to move through it. The brothers had heard of plasmic space, but they have never envisioned it. Like most people who had heard of it, they believed it was just a thought experiment that cosmologists used to test other theories about the nature of space.

The brothers kept waiting for something to come after them, some giant space serpent or plasmic intelligence. Or they feared getting trapped in some version of a whirlpool or maelstrom. But the only challenge they encountered was the challenge of dodging and weaving and maneuvering around all the various things trapped and frozen in plasmic space. They bumped into smaller objects that they either couldn’t see in time, even despite their slow pace, or that they deemed would not harm the craft if they bumped into them. They watched some of those objects bounce off Rose and move a short distance until they froze in place again. The brothers began referring to it as “gelatin space.”

***

At last, they reached the set of coordinates where, according to the pre-programmed course, they would find the gilded thorn. From there, it was a manual search that lasted a few hours as the brother’s methodically scanned the surrounding space, moving the craft minimally. At last, Rodney spotted something. It was a small roughly crafted box. They guided an external robot arm to grasp the box and pull it inside. Chester pulled it through the exchange box that was built into the rear cockpit. It looked like a solid chunk of rock. It was made of something that matched the profile of the alloy they were looking for, but it wasn’t actually a box. Just a box-shaped piece of rock.

They tried again, and found a few similar chunks of rocky metal before they finally hit upon something that looked a bit different.

“I see a seam,” Chester said. The camera in the rear cockpit would only display so much for Rodney. “There was some stuff inscribed on it, manufacturer’s marks maybe, but it’s mostly rubbed off. I’m going to trying to open it.”

Chester opened the box, and lying within, just like the picture the general had sent, was a golden chip shaped like a key. Chester lifted it out and held it to the camera so his brother could see.

Rodney sighed. “About time. Let’s get in touch with that beacon—”

“Wait! What the hell!”

“What’s wrong?” Rodney put a hand to his screen. He watched as a robotic arm seemed to come out of nowhere and grasp the box his brother was holding.

Manual flight controls suddenly disengaged. Automatic controls engaged.

Rodney raised his hands. “The general didn’t warn us about this.”

Chester instinctively grabbed the box and held it to his chest, but the robotic arm had already swiped the gilded thorn and was pulling away, back into the body of the craft. Chester reached out, but it was too late.

“We can’t autopilot out of here,” Rodney said. “What were they thinking?”

“Rod, do you hear that?”

The brothers went silent and realized that Rose was silent too. She wasn’t making that screaming echo sound that she made. They heard something at the bottom of the craft.

Rodney switched to the ventral camera and watched a smaller craft detach from Rose’s hull. “Oh no,” he said.

“Rod…”

Both brothers understood what was happening. The gilded thorn was in that smaller craft, along with the plasmic resonance generator. The smaller craft—a drone—was pulling away from them with a screaming echo that began to fade as the drone moved farther away. The brothers were locked out of manual controls.

They were stranded in plasmic space.

***

“Someone betrayed us,” Chester said as he tried to override the lockout.

“Not the general.”

“Agreed.”

Rodney checked all the cameras for clues or help. “The secretary?”

“He did look kinda pale coming out of that briefing. And nervous.”

Rodney felt himself pushing down a panic that wanted to burst free. He had to do something.

“You know who else looked pale?” he said, hearing the fakeness in his tone. “Your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my—she wouldn’t. It doesn’t matter if we’re dating. It wouldn’t matter if she hated me. She wouldn’t have let this happen if she knew.”

“She wouldn’t have a choice, would she?”

“Wait…wait a minute.” Chester peered at one of the controls before him.

“What is it?”

“Five o’ clock. Maybe she did know.” There were few dials in the new craft. None of them controlled anything critical. All of them would remain active even if manual flight controls were locked. A volume knob, cockpit lighting, and camera panning. Chester turned them all to the five o’ clock position and waited.

“What are you doing?” Rodney asked.

Chester asked his brother to turn any dials on his panel to five o’ clock.

As soon as Rodney did, a recording was triggered. It wasn’t the general this time.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she said. It was her, Chester’s date, the specialist, Maggie.

“If you’re hearing this message it means you figured out my clue and mostly likely you’re already stranded,” Maggie said. “I’m sorry about that. There wasn’t time. The resonance generator is gone, right? It detached in its own little ship or pod along with whatever they sent you in there to find?”

She took a deep breath. “Okay, brace yourselves for a lot of information. They don’t need your eyes anymore. There’s a line—like a fishing line—running from that little ship to the beacon you most likely left behind. The res generator will allow the little ship to exit plasmic space. The dimensions are skewed in plasmic space, so that little ship will be much farther out in normal space. Maybe even a few months’ travel. But the beacon will find it and reel it in. The res generator actually has two functions. One function allows you enter or exit plasmic space, and a separate function allows you to move through plasmic space. Without a generator, you’ll be stuck. You may be wondering why you didn’t fall back into normal space when you lost the res generator. Long story short, it’s kind of like a valve or flytrap situation. Once you fall in, even if you have wings, you can’t fly out.

“We weren’t sure which QN0-T they would put you in, so we installed this message and a command control switch in all three.” Maggie’s image vanished and a schematic of QN0-T cockpits appeared along with instructions on accessing the command control switch or CCS. “It should allow you override any automated controls.”

While Chester followed the schematic’s instructions, Maggie’s voice continued to explain.

“They’re sure to find the CCS and message in the other two craft at the next maintenance cycle, if not sooner. So you see, I need you both to get out of there, because you’ll need to come rescue me and Bob. He’s the engineer and mechanic who helped to install the CCS. If the people who sent you out there find us, and I’m sure they will no matter where we run, we will end up in jail. At least, I hope that’s all they’ll do to us.” She hesitated a moment.

“Thanks to the craft’s design and construction, you should be able to move for a very short distance before the engines burn out or the fuel runs out. We deactivated the self-destruct, just in case someone wanted to clean up loose ends, or maybe just give you a merciful death, instead of a slow one from thirst and starvation. But you should get away from the QN0-T anyway.  Even if it doesn’t blow, I don’t know what other tricks and surprises it might hold that we didn’t find. It’s not worth the risk. There should be plenty of ships trapped in there with you. Find another ship nearby. Make sure it has the following specifications.” A list of specifications appeared. “Why? Because the items listed will allow you build a makeshift res generator. I know that sounds intimidating, but Bob can walk you through it. He’s on this file as an interactive instruction module. You can access this message and other files using the controls on the CCS. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you more help. I’m sure you’ll figure it out, Ches.”

The message ended.

***

The brothers were silent for a moment.

“What the hell do we do?”

“What the lady says.”

“Do you trust her, Ches?”

“Even if I didn’t, we can’t just sit here.”

“Okay, in that case, I have an idea.”

***

Maneuvering the craft using whatever technology the CCS was emitting was like moving through mud. The engine was straining. The whole craft shook so much that the brothers were sure all their inner organs were being juggled around, and they would end up with their stomachs in their throats, hearts in their guts, and kidneys in their chests.

They weren’t able to move much further than where they were, but Rodney saw where they needed to go. When Chester saw where his brother was taking them, he started.

“A barge. You want to drive a barge out of here?”

“What? Are you embarrassed?”

Chester gazed out at the giant wingless craft. Its shape was similar to a water barge, long and narrow. The massive hull was painted black. How a barge had gotten all the way out in an uninhabited part of space, he couldn’t fathom. Unless it wasn’t from their native dimension. It looked a lot like the barge’s they used back home to ferry people through the system.

“It’s too big,” he said. “Assuming we manage to build a generator, which I’m not sure we can despite Maggie’s confidence, will it be big enough to affect the whole ship?”

“We’ll have to ask Bob when we get to that point. Maybe there will be enough parts for us to build more than one.” It was apparent from his tone that Rodney had regained his optimism.

“There’s got to be all kinds of dead people onboard,” Chester said.

“No, look. All the emergency pods were launched. Even the one shuttle that was supposed to be docked in its bay, which is conveniently wide open. The barge is empty. It’s ours.”

“What if the entire interior is exposed to plasmic space?”

“Let’s try sensors when we get closer.”

***

Rose’s sensors indicated that the barge’s interior was still sealed to space and full of breathable oxygen. There was no apparent damage.

The brothers flew, or rather sailed, Rose into the shuttle bay. They used the craft’s robotic arm—now back under their command—to access the bay controls. They sealed and vented the bay of plasmic air, then re-pressurized the bay before emerging from Rose.

They left the bay and headed to the barge’s bridge, hoping there were no lockout commands activated. Barge’s weren’t typically valuable enough for advanced security measures.

Once again, they moved into the unknown, where anything might jump out at them. The heels of their shoes clicked too loudly on the hard floor of the corridors. Their flashlight beams seemed too narrow for the barge’s large chambers and corridors, and left too many ominous shadows.

“The lovable Mac N’ Cheese,” Rodney said. “Alas! Lost in plasmic space. If I were a violent man—”

“But you’re not. We’ll find a better way to get back at whoever did this to us.”

“We’re still alive. We stay that way. That’s our first big ‘up yours.'”

Chester smiled, then shook his head. “Too bad we lost that gilded thorn. We could have used it as a bargaining chip.”

“You worried about what they’re going to do with it?”

“I would be if I wasn’t more worried about us.”

***

They found the bridge. They managed to turn on main power and run enough basic diagnostics to learn that the barge was indeed undamaged. Aside from being trapped in plasmic space, it was actually in quite good shape. After restoring all vital systems and most of the secondary systems, the brothers returned to the QN0-T-2. They recovered their things and the few artifacts they’d collected from plasmic space—the alloy might still be useful to them, at least as currency.

They hadn’t flown Rose for long, but still felt bad for releasing her back into plasmic space. Each had a moment of hesitation. If they managed to build a plasmic resonance generator, attaching it to Rose and using her to fly out would be far faster and easier than maneuvering the giant barge, even if the barge’s hull was strong enough to sweep away or crash through most debris they would encounter. But Maggie was right. Rose might be full of booby traps that she might be made to spring on them. It wasn’t her fault, but they had to abandon her.

They returned to the bridge of the barge. They did breathe easier in the larger ship where they could walk and lie down, relieve themselves, eat and sleep. There were rations and a good store of water, several months’ worth at least, for just two people.

“What’s her name?” Rodney asked as he reviewed the maps and blueprints of the ship.

“His.”

“Really?”

“Sebastian. The barge’s name is Sebastian.”

“Is it one of ours?”

“No idea.”

“Can we fly it?”

Aside from building of the generator, that was the most important question. The brothers weren’t accustomed to piloting large craft.

“I’m sure we can figure it out,” Chester said.

***

It took a few days for the brother’s to scour the barge and find the tools and parts they would need to construct a partial plasmic resonance generator. Partial because it would only function to allow them to move through plasmic space. That function was not as complex as the other, the return to normal space. To do that, they would have to find what Maggie called a “nexus.” It shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out. It would be where the plasmic debris would be the densest. That was another reason Chester doubted the barge, but Rodney pointed out that they could abandon it for another ship if it became hard to maneuver. The barge had a few spacesuits—though they were iffy-looking.

They would build the device in the barge’s workshop, where many spare ship’s parts were strewn about. The brothers had cleaned it up a bit, hoping it might double as a laboratory, where they could gather further information about plasmic space that might help them escape it. They didn’t want to risk contaminating the medical bay.

They followed instructions as best they could, making only the substitutions allowed by the virtual Bob. They turned it on. Not knowing if it was working or not, they fired up the barge’s engines. When Sebastian did not oblige by moving, they realized the generator was not working.

The resonance generator was no common piece of technology. But the brothers checked the barge’s database out of desperation anyway. There was, of course, no help to be found.

They each reviewed Bob’s instructions word for word. They poured over the generator’s schematics. They felt some hope when they caught a few errors in the construction and their calculations. They made corrections. Then once again, they turned it on and tried to move the ship. One brother remained in the workshop with the generator while the other sat on the bridge trying to throttle. The ship wouldn’t move, but the pieces of alloy they’d gathered from plasmic space seemed to vibrate.

They decided to let the generator remain on to see if anything happened. Maybe their makeshift generator needed some time to fire up.

But even leaving the generator on overnight made no difference. Their attempt to move the next day was another failure.

“Thanks a lot, Bob,” Rodney said over the comms. Chester left the bridge and ran into the workshop, worried his brother would dismantle the generator or worse, throw it across the room.

They had enough materials to build another one, but what use would two non-functioning generators be?

They tried an old trick that an instructor had taught them, about reading instructions backwards to make sure they actually paid attention to each line, each word. That was difficult to do when reading forwards, he told them.

They realized that Bob’s instructions had included a detail that they misunderstood, about placing a “special alloy” at the core of the generator. It was necessary to build up the resonance. He was referring to the rare plasmic alloy, which was not so rare in plasmic space. The brothers had collected a few chunks of it searching for the gilded thorn. Bob must have assumed that the brothers would know what he meant by “special alloy.” The brothers hadn’t realized and had used a random chunk of metal from the scraps in the workshop.

After ranting to each other about why experts always assumed everyone else knew what their special jargon-y terms meant, the brothers went back to work on the generator.

They partially dismantled the generator and installed one of the chunks of alloy they had gathered. After they were finished reassembling the generator, Rodney sighed, and Chester put his hands on his hips. They both stared at the generator, reluctant to turn it on, for fear that yet another troubleshooting attempt would fail.

Chester at last remembered that it had been days, almost two weeks now, since he’d first heard Maggie’s half-joking, half-pleading request for them to escape plasmic space so they could then come save her and whoever else had helped to save the brothers.

He stepped toward the generator and switched it on. They both went to the bridge this time, and fired up the engine.

After a moment, the brothers heard a familiar sound. It sounded like Rose. A screaming, echoing sound.

They glanced at each other. That sound had to be the active plasmic resonance generator.

They slowly throttled forward. The barge began to shake and roar. They could still hear the screaming of the generator. They began to move. Rodney signaled to his brother and they shut the engines down again.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Rodney said.

“We need more than one.”

***

The brothers went about building a second plasmic resonance generator. This one turned on successfully the first time they tried. They placed it on a rear lower deck and fired the engines again. The barge did not shake nearly as much. It was like being on an older model ship, and it moved a bit more smoothly, though nowhere near as fast as Rose was able to move.

There was not enough material to build another generator, so the brothers decided they would move as close as they could to another ship. They would begin to scavenge and salvage what they could from the other stranded ships to build a third generator, or a fourth, or fifth. They would build as they went until they had enough generators to sail that barge smoothly out of plasmic space.

***

Rodney went down to the workshop to check on the generator while Chester maneuvered the barge. Moments later, the bridge’s comm crackled to life.

“Chester, you need to get down here!” Rodney said.

“What happened? Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine. You have to get down here.”

“I can’t leave the bridge.”

“It’ll be fine, just run down here. Hurry!”

Chester slowed the barge to a crawl, so it would be unlikely to hit anything while he was gone. Now that they were moving, they didn’t want to waste fuel turning the engines on and off.

When he entered the workshop, he found his brother staring at the workshop table. Something was happening. Something was moving near the generator.

“It’s the box,” Rodney said.

It took Chester a moment to realize that his brother meant the box that the gilded thorn had been placed inside. That box was made of plasmic alloy, and they had plans to use it in one of the generators they would be building next.

But it no longer looked like a box. It was bigger, and it was unfolding, all by itself. As it unfolded and reshaped the parts of itself, parts that appeared seemingly out of nowhere, the form began to look familiar to the brothers. After all, they were now intimately acquainted with the design and construction of it.

The box was converting into a plasmic resonance generator.

“Should we let this happen?”

Chester shrugged and shook his head. He didn’t know, but as he watched, he remembered the words that the general had spoken about the object of their mission.

A valuable thing. A thorn in our sides.

“Hey brother,” Chester said, “you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“If the box that the gilded thorn came in can do that, then what awesome thing could the gilded thorn do?”

Rodney hesitantly stepped toward the newly constructed—or rather converted—generator and switched it on. It was difficult to tell with the other two generators on if this third one was active. The only way to tell would be to see if the ship moved easier. The residual shaking did seem to be fading already.

Chester stared at the new generator. “Rod, what if…what if that fancy-looking golden thing inside the box was just a decoy. Just because something looks important and powerful, doesn’t mean it is.”

Rodney pointed to generator number three. “You think we have the real gilded thorn.”

“The general said it was valuable and dangerous.”

“A thorn is only dangerous if you try to touch it.” Rodney frowned and looked at the hand he’d just used to turn the third generator on. “If this is the thorn, then maybe it was supposed to be defending whatever was inside.  That kinda makes sense.  Didn’t do a good job.  But that would mean the golden thing inside wasn’t a decoy. What if it was the actual point of this mission?”

“Or maybe both were.  The box and the object inside.  The thorn and the rose.”

“It was good reflexes and good luck that made it possible for you to hold onto the box.”

“Okay,” Chester said, “either way, or even if something else is going on altogether, we have to assume someone is going to come looking for it.”

Rodney nodded.  “Whatever is happening, we need to get out of this spaceyard. We’re sitting ducks here. We have people to help. And plasmic space is pretty, but I miss blue skies.”

“Then let’s do what we do best. Let’s fly.”

With that the brothers took generator number one to the bridge with them. Taking the precaution of not touching the thorn literally, they left generator three in the workshop. They kept an eye on the workshop from the bridge. They took their stations, Rodney providing support this time, and Chester taking the seat as the main pilot.

They activated the thrusters, and with the power of three active plasmic resonance generators, they hurtled through plasmic space.

 

Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel.  Artwork: “The Daring MacAllisters” by Sanjay Patel.

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