Previous Survivors of a nearly exterminated race seek final refuge at Pluto Station.
A week of frenzied preparations saw Orchidia's launch into the portal from which the Eridani ship had arrived. Captain Doinhu and chief scientist Vreemid, uneasy celebrities in the Sol system, gladly went along as advisors. They couldn't answer the key question: why hadn't the aliens, so terrible as to be unnamed, spread to other stars in their quest to end all life? Doinhu was sure they hadn't found the ancient Builder portal in the Large Magellanic Cloud, the refuge that had sheltered the Eridanis for 110 years--until a chance encounter with an alien probe.
Indeed, the vast shell of the portal at the Magellanic terminus was deserted when Orchidia exited the transfer chamber. Floodlights barely picked out detail in the dark. Neither did any threats await outside in the nebula. A series of hyperjumps brought the ship to the Eridani core systems, where the blue elipse of Achenar A illumined an orbiting asteroid field.
Vreemid clasped hands in mournful reverie. "That was once one of our colonies." Both she and Doinhu found no words at the sad homecoming.
At the science station, First Officer Kyra passed hands over the comlink. "Broadcasting continuous episodes of Star Trek on the emf band. That should overcome interference from the star's coronal ejection field."
Doinhu came to look at her screen. "What are you doing? It was our own space operas that brought the aliens upon us. In their twisted logic, they had to get us before we became that powerful."
"Basic tactics," said Commander Moast. "Let the enemy come to you." He swiveled to face the main viewer. Bearded helmsman Chet flew a lazy course through the debris, while the stocky navigator Berl scanned for anomalies in the Eridani Supervoid, suspected source of extra-dimensional invasion. If this was an entanglement of universes, the passage would have to be small and fixed in position.
"Contact," Berl called out. "Class B pulse just occurred in the void. Coordinates locked." On cue, Chet piloted the ship just inside the star's ejection zone. Anything entering here, no matter how stealthy, would reflect like a Christmas tree.
"Remember," Doinhu warned. "Don't receive any communications. And their weapons have more than one use."
At hyperlight speed, the aliens needed only six hours to enter the system. Their first act, predictably, was attack. But Orchidia's shielding, unlike the solid wall of scifi, could be modulated to a knife edge. Most of the plasma beam was deflected to either side.
"Warning," the AI said as the ship jolted to the minor impact. "Alien weapon has ionized the hull. Navigation is offline." As the AI found this wholly unacceptable, she flew the ship deeper into the coronal ejection zone to "sandblast" away the effect.
It jibed with Moast's own strategy. "Let them think we're on the defensive. Helm, back us off fifty kilometers. Take down all sensors except nav." He gave a signal to Kyra.
"Launching sensor drones," she called out.
Three dart-like shapes sped out to take up a triangulating position around the intruder. These were picked off by particle beams, though the probes had time to transmit their data.
"Enemy position locked. Size does not exceed plan parameters."
"Execute," Moast ordered.
Doinhu and Vreemed were disoriented by their first hyperjump experience, taking to their seats with a touch of dizziness. "What happened?" Doinhu asked. "Where did the alien go?"
"Maneuver complete. Force field in place."
"With me," Moast said. Kyra, Vreemid and Doinhu followed him to the main cargo bay. Normally stocked with provisions, it had been cleared out, even to removal of some braces, to create a large empty space.
Doinhu gaped at the black wedge hovering in a containment field. "How is this possible?"
"We jumped right on top of him," Moast said. "Had we been slightly off, that would have been a much bigger problem for him than for us."
"The nanite beam." Vreemid wrung hands and got closer to Doinhu. "What's to stop them using it?"
Moast grinned at their abject fear, in an understanding way. "You may not know what a shotgun is, but think of one with the barrel clogged. You don't want to pull the trigger."
"So then!" Doinhu braced fists on hips. "You finally came against someone bigger and smarter!" He glared defiance at the enemy.
Abruptly a hatch opened in the craft's belly. Unable to exit, a figure appeared there, a kind of naked-looking salamander.
"Translating alien speech: We are not responsible. We serve the machines." The hatch closed, blocking the fearful crewman from view. "Energy buildup to detonation. Preparing to eject."
The ship's shuttle hatch opened, and the alien was hurled down into space. Three drones immediately attached themselves, using a powerful damping field to disrupt the wedge's power system. The AI had tuned them according to scans of the captured ship. As it tumbled out of control, she targeted the port chain gun in case the enemy decided not to commit suicide. The cargo bay vibrated to a stream of glowing plasma shells that stitched into the craft and blew it apart.
Doinhu gasped. "I never thought I would see the day. We could never penetrate their shielding."
"Plasma shells," informed Kyra, "pack a wallop, and fire at a thousand rounds per minute. No static shielding can remodulate fast enough to reinforce the impact area. The only escape is evasive maneuvers."
Moast turned to the amazed Eridanis. "Now the hard part. The Consortium wants me to invade the alien system and destroy their home world."
"You can't!" Vreemid objected. "They must have millions of wedges, not to mention large warships. And they're undoubtedly on the way now!"
"True," Moast allowed. "Which is why I'm going with Plan B. Never leave your solar system without one."