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THE SAGA OF SUDDEN SMITH
Years before he became a hero fighting the Dirge and a household name in the battle they called Armageddon, between the times he lost and found Ameena Chung, there was another woman ....
Sudden Smith checked the Vulcan LD PowerPack for the third time.-Not the powerpack's charge or condition: that he'd done a dozen times during the trip. No, the straps that looped over his shoulders, adjusted to just the right length, tight but not binding; the webbing of the broad belt, secure around his middle, inset with touch controls for shield and com gear, connecting holster and powerpack, keeping it from bouncing or shifting. lt was neither heavy norawkward, really, but the weight felt odd, like a baby riding on his back, little arms clenched about his neck.
He willed the AMBLE circuits on inside him, and the world slowed. Readouts leaped at him from across the room, their crimson blur resolving into numbered distinction; shadows darkened; the consoles stood out like a flat picture suddenly seen in three dimension; the unheard hum of the ship at rest grew loud and demanding; and the voice of his battlemate boomed deep, distorted by slowness.
"What?" he said, switching the AMBLE system off again.
"You don't have to go through with this, you know," Luciano repeated.
Smith laughed, releasing the tension held in check. "What would you do with the ship, just give it back?"
"We'd think of something."
"Yeah, we. I wasn't the one who needed a ship for some Crazy Larry quest. And let me tell you it wasn't easy finding one to fit your specifications, either."
"Hey, I know, Luc, and I appreciate it." "But you're going ahead with it."
"I should have my brains probed. You, too, except they wouldn't find anything there. Why us? Why you?" he asked, echoing words spoken so often in days past, knowing the answer would be the same. "Come on, Luc, who else cares enough aboutten research scientists who spent the last two years out on some frozen ball of ice working on something few people ever heard of and fewer still would understand? The insurance companies are afraid to take the risk, and the only government around with a navy to speak of is the Stellar Union."
"Well, the whole thing's their fault, anyway; they ought to do something about it."
"Of course. But they won't. The Union navy doesn't exist to do anything useful. Besides, a large-scale attack is too risky: they're right about that, at least."
"And this cockaloonie idea isn't?"
"I didn't say that, but it gives me a lot better chance of getting her out alive."
"That's what it all comes down to, isn't it?" Luciano said sourly. "A woman."
"Not just a woman. Delilah." When Luciano looked unappeased, Smith continued, "Besides, there are nine other people down theregood people, the ones I've met: Fred, Carlos, Kipchoge. Granted, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Delilah, but none of thein deserves this. Human beings are not laboratory animals, not guinea pigs to be pushed and poked and prodded, inspected and dissected, ordered, scheduled, and kept on a leash. That's not what people are for!"
"Take it easy, Sudden. This is old Luciano you're talking to, and I'm not arguing; I'm worrying."
Smith gave a short but genuine grin and relaxed a trifle. "Sorry, Luc. Just nerves. I guess I'm not that eager to go down there, either. But that's the way the comet tumbles, as they say." He stepped into place, took a deep breath and let it out. "Let's go," he said decisively. "You're going; I'm staying," grumbled Luciano, but his fingers did not hesitate at the controls for the transporter beam.
Smith began to tingle, lost the world for a moment, and had to stifle the old familiar urge to stretch and scratch as a strange room grew around him, large and hot, damp and empty. Near what appeared to be a concealed airlock was a spacesuit locker. The suits it held were two-legged but not designed for people. Aside from some containers he couldn't identify, there was nothing else, no sign anyone ever came there.
At opposite ends of the room were a pair of large ovals, outlined in bright colors, that had to be doorways. They both had the fuzzy, shifting opacity of force fields, though the smaller one was overdue for maintenance. The field rippled, out of sync, and the door hummed faintly. He decided to try it, anyway: he didn't want a well-traveled path just yet.
He stepped through ...
. . . And found himself in a cleared space in a crowded room, three feet from a startled insectoid of the sort that might have fit the spacesuits. So much for bright ideas, he thought. His finger was squeezing the trigger of the powergun while both were still reacting with shock. The Tollah jerked, stiffened, and fell like a dead tree, its angular body disappearing into the mist at Smith's feet.
While the slight splash was still echoing, Smith darted to the ri,ght, down an aisle, and out another door. The new room was smaller, the size of the first one he'd entered, with a similar wide doorway at one end. Out a third door, however, came another Tollah, this one armed and in a strange harness that wrapped around his head and torso; what looked like a speaking cup extended up out of his chest. That alien, too, went down before the handblaster was out of its holster.´
Deciding to be a bit more conservative with his energy, Smith thumbed the powergun down a few notches. Tollah didn't seem particularly resistant, and he might need the power later. For lack of a better idea, he decided to try where the High Tollah had come from ....
He found her in a room of harsh light and garish color, on a strangely shaped thing that might have been couch or bed or neither. She was wearing gold mesh and honey-cclored skin, an outfit her coworkers claimed to have gotten used to. She hadn't heard him come in.
Seeing no one else about, he inquired quietly, "Do the Tollah find that as distracting as I do?"
"Sudden!" she cried, but there was more terror than warmth in her voice. His glance shifted as hers did, suddenly, jerkily, and a six-legged nightmare of jaws and claws sprang out of the mist.
He fired, but he'd left the gun set on medium ....
Contributed by Christian Klein (6023) on Aug 12, 2003.