"Well, this looks as good a place as any." Roy McIntyre said to Burro. "start the mining bore, Burro, let's se what we got."
"yeehaw." Came the reply as the anthropomorphic robot companion unslung the complex mining excavation tool and began to set it up.
They were in a rift valley on an uncharted world near the Frontier system., One which had only recently become available for exploration since the restructure of the Crown Empire. Roy and Burro were just crazy enough to come here, to the system designated XZ-12. Even though they had been warned away countless times by everyone from Geezy to the crew at BETA itself.
Roy didn't see the problem. Sure there was only this one small dumbell shaped planetoid in a complex orbit around a white dwarf star and a blob of neutronium fifteen miles across. But the orbit seemed stable, and the planetoid showd signs of starstone radiation, meaning it might, just might, have a good deposit. And the light from the white dwarf wasn't the sort of light that would cause a reaction.
"Yeehaw, rrread-y Roy." Burro crowed, breaking Roy out of his reverie. "Ok, burro, " Roy said as he took hold of the mining tool. "Let's get lucky."
* * *
"Niko, Shane, we may have a problem." Commander Walsh began. "I just got a report that a ship has gone missing near the system XZ-12. Roy McIntyre's ship."
"Roy? What's that old prospector gotten into this time?" Shane asked.
"XZ-12 - isn't that the neutron star system near Frontier?" Niko added.
Walsh nodded. "Yes, Niko. An unstable configuration between a neutron star and a white dwarf. It's only existed for about a thousand years, and BETA scientists estimate it's going to collapse anytime now."
"What do you mean, collapse?" Shane asked.
"When a neutron star gets into a close orbit around another star, such as a white dwarf, the two gravity fields interact. Normally, the neutron star is flung off again after a short while. This time, the neutron star brought along a friend, a small planetoid about two thousand miles long. BETA scientists estimate that when the final confluence occurs, when the neutron star comes to it's perigee, or closest point to the white dwarf, it will dip beneath the roche limit of the other star."
Niko gasped. "A Starquake?"
"A big one, Niko. This system is only six lightyears from Frontier. The waves from the starquake will propogate through hyperspace and effect the central star of Frontier. We're already sending every available ship to that system to preparefor an evacuation if the shockwaves propogate a nova."
"Hang on ... what is a starquake?" Shane asked.
Commander Walsh flicked on his computer screen. On it the display indicated a binary star system, with one of the two stars much smaller than the other. "A Starquake will occur when a large concentration of mass, such as a neutron star, approaches within the roche limit of another star. That is, within fifteen hundred miles of the surface. We have'nt yet witnessed one, but Andorian records indicate six have occured within the past eight thousand years. This will be number seven. Two of those six caused a nova to occur in star systems within eight lightyears of the starquake. What actually happens is that the gravity fields interfere with each other on the quantum level. The neutron star, being so much more concentrated in it's gravity field literally tears the other star apart, causing a resonance effect that normally blows the atmosphere off the larger star, forming a nebula similar to the Crab Nebula. The neutron star is normally blown to pieces by the massive shockwaves, and it is the destruction of that intense gravity field that causes a shockwave to travel through hyperspace. It rapidly disperses, but anything within that system will be broken into pieces smaller than a molocule, and objects up to a parsec distant will be shattered. Unfortunately, the hyperspace shockwave has a companion in normal space, which travels at the same speed. It is a condensed wave of tachyons, which, if they hit banother star, set up secondary fusion reactions all through the atmosphere of the star. It probably won't go nova, but the massive solar disturbances will make life unbearable for up to ten years until the star settles down."
The image on the screen drasmatically displayed the effect that Commander Walsh descrbied as the graphics showed the neutron star passing close to the white dwarf, pulling the other star apart, which then exploded, blowing the neutron star to bits and sending a massive shockwave through the empty space to interfere with the Frontier star. Massive solar flares were the last image displayed. Solar flares that almost reached the orbit of the farming world itself.
"Zachery and Doc will be on their way just as soon as they finish up their current mission. I want you two to go to XZ-12 and get McIntyre out of there, along with any other prospectors that might be hunting starstones. Then get to Frontier and make ready to assist with the evacuation. If the shockwaves are strong enough, you'll only have about sixty hours before the solar flare radiation overwhelms the magnetic field of the planet and begin to sterilize it."
Shane and Niko exited the commander's office and made their way to the charge chamber. In the elevator, they looked at each other solomnly, but said nothing. Once on the platform, they went to their stations and stood ready. The chamber lit up in the familiar jacob's ladder of side effects as the energy systems channeled bioelectric power into their waiting bodies. Their badges coordinated, along with their implants, the energy which permeated their very cells and built up to an almost painful level before the charge finished and the chamber's lightshow faded away. Both of them felt the familiar autonomic discharge which occured as their bodies bled off excess energy in a visible flare which soon setled down.
"You know, I always feel very itchy after a charge." Shane said as they settled down into the skycar that would take them to the Ranger Corsasir waiting at the launchbay. Niko grinned. "You feel itchy, I get a ferocious tingling feeling that starts at my scalp, but then runs down every bone in my body." She shivered deliciously, then stamped her booted feet hard. "Oh, that feels better."
Shane smiled, then winced, and scratched lustily all over for a few seconds, accompanied by Niko's hearty laughter.
* * *
"Starstones Roy, Star-stones!" Burro crowed as they uncovered a single glowing red crystal the size of Roy's hand.
"Well I'll be. Lookee that one, Burro. And only a foot or so down. If it's going to be that easy, we'll be rich before the day's out! Yeeeha!"
* * *
"Ranger Corsair ready for launch." Shane told Flight control.
"ALMA ready. All systems active." The automatic system reported.
"Ranger Corsair, you are go for launch. Good luck to you." flight Control responded as Shane gunned the engines and the aerodynamic, wide corsair leapt forward with a boost from the launch systems.
The ship shot out of the short launch tubes and arced upwards, rapidly climbing out of the atmosphere which rapidly thinned, enabling it to acheive higher and higher speeds. Within a few minutes it had broken free of the atmosphere and rocketed past BETA Space Station, a huge complex twice the size of a battlecruiser which was often the first thing that a traveller saw when first coming to Earth. The Space Station itself was originally an interstellar ramship, one of three that had flown to the Centaurii system over eighty years ago to fight mankind's first battle with the alien forces now known as the Crown Empire. Upon it's return, along with two others, they had been mothballed until BETA requisitioned and refurbished this one into an orbital fortress and command post.
"Ready for hyperspace, Goose." ALMA reported in it's sultry approximation of a human voice. "Ready?" Shane asked Niko, who nodded.
"Then let's do it." He pushed the control tab, and the engines surged beneath them as the shp leapt into the unstable realm that was hyperspace.
Once in the non-einsteinian realm that was hyperspace, seeing the red-shifted streaks of the void streaking past at incredible speeds, Shane visibly relaxed. "Two hours until drop-out at XZ-12, Niko. You should get some rest. Knowing old Roy, he won't want to go, no matter what we tell him."
"You're right, Shane. Are the horses secure?" She asked. On this small ship, the cargo compartment was inaccessible to the cree cabin, which really only consisted of two chairs, side by side. The cargo module was a single pod that would drop out on request, but was self-contained.
"Of course they are. Don't worry, We'll get Roy out in plenty of time, and anybody else as well." Shane smiled and gently stroked her cheek. Niko leaned into the gesture, smiled, then sat back and closed her eyes. Within a few minutes, she was sleeping soundly.
"hmm. I wish it was that easy for me." Shane said to himself as he watched ALMA fly the ship through hyperspace.
* * *
Roy was quietly chuckling to himself as he loaded Starstone after starstone into the special packing crates which were then loaded into the cargo hold of his old Starhopper Eight Thousand. "How many is that Burro?"
"he-he-he. We're rich, Burro, rich beyond our wildest dreams. Sixty-eight starstones at a current price of ten thousand credits per stone. Six hundred eighty thousand credits! I'll buy a new ship. And buy you a new body, Burro. You've needed an overhaul for a long time, now we can afford it, pal!"
Roy paused for a second, then looked around at the ink-black sky and the small speck that was brighter than the rest. He took a deep breath of the dry canned suit air, then shouldered the mining tool.
"C'mon Burro. We've got Starstones to find."
* * *
"Ok, there's the planetoid, now whwere's Roy's ship?" Niko commented as she scanned the starfield in vain hope that her eyes would pick out the speck of metals that was the other spacecraft before ALMA's sensors could.
"Scanning now." ALMA reported.
"According to the readouts, the neutron star is less than three hours from perigee. We're going to be cutting it close even when we find his ship. ALMA, make sure the hyperdrive is fully charged in case we have to make a quick getaway." Goose ordered.
"Understood Goose. Sensors have located one ship only in the system. Laded on the planetoid, grid coordinates onscreen." ALMA replied.
"OK, I'm taking her down." Goose said as he switched to manual flight and piloted the ship down to land on the airless rock's surface less than fifty meters from Roy's Starhopper.
Goose and Niko, in full pressures suits, stepped out of the Corsair's cabin and turned to their own cargo hold. The two cybersteeds, Mel and Triton, were powered up and ready for action, as always.
"Where the hell is Roy?" Shane grumbled.
"We'll find him, don't worry. How much time do we have, ALMA?" Niko asked.
"Two hours, fifty-four minutes." Came the reply from the computer, silently tracking the approaching neutron star.
"OK, Mel, scan for Burro, and lock on." Niko told her steed. Seconds later, Mel turned to the south, where a huge boulder had rolled away from the rockface, leaving a narrow passage.
"I'll go get Roy, Goose. You stay here and make sure ALMA's ready just in case." Niko told him.
"You got it, babe." He replied as he walked over towards Roy's ship.
Niko & Mel galloped through the narrow pass and down a steep ravine. After about forty minutes, they could hear Roy's happy banter over the radio channel as he chatted to his constant companion, Burro.
"Roy? It's Niko - can you hear me?"
"Ranger Niko, what in blazes are you doing here?" Roy looked up to see the lithe figure galloping towards him on her bronze cybersteed.
"We've got to get out of here, Roy. This star system is going to explode in about two hours."
"Niko, I can't leave. Lookee here, I've found the mother lode!!" He held up a kings ransom in starstones. Crystals as large as his head, and from what Niko could gather, many of them.
"Roy, if you stay here, you'll never get to spend any of the money you'll make from these starstones. Now get back to your ship!"
Roy sighed. "Just give me another ten minutes to finish this load, and I'll pack up and leave. I suppose the haul I've currently got is enough to keep an old man happy for the rest of his days; eh, Burro?"
Niko dismounted and began heaving crates onto the gravcart that was parked off to one side as Roy shouldered his mining tool. Just as he put thetool onto the cart, his foot slipped, the the tool fired. It's modulated laser beam lancing out and into the rockface. With a silent roar, the face collapsed, tonnes of rock rolling downwards in a landslide of dramatic proprtions. When the dust settled, Niko stared in silent awe at the structures that had been uncovered.
"Roy, head back to the ship, and tell Goose that I'll be along ... shortly."
* * *
Shane saw the burro hauling a cat full of padded cases comng through the ravine, but no Niko, so he galloped out to meet Roy and and haul.
"She uncoverd some old buildings. Said she'd be right behind me."
"ALMA, what's our timeframe?" Shane requested
"One hour before perigee, Goose." came the reply.
"C'mon Roy, I'll help you load this, then you get your ship out of here, understood?"
Thirty minutes later, Shane called Niko on the radio. "Niko, time's up. It'll take you all the remaining time to get back here, come on!"
The reply was faint, but clear enough. "OK, Goose, I'm on my way. Let's go Mel."
"Niko, look out!" She heard and glanced up just in time to see an already weakened and precarious rocky outcrop beginning to collapse on her. Geting to her feet in the low gravity, she overcompensated and floated off the surface. Precious seconds later, heer feet touched down and she pushed off. Not fast enough - the huge boulders were rolling downhill towards her faster and faster. Each one the size of a small building, they rolled slowly, but with immenent velocity. Niko tapped her badge to generate a psychic shield, even as she knew it would not protect her. Seconds before the first huge boulder struck, she was violently knocked clear and saw a flash of bronze as the boulder filled the space where she had just been.
Coming to a halt, she watched the remains of the rockslide slowly fill up the bottom of Roy's Starstone valley and the alien ruins that he had accidentally uncovered in his search. She also noticed the broken remains of a cybersteed, her cybersteed.
"Mel! Oh no!" She leapt downwards, heedless of the everpresent danger in her haste to reach the ruined androbot. Reaching his side seconds later, she noiced a dim flicker in his circuits, and knew that her faithful friend had sacrificed himself to get her out of danger. He had been the flash of bronze that had knocked her clear of the rockslide - and had paid for it with his life.
"Mel, what have you done?" She asked, unsure of what to do. Doc would be able to help, she knew he could. He had helped build these cybersteeds.
"I - did - what - was - nec - es - sary." Mel's vocaliser stuttered.
"We'll get you back to BETA, you'll be fine." She said, then looked around helplessly. The Rift valley was effectively sealed off now. No way she could be rescued by overland travel, even with the low gravity and Triton's enhanced strength and grace.
"Goose, can you read me?" No answer. The rift valley walls must be blocking the transmission.
"Mel - don't leave me."
"Circuits - fading - no - power - left. Remember -" the light went out in the faceplate as the cybersteed's internal power systems finally failed.
"Dammit Roy, forget about the Starstones. Prep your ship for takeoff!" Shane growled.
"I ain't leaving without my stones, Ranger." Roy said, but he finished packing and sealed the cargo hold. C'mon Burro, time to leave." They climbed into the small cabin and soon the ship's engines began to glow with the prefire emissions that indicated it was getting ready for takeoff.
"Niko, we're ready here, how far away are you?" Shane called.
"Niko, can you read me?" Still nothing. Shane frowned. "ALMA, locate Mel."
A few seconds pause then, "Mel's transponder is no longer functioning. He is non-functional."
WHAT!?! "What is his last recorded position?"
"In the vicinity of Roy's last dig." ALMA responded.
`Roy, take off and get clear. I'm going to get Niko and then I'll be right behind you. Now launch, old man!" Shane growled. And then breathed a sign of releif when roy's ship ignited and began to lift off.
"Full power, ALMA, get me to Mel's last position, and I want to be there yesterday!"
- - -
"Shane, can you read me? Triton? Roy? Anybody?" She felt cold, and noticed a strange sensation. Looking down, she noticed a small cloud of mist coming out of her thigh. `Oh no, I've got a leak.' She funbled for a patch, but noticed that the patch case was missing, it's straps torn free. `Must have lost it when Mel pushed me out of the way, or when I ran back down here.'
She tapped her badge, and felt the release of psychic energy as it surged through her. `Sleep' she told her body, and felt her organs and even most of her autonomic systems beginning to go into a deep meditative sleep state. `It's the only way I'll survive.' She thought to herself as, with her last conscious action, she tweaked on her emergency radio beacon, then fell into blessed unconsciousness.
Eight minutes later, the Corsair swooped low over the rift valley, Vtolling into a hovering position, Goose leapt from the cockpit to land beside Niko's prone body. He took in the scene in one glance, Mel's shatterred frame, Niko's unmoving and almost deflated spacesuit, and the faint glimmering of her psychic wenergy field that indicated hshe was protecting herself using her powers.
Picking her up, Goose leapt back into the open cockpit of the Corsair. As soon as the windscreen had sealed again, he said "Emergency repressure, ALMA!" He felt a buffetting as the air from the tanks rushed in to fill the volume left by the vacuum of space. As soon as his suit registered the barest of aatompsheres, he pulled off his own helmet, then unbolted Niko's.
"ALMA, get us the hell out of here, now!"
As the ship leapt outwards on it's pale blue exhaust, Shane gently stroked Niko's soft but cold cheek and waited. Soon, the glimmer of her power faded, and she took a breath, then opened her eyes.
"Shane. It's good to see you." She smiled and kissed him.
A few minutes later, the Corsair rendesvouszd with Roy's ship as it sputtered it's way into clear space.
"Roy, are you ready for the jump to hyperspace?" Goose asked.
"Hyperdrive?!? Ranger Gooseman, this old bucket needs at least twenty minutes to charge up for a jump, it's only got a class three computer, nothing like the class fifteen's you Rangers carry." Came Roy's exasperated reply.
"Roy, we don't have twenty minutes. The perigee is in less than six, and the star is only two light-minutes away. When the neutron star hits, we'll be char-broiled in a second unless we jump, now!"
"Ah told you, Ranger Gooseman. This ship is not capable of making a jump that fast. It simply doesn't have the computing power for the calculations, and I can't risk an uncomputed jump. I'd tear the blasted ship apart!"
"Jam-synch." Niko said in a hoarse whisper.
"What?" Shane said.
"Jam-synch the hyperdrives together. Like we did when running from the Spectre station two and a bit years ago. Let ALMA do the calculations for both ships and trigger the jump for both." She finished.
"Good idea. Roy, switch your system to full autopilot. We're taking control." Goose ordered.
"I sure hope you Galaxy Rangers know what you're doing. All systems on autopilot now." Roy replied.
"ALMA, you know what to do. Set us a direct course to Frontier, and hit it!"
"Accessing Roy's ship. Linking to the computer. Aligning systems. Receiving data. Calculating hyperjump course. Jam-sync." ALMA listed off the commands as it exicuted them. At the last one, as it said the command, the hyperjump was already in progress as the two ships leapt into the void simultaneously.
"Hoooooo-wheeee!" Came roy's delighted cry over the radio as the wilds of hyperspace opened up and engulfed them.
Seven minutes later, a stellar event occured that would have resounding implications. A neutron star, twenty miles across, approached within fifteen hundred miles of a stellar surface. The intense gravity tides pulled huge streamers of stellar material free from the larger star's surface to swirl around the neutron star, which began to glow brighter as the particles of gas, accelerated to almost three quarters the speed of light by the intense gravity, impacted the surface. As it approached below the 1500 mile limit, the core of the larger star was pulled into an egg shape by the tidal forces. Thesudden andrapid shift caused massive instability within the star, and the disruption of the nuclear balance caused a massive fusion upwelling that resulted in an explosion of mammoth proportions as fully two thirds of the star's mass expanded outwards on a shockwave of fire and heat.
When this shockwave struck the still infalling neutron star, it was thrown into a very rapid spin, then buffeted by megatons of burning gas. The outer layers of the neutron star were stripped away by the thermal shock effects and it began to disintegrate under the extreme stress. As it broke apart, it's intense gravity buckling the explosion into two planes, a radiative bowshock wave erupted from the remains of the two stars. Moving at lightspeed, the shockwave swept past the planetoid, already molten, which shattered under the added stress, and rapidly expanded to fill up the space within the XZ-12 system. Within the realm of hyperspace, a shockwave was now underway, travelling as fast as a ship, but with enough force to shatter a star.
"Sensors detect a disturbance behind us, Goose." ALMA reported.
"The starquake?" He asked, already knowing the answer.
"Affirmative. It will overtake us in eight hundred seconds."
"What the hell? How can it move faster than we can? I thought all things moved at the same speed in hyperspace?" Shane grumbled.
"We are not moving at full velocity. Initiating a jam-sync has caused our hyperdrive to operate at a lower quantum level than normal. Our journey to Frontier will end in nine hundred twenty seconds. The wave will overtake us in seven hundred eighty seconds." ALMA reported calmly.
"Will our shields protect us?" Niko asked.
"Unknown. The energy quotients involved are to high for me to be able to make even an educated guess." ALMA responded.
ALMA, what if we had another object blocking us from the wave, say another ship - what would you say our chances would be then?" Goose asked.
"Higher probability of survival, but still an unknown." ALMA replied.
"Roy, you hear all that?" Shane asked over the intership line.
"I hear you, ranger. I am not sacrificing my cargo." came Roy's stubborn reply.
"If you don't use your ship as a block, Roy. We all die. If you do, then we might all live. Which would you prefer, dead with millions going to waste, or living with the possibility of gaining wealth?" Shane hinted.
"I'd prefer to be a living person with millions. OK, hang on while I sidle on over and transfer to your ship." Roy grumbled.
"Seven hundred forty seconds until wave impact." ALMA reminded them.
Roy's starhopper slid in tight against the corsair and he clambered aboard the cargo bay which had been taken up by Mel, but was now empty. There was just enough room for him and burro, along with a crate of starstones. He closed the cargo bay door with a sniff. "So long mother lode, Maybe I'll see you again sometime."
"Fifty seconds to wave impact." ALMA chirped. "Cargo bay secure and pressurized. Starhopper moving into position behind us to put us in it's shadowcone against the wave.
"Roy, brace yourself." Niko reminded the old prospector as she belted herself securely into the seat.
After a pause ... "Ten seconds to wave impact."
"ALMA, energise the shields to maximum, then put everything you've got into the aft quarter. We're gonna need it." Goose reminded the system.
"Five seconds to impact - four ... three ... two ... one ..." They saw a wave of bluish energy pass by them, turning the normally hellish red of hyperspace into a brilliant blue tube for a few seconds, then nothing. Goose and Niko looked at each other, then, just as Goose opened his mouth to ask what was going on, a rumbling vibration passed through the hull. A sudden accelerative lurch was the next thing they felt, along with a sudden screeching noise as metal was tortured somewhere along the spaceframe. A brilliant bluish-white light flashed all around them and seemed to be brighter inside the ship than outside. "The starhopper has been destroyed. Shields failing." ALMA reported.
The buffetting continued unabated for almost a minute, then passed. And they could clearly see the wave as it continued to move ahead of them, a bluish ring within the deep red of the hyperspace realm. "Preparing to drop out of hyperspace, stand by for deceleration." ALMA reported as the ship shot back into normal space with a sickening lurch and a deafening roar.
"Hull breach!" Goose cried as he slammed his helmet on, then checked Niko, who already had hers on and was snapping it into place. They both glanced at her thigh for an instant, then Goose was already slamming a patch onto the pinprick as she began to remind him.
The breach was from somewhre behind the twin chairs, so it was not going to be easily repaired. "ALMA, decompress the cabin. We'll run on our suits until we land." Goose said. Niko switched on the broadband radio. "This is Galaxy Ranger Corsair calling any and all Galay Ranger craft. We are in need of assistance."
A familliar voice out of the night brought a smile to both their faces. "Hey, Niko, and the Gooseman. How nice of you two to drop by."
Then Zach came on the line. "We have you on scanner. GV is on intercept. What happened?"
"We rescued Roy, but his ship's been destroyed, along with his mother lode. How's the Frontier star? Do we have to evacuate?"
"No. The shockwave wasn't strong enough to do anything than some minor solar flares. Frontier hasn't been affected by this starquake."
Doc came back on the line. "So my Gooseman, tell me, what was it like, seeing two stars collide?"
"To tell you the truth Doc, I'll be happy if I never have a christmas bird again."
"What are you talking about?"
"C'mon Doc. I've just been shaken rather dramatically, and almost baked by thousands of degress of thermal shockwave. I know what those birds feel like now, especially the goose!"
"Gooseman, my Gooseman. A friendly word of advice ... keep your real job, don't become a comedian." As Niko quietly folded in on herself, laughing hilariously at Shane's hurt, bewilered, and bellicose expression. She didn't stop laughing until after the ships docked.