Chapter 12

The Angani Sector, B.T. 750

Vidnu hurried out of the Council Sanctum and was heading for the starport and his ship when he saw Akama standing in front of the control panel that operated the gates. "Ah, Akama—it's good that you're here! Listen, I need you too—…"

"Open the gates?" Akama finished quietly, his voice desolate.

Then Vidnu noticed Akama's bowed head, his clenched fists, the way his fingers curled tightly into the palms of his hands.

"What happened?"

A minute passed before Kaim at last caught sight of the asteroid through his ship visor. "What the hell…" he gasped, the breath catching in his throat as he surveyed, first-hand, the sheer size of the thing.

It was a menacing colossus of a rock, towering above Kaim's ship and sending shivers of vertigo down his spine. All across its bulk were the scars of past battles—hundreds of craters from the meteoroids that had smashed futilely against it along its centuries-old orbit.

And now, it was poised to crash straight into the heart of the Mzungan homeworld—the last confrontation between two titanic forces.

And I have nine minutes to destroy this monstrosity…?

Shaking the thought out of his head, Kaim set his jaw, brought the abstructor to bear upon the asteroid, and began firing.

"You what!" exclaimed Vidnu, disbelief plain on his face.

"I opened the gates for him."

"You—…" began Vidnu, then stopped himself and exhaled sharply. "By the gods…there is no time! I shall go after Kaim; you must contact the Mzungu, inform them of the threat and organize a fleet of ships armed with mining lasers to—"

"No," cut in Akama, his voice quiet but determined. "I was the one who let him out. You contact the Mzungu—I will go to Kaim."

Two minutes.

Two minutes of constant gunfire, of an endless stream of bullets hammering away at heavy rock.

It seemed to Kaim that the entirety of his life was based solely upon the ship's digital clock—mockingly bright on the computer screen—and the projectiles that continued to pummel against the asteroid, lighting the space around the spearhead hypnotically green.

Two minutes of complete, absolute futility.

The asteroids he had mined before—in an earlier life, in his own universe—were harmless things, small and stony, rocks that had blown up to yield their valuable commodities after only a few shots.

But not this one.

Two minutes, now into three minutes.

Dread began to fill Kaim's mind—soon replaced by panic as the long seconds ticked by without even fragments splintering off the massive boulder.

Vidnu's ship powered through the relatively short distance between the Angani base and the Mzungan homeworld, but he was out of time and rapidly running out of patience. Picking up the radio transmitter, he wired into an emergency channel and called out, "This is Jarla Vidnu speaking! Please, if anyone is receiving this message, respond to me immediately. Your homeworld is at dire risk!"

A short streak of static buzzed in his ear, then a voice from the channel operator: "Good day to you, Jarla. What is the problem?"

"There is a rogue asteroid on a collision course with the planet—you have only six minutes to assemble a task force to dismantle it and evacuate as many inhabitants as you can."

Vidnu heard a violent oath, and then the operator said, "The Matriarch—?"

"The Matriarch is safe in the Angani station—quickly, you must mobilize!"

Three minutes, now into four minutes.

Kaim was frantically pulling the trigger in an attempt to fire more bullets, and to hell with the faltering energies.

Four minutes, counting down to five minutes.

Sweat streamed down Kaim's face. The ship's energy reservoir was dropping dangerously low, and he was now firing on recharging electricity.

Five minutes.

He had stopped watching the clock. He didn't want to see it; didn't want to see the incriminating numbers that steadily—unerringly—relentlessly—ticked onward, screaming of the hopelessness of his efforts, screaming of his inevitable failure.

A failure that would wipe out eight billion people from the face of the universe.

When his own transmitter rang out, Kaim nearly toppled from his seat in alarm. Grabbing for the device, he pulled it to his ear and said hoarsely, "Yes?"

"Kaim—this is Akama. Can you see me? I'm within visual range of your ship and the asteroid."

Kaim caught sight of Akama approaching from a distance in a Paxian Selenologica, and with the Scholar's arrival, the dreamlike haze that had clouded his mind before suddenly lifted—and a new sharp urgency took its place.

"How…how much longer?"

"Less than four minutes, Kaim," answered Akama in a quiet voice. With a start, Kaim glanced behind him and realized with a sinking feeling that the Scholar was right—the azure orb of the Mzungan homeworld glittered in the backdrop, still far away—but not far enough.

Kaim heard Akama as he drew in a shuddering breath and then cried, "Give this madness up, Kaim! It is hopeless. You cannot do anything! Give it up before it kills you!"

"What the hell are you saying?"

"I will stop you if I must," raged Akama, "and the gods be damned! I will not have another death upon my conscience!"

"So you are saying, then, that the lives of eight billion people will not hang on your 'conscience'?"

"I…" Akama faltered. "Then tell me—why are you risking your life for an entire world of people you have never known, and who will never know you?"

Kaim was silent.

"Answer me, Kaim!"

Unexpectedly, he laughed in relief. "Jesus," he said breathlessly, choking up with amusement, "I am such a goddamn idiot. I should have done this from the start."

"What are you saying?"

Kaim turned the spearhead around, firing the engines and urging it away—then reversed his ship and slowed until it directly faced the asteroid.

"Give Vidnu my best, Akama," he said, "In case this stunt doesn't work."


Kaim shoved the throttle forward, and the spearhead crashed into the asteroid.

The explosion was blinding; Akama shielded his eyes from the fiery blast, and still the radiance seeped through his fingers. He must have activated the self-destruct sequence, he thought detachedly as splinters of space rock whistled past the Selenologica. There was no other way his ship could have taken apart that asteroid so completely.

Then the shockwave slammed into his ship, sending it tumbling across space. Akama was pitched forward violently, head slamming into the dashboard as electric plasma crackled across the shields, overloading diffusers and warp drives. The transmitter fell from its holster, garbling and buzzing as it went.

It took a while for Akama to realize through the pain that was blooming in his skull that the garbling and buzzing was actually a voice. Fumbling around blindly in the semidarkness, he found the transmitter vibrating on the floor and pulled it toward him.

"Akama! Akama, damn it, respond to me or I swear I will—"

Akama swallowed dryly, his tongue feeling thick in his mouth. "Vidnu?" he managed to croak.

"Akama? Blessed be the gods! I saw the asteroid explode—how in the nine hells did you take it apart?"

"There would still be fragments—"

"The Mzungu fleet is taking care of them even as we speak. Tell me, how—…"

"Kaim!" Akama gasped out in panic, suddenly remembering. "Where is he? Did you see him? Where—!"

"No, I haven't seen him," said Vidnu, and his words fell like dark lead in Akama's ears. "Why do you ask?"

"He…" Akama's shoulders sagged and he shook his head dazedly. "He activated his ship's self-destruct charge and flew into the asteroid."

Vidnu was silent—more likely than not shocked, Akama thought bitterly.

"Then, he is…" Vidnu said at length, in hushed tones.

"Dead?" came a familiar voice, equal parts amused and exhausted. "No, I'm still here, I'm afraid."

"Kaim!" Akama cried in disbelief. "How did in the name of the—…"

Then Kaim's escape pod drifted across the Selenologica's visor, and Akama merely gaped at it while Vidnu laughed on the intercom.

"It's been a while since I last flew around in an escape pod," Kaim said ruefully, "so I apologize if my silence while fumbling with the communications system made you panic."

Akama shook his head, smiling to himself. "No—I should have put more faith in you."

His eyes swept over the vast emerald expanse of the Mzungu homeworld, past the shards of asteroid rock that burned bright streaks through the atmosphere, vaporizing into space dust. Kaim's spearhead was nowhere to be seen.

"What about your ship?" he said at last to Kaim.

"Well," interjected Vidnu, still chuckling, "We will get to that, in time..."

Safely ensconced in the cloaked hull of her ship, Uu'Kii had discreetly tapped into the intercom channel that Kaim, Akama and Vidnu were conversing in. As she listened, something almost like a smile flittered across her otherwise emotionless features.

The UrQa Queen watched as the asteroid shattered and disintegrated, her fingers burying themselves into the palms of her hands, knuckles white and strained from suppressed rage.

"My Lady…?"

One of the crewmembers of the Mothership tentatively approached her. "The operation has failed…it seems that—"

"Yes," cut in the Queen. "There is a new game piece on the playing field." Through her anger, she allowed a feral smile to cross her face.

"I shall be interested to see how this shall end."