Ben found himself shoved into a large room already crowded with a mass of frightened creatures. A few tall Dorillians in the corner were already panicking from the overcrowded confinement. He should be scared, too, but instead he was furious with himself. He'd had such a tight grip on Rob, and in an instant he'd lost him. Had the robots gunned him down like the few others who'd tried to make a break for it? He shuddered at the thought.
A girl next to him sobbed quietly, her face streaked with tears. The door behind them closed as the other slaves were rerouted to other rooms. Ben stayed close to the wall. He pulled the girl back with him. She looked up at him, her expression enough to pull at his heart.
"Stay close. This isn't over yet," Ben said quietly.
He managed to push his way closer to the door. He wasn't about to give up. His little brother was somewhere outside and he intended to find him.
He couldn't find a door mechanism but he'd expected that. It was the glowing red light above that interested him. Now to get up to it.
He looked down at the girl, "What college?"
She looked at him blankly, "What?"
"You were at the science fair. What college do you go to?" He repeated.
"Earth University of Liberal Arts."
Ben groaned. "Damn, I'd hoped you were in Rob's school."
"The geek with the glasses?" She asked, blinking in confusion.
Ben looked down at her with a frown, "That geek is my kid brother, and he's a genius. Do you know anything mechanical?"
She visibly ruffled, her tears stopping as she fumed, "Of course! My Dad owns his own hovercar repair shop!"
Ben started to smile, "Perfect. I need your help."
Rob wired his logic circuit into the middle of the robot's back. Through his glasses, he worked on the programming a little. As annoying as wearing glasses might be, there were times they definitely came in handy. He'd honestly never thought to use them this way. Maybe redesigning them a little to make them easier to use all on their own without a computer terminal nearby would be a good idea.
If he were right, using the robot's built-in communication systems would enable the signal to go out to all Shadow robots in the immediate area. Now to only hope what he'd read about standard issue Shadow robots was indeed correct and his logic circuit still functional. No way to know that now, he had to take the chance.
He activated the robot power supply.
A series of lights across several systems and circuit boards lit up. His logic circuit in the middle lit up in bright blue. Rob allowed himself a moment to feel relief.
Rob looked towards the door. He knew in a matter of minutes the board would not only fry itself, but would most likely melt down into its component parts with the amount of power hooked up to it. Just as well. There would be no coming back for it.
A downward whir from the hall preceded the sound of robots crashing to the ground. Rob grabbed the small blaster from the holster of the robot on the floor in front of him. He didn't like the weight or feel of it in his hands but he needed to be able to protect himself. He armed it with the flip of a switch at the base, glad the training sims had at least prepared him for the possibility.
He ran out into the hall, caution left behind. Most likely there would be no organics at this level and he needed to move fast. The halls were crowded with carts and lifeless robots. Deeper into the ship he searched, but he couldn't find what he was looking for.
Only behind the last door of a dead-end corridor did he find it. A robotic repair station.
The robots in the room lay scattered on the floor. On the far wall sat a large computer mainframe. Rob quickly brought up the core systems. Some of the programming looked different from what he was accustomed to, but his mind quickly adjusted. The challenges of infiltrating the systems and making them dance to his tune consumed him.
He didn't know how long he worked at it, only that when he emerged from his concentration the robots around him were still lifeless. Rob activated a bit of code and stepped away.
And lifeless they would remain.
All the doors around him opened, quickly followed by the security systems shutting down. The main power systems dwindled to maintenance mode.
Good, now to get out of here himself.
Rob brought up a quick schematic of the ship and identified where he stood. He then turned and ran out of the room, suddenly anxious to see daylight again.
Ben's arms started to ache from the shoulders down into his elbows and wrists. He kept his hands clasped under Tara's feet, trying his best to hold her steady as she manipulated the guts of the electronics on the other side of the light above the door.
"I need something conductive!" She announced from above him.
"I have gold," an alien with guttural speech said next to his ear. A tentacle snaked upwards with a glint of yellow held at the end.
"How does it look up there?" Ben asked.
"I can get the door open, but what then? The robots will still be outside," Tara said.
"Let me deal with that," Ben said with more confidence than he felt. If he could grab one of the weapons he might be able to distract the robot long enough to allow some of the people to escape. Or perhaps do a little damage to the ship. So far he hadn't felt the soft shimmer that indicated artificial gravity had been activated, so he hoped that meant they were still on the ground on Earth.
"Okay, get ready," Tara warned.
A spark crackled through the air. The next second the door smoothly slid open. Ben quickly lowered Tara to the ground. He grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her out as people surged out of the room.
Once in the hall he stepped back further into the ship. Like he thought, the robot guards quickly reacted. Ben pushed Tara into the flowing mass of people, hoping the bodies would shelter her in the escape, "Get out of here!"
Ben rushed forward, slamming himself into the nearest robot. They hit the wall of the corridor in a loud crash. With a hard twist at one of the weapon arms, he severed it from the arm of the robot. Flipping the weapon around he fired it directly into the chest of the robot.
Lowering himself down to one knee he turned to aim further down the hall. He fired in quick succession, focusing on keeping his hands as steady as possible as he aimed at each individual robot, starting with those closest to him.
Two robots fired quick shots in return which hit the floor directly in front of him, darkening his pants with the sparks thrown up. Then the robots went silent.
As another robot crashed to the floor, blazing sparks from the hole in its chest, the other robots slowly lowered to the floor. One by one their glowing eyes flickered and went dark.
Sunlight streamed into the hallway from behind him. Someone must have been able to open the outer door. Ben warily rose to his feet, eyeing the robots. They remained motionless.
The next moment all the remaining doors along the corridor slid open. Ben flattened himself against the wall to keep from getting trampled by the fleeing prisoners.
Rob emerged from the ship into the fresh air and a face full of sunlight. It felt wonderful. Never again would he take it for granted. From the ramp above him streamed a constant line of humans and aliens, all running from the ship as fast as possible.
Good, at least that part of his programming worked across the ship as he'd hoped.
He heard sirens coming from all directions. A small group of Galactic Patrol robots zipped in to destroy an unmoving Shadow robot before carting it off away from the ship. Several Galaxy Patrol vehicles landed a short distance away, the roof-mounted weapons swiveling around to lock on the ship.
"Look out!" a male voice shouted at the same time Rob heard a sharp noise to his left.
Rob whirled around. A small creature crawled out of a small access door and swung a weapon towards the fleeing people. His glasses immediately identified the species as Garaxian and began listing common traits. "Temperamental" and "violent tendencies" were high on the list.
"Get back in the ship!" It ordered in a shrill voice, its pig's snout quivering. Small dark eyes looked down the length of a weapon almost as long as it was tall. "You will not escape!"
Rob instinctively hit the ground. The shot flew over his head towards those on the ramp. Several people behind him floated up into the air, encased and trapped in clear bubbles.
A dark shadow passed over Rob. Ben's blue shoes hit the ground next to Rob's face. The image of the shoes disappeared as Ben leaped forward. Rob pushed himself upwards, bringing up his blaster.
Ben was already ahead of him.
With the short green Garaxian focused on firing as much as possible on the fleeing prisoners he didn't see the human until too late. Ben tackled him with a force that threw the weapon into the air. The weapon landed with a bounce and a clatter. As the base of the weapon hit the ground as it bounced, it fired again. Rob dove back into the ship to avoid the shot.
A place Rob definitely didn't want to be in.
Rob scrambled back out and grabbed the bubble weapon, letting his blaster stay on the ground where he'd dropped it. He aimed it at the Garaxian, hoping he knew how to properly fire this weapon if he needed to.
Ben pinned the creature to the ground, kneeling on its back with one knee while keeping hold of one stumpy arm. As it hurled threats of retribution on their heads, Ben looked over at Rob, "Good to see you in one piece!"
Rob stayed where he was, aiming the gun a little off to the right, but ready to fire if the need came, "Same to you."
A Galactic Patrol robot descended out of the sky, swiftly followed by two more. They surrounded Ben and the Garaxian with their weapons ready. Several Galaxy Patrol officers ran forward. Rob relaxed his hold on the weapon, taking the time to notice that the ramp behind him was now empty. In the midst of the officers walked one taller than the others, exuding calm and authority.
Rob immediately recognized the blue-gray hair pulled back into a long ponytail, long pointy ears, slanted eyes, and a band over the forehead. Rondu motioned to Ben, who carefully stood up and backed away. "Goresus, we meet again."
The Garaxian looked up at him furiously, "So, Galactic Patrol has promoted you despite all your failures."
"Today isn't a failure. You won't take any of our citizens today," Rondu said as one of the Galaxy Patrol robots grabbed hold of Goresus and another slipped on a pair of binding shackles. Only then did Rob notice a new insignia sporting the front of Rondu's uniform. An insignia which meant Rondu wasn't a field officer any longer.
Goresus started to say something else, but Rob's ears attuned to another sound. He looked back at the ship, noticing the lights in the corridor were much brighter. How could that have happened? He destroyed most of the programming from the inside!
A deep rough voice announced from the ship, "A small victory, Galactic Patrol, but know Shadow will never be defeated."
"And we will never stop fighting you, Umbra!" Rondu announced.
That was the voice of Umbra? Rob looked back at the ship, suddenly understanding. Whom better to completely reprogram a ship's systems than one of the most sophisticated biological/mechanical computer ever devised?
"It's powering up!" Rob shouted just before the main engines started. Rob ran from the ship, letting the weapon drop from his hands so he could move faster.
"Don't leave me!" Goresus screamed.
Galactic Patrol personnel and robots quickly followed, all fleeing as the powerful engines created a gale force wind along the ground as it rose into the sky. The ship continued to rise, disappearing behind a bank of clouds. Rob watched its progression, fervently thankful he wasn't still on it.
He found himself engulfed in a hug. Ben whispered in his ear, "Don't ever scare me like that again!"
Rob pushed him away, "Tell Shadow that. Are you okay?"
Ben let him go, giving an adrenalin-touched smile that bordered on silly, "I'm great. In the mood for a little more training, in fact."
"Are you sure you want to do this sort of thing full time?" Rob said, gesturing to where the ship had once sat.
"Are you alright?" Tara appeared out of nowhere, grabbing Ben around the middle before he could answer Rob's question. "I can't believe you tackled him. What if he'd shot you?"
"Tara, this is my brother Rob," Ben said with a gesture to Rob.
Tara turned her head to look at him for a moment, but she didn't let Ben go, "Nice to see you again. Isn't your brother the hero? He opened up all the prisoner holding cells!"
Rob scowled at that. Judging from the look on Ben's face, he didn't mind the female attention. The scowl grew worse when he arrived home that night to find out Ben would be seeing Tara later that week for a holo-movie.
"What are you so upset about? I told the Galactic Patrol how much you did inside the ship. You're the reason all the other prisoners got out in time," Ben said a few days later when he came out of another training session.
"I just love being the total idiot no one pays attention to," Rob grumbled.
"You are a little young for her," Ben said, picking up a glass of water.
That comment didn't help him feel any better about it. Tara waved at him cheerfully when she spotted him heading into school. At least she noticed him a little bit now but it was in no way the way he wanted.
He threw his frustrations into programming, working out himself through the new Shadow attack simulation until his every move was precise and strong. Ben did even better in the same simulation. The fact Rob could still beat Nate and Meggy in it didn't do much to improve his mood.
"They're usually down here," Father's voice drifted down to Rob one night.
Rob looked back in time to see a second man in a Galactic Patrol uniform descending the stairs next to Father. Rob turned back to the computer and stopped the training sim.
Ben glared at him from the platform, "I was almost to the next level. Why'd you stop it?"
Ben's posture became stiff as he looked towards the stairs. Rob stood up and turned. Next to Father stood a very thoughtful Rhondu.
"My two sons, Ben and Rob," Father quickly introduced. "Ben, what sim were you working on?"
Ben swallowed hard, "Known Shadow electronics. I just finished level five."
Rondu stepped forward and studied every detail of the Training Platform. Rob's nervousness grew in the silence. The hum of the electronics and computer modules filled the room, sounding like hurricane winds to Rob's sensitive ears.
Rondu slowly turned, his eyes falling on Rob. "You built this."
Rob immediately noted the fact Rondu hadn't asked it as a question, but instead stated it as a truth. Rob swallowed hard and gave a quick nod, "Yes, to help Ben."
Rondu shifted his attention to Ben, "I read your entrance report. What I saw outside the convention center were not the movements of an uncoordinated man."
Ben blushed lightly, looking at Rob, "I've improved since then. With a lot of help."
"Indeed. Rob, would you mind letting me see what this machine of yours is capable of?" Rondu asked.
Rob's stuttered a little in his response. He quickly reset the computer to the base level of the same sim Ben had been working in. Ben stepped out of the way as Rondu took his place in the middle of the platform.
At first, Rondu simply stood still, looking around. Then in a flash he moved. He passed level one in less than a minute and the next three levels a short time later. Rob, Ben and their father crowded around the computer to watch the three monitors. Rob watched in fascination. Each of Rondu's actions was exact. Not a step or movement too many, only exactly what it took to work through the problems presented.
The score at the final level blinked at them less than ten minutes later.
The Training Platform powered down. Rob quickly noted Rondu's even and calm breathing. The man wasn't even out of breath! Rob collapsed into the back of the chair as he looked at the elapsed time for the entire session. No way would he ever beat a score like that.
Rondu stood on the platform studying Rob long enough that Rob started to fidget. "Many of the electronics presented in the sim are classified information."
Rob quickly answered, "No they aren't. Everything in there is what I found in the planetary webs, discovered by my scouting program."
Rondu turned his attention to Father, who confirmed, "The only thing I helped with were the Academy training sessions. Well, and the general flight sims."
Rob kept his eyes on Rondu, wondering what the new Galaxy Patrol Admiral of Earth Sector would say. The calm face didn't give anything away. Rondu stepped down from the platform to look at the computer displays. He then studied Rob for a moment before turning his attention to Ben.
"The Galaxy Patrol Academy program has been expanded to semi-annually," Rondu said. "You are welcome to try out for the new class starting in two months. Your Father has the information as to time and place."
Ben looked at Father in surprise, "I get another chance?"
"If you want to take it. It's your choice," Father said.
"Of course I want to take it!"
"I would like to speak with Rob alone for a moment," Rondu interrupted.
Ben cast a nervous glance at Rondu and then Rob before Father led him upstairs. Rob reached over and shut down the computer and then waited for the bad news to descend on his head. His mind quickly went over the data-spider information results, wondering if the records would be enough to prove he hadn't hacked into the Galaxy Patrol mainframe.
"Both you and Ben handled yourselves very well out there. While many around you panicked, you both found a way out of your situations," Rondu said, taking a seat in the other chair next to the computer.
"Panicking wouldn't have done any good," Rob said.
"When I asked your father about it, he mentioned the sim. I hope you don't mind that I wanted to see it for myself."
"I didn't hack into anything," Rob said, deciding to take the initiative in defending himself. "I can prove it."
"I know your family. I do not believe you would do something like that." Rondu looked at the Training Platform, "I had hoped that you designed something useful. I didn't expect to find something this far along."
"Is that a good thing?" Rob asked cautiously.
Rondu smiled in amusement, laughter appearing in his eyes, no longer the stern Admiral. "Indeed it is. I think you will agree, from personal experience, the Galactic Patrol needs more officers who are highly trained. Your machine could provide that."
"I was thinking of showing the GP Science Core the plans to the Training Platform once I get more programming finished," Rob admitted.
"What are the weaknesses of the design?"
"The design is fine, other than a few hardware tweaks now and again. It's the programming. To make it believable and useful it needs to be highly detailed. I'm limited to what I can find out on the information webs and I know that's rather limited."
"What if you had access to confidential records and retired officers?"
Rob stared at him, but Rondu's face wasn't laughing now. He nervously answered, "That would help a lot, but how could that work?"
"A top secret contract between you and the Galactic Patrol, of course. We don't want anyone learning of the work you are doing. Your mother can help you with the contract. She's already agreed to it, if you agree. The final choice is yours."
Rob cast a look at the Platform, "And it would be used to train more officers?"
"Yes. We want to open two more Academies but do not have the experienced officers for instructors or the holo-graphic suites available for individually training. Your invention could change that." Rondu went silent, watching his face.
Just the sort of thing he always wanted to do, only now he felt nervous about it. Rob took a deep breath, "I want to. Maybe it can help."
If he thought he didn't have much time to himself before, he quickly found out how much worse it could get. Between the house getting a new security system, Rob found the basement transformed into a top-of-the-line laboratory, complete with a secure communication system. A system he immediately put to work accessing information to use in programming more simulations. He constantly talked with various retired GP officers. With their help he filled in the sim details as well as developed new sims he'd never thought of.
A second Training Platform took shape next to the first. The family all chipped into helping test it, including Mom playing a sim with Meggy using both Training Platforms at the same time in an interactive sim. The sight of the two of them having so much fun fueled Rob to work at increasing the usability of the interactive capability.
The second Training Sim left to be tested in secret at the main Galaxy Patrol Academy, to be quickly replaced by another prototype using even more memory matrixes.
Rob looked over a new contract asking for a production model. The figures in the contract were impressive, both the units wanted within the next year and the money amount listed as payment.
Mom had talked about starting her own business for years. Would she be willing to actually do that? He didn't like the idea of letting go of quality control to a strange company. Plus security was something to be concerned about. Maybe he should talk to her about it. Then she could design robots of her own without managers sticking their fingers into the designs and messing them up.
The more he thought about it the more he liked that idea. Produce public production-line robots and use it as a disguise for the more classified projects.
"I passed! I did it! I'm in!" Ben shouted. A moment later he bounded down the stairs waving a certificate in his hands. He slapped it down in front of Rob, "Look at those scores!"
The certificate listed twenty categories, all of which Ben scored at the upper level. In three he'd scored as 'exceptional'. All three were categories he'd failed at the earlier test and that Ben had trained extra hard for on the Training Platform.
"Congratulations. When do you start?"
"Five weeks. Think you might have the Academy refitted with your platforms by then?"
"No, although they would like it. I need to redesign a few things and then start design on a final production model." Rob handed the certificate back to Ben. For a moment he felt overwhelmed with the feeling of fear he'd felt while being herded onto the slave ship, and later, the feel of the weapon in his hand. He looked up at Ben, "You're sure this is what you want to do? It's really dangerous out there."
Ben grinned, "Umbra isn't going to disappear. If I don't go out there, who will?"
The words kept coming back to Rob as he worked with Mom on the plans for a new robotic design and manufacturing company. With each new report of a raid or attack Rob simply worked harder, producing an array of additions and improvements to the hardware and software for the Training Platforms. The Science Fairs were left on the wayside, his determination and focus growing.
Rob had real business to take care of.
No way would Umbra win.