Earth Star Voyager: Shells of Deception

ONE

Outer space: Year 2090

14-million miles outside the Porto Gas Cluster

Jonathan Hays stared silently at the view screen from his seat at the ship's helm while Jake Brown looked on disapprovingly.

"I know you can fly kid," the former Vanguard Explorer commander said, "but these asteroids come out of nowhere. If the ship's navigational sensors aren't fast enough to detect them, what chance does a human being have at responding in time?"

"You've obviously never seen Jonathan in simulation-training at the academy," Jessie Beinstock fired back from his console. "Even the instructors couldn't beat him."

Hays clacked a few quick commands on his keypad, which sent the massive Earth Star Voyager banking off its trajectory, the onscreen star field blurring in response. Appearing seemingly out of nowhere, the last craggy formation of rock and ice tumbled harmlessly past the ship. Hays sighed to the applause of his bridge-mates.

"And the good crew of Earth's last hope avoid becoming space dust once again," he said cheerfully.

Jake Brown pursed his lips.

"Overconfidence can be a weakness, kid. Never forget that."

"As can putting too much trust in the advice of your crew," Sally Arthur reminded sardonically.

"Captain," came the soft voice of communication officer Luz Sansone, her eyes never breaking contact with the view screen before her. "I'm picking up the strangest signal. I thought it was a glitch at first but our long range scanners seem to be quite convinced it's not."

"Would you like to take a look Beanie?" The Captain asked.

"Would I," Jessie Beanstock asked rhetorically. "That's like asking if Huxley likes chasing the ladies."

"Yum," the ship's computer Priscilla interjected.

"Hey," exclaimed a sleepy Huxley Wells from his station, "leave me out of this, both of you!"

"Okay, transferring now," Luz said, quite unaffected by the jabber all around her. "Let me know if you have trouble receiving."

"No, I have it onscreen now," Beanie replied. "And you're correct in doubting that this can be right."

"What is it," Jonathan Hays asked casually.

"Well," Beinstock answered through a look of confusion, "the long range scanners are picking up an artificial body orbiting the closest planetoid to this sector."

"And?" Jake Brown asked, failing to display any emotion.

"Well, it's metal and its composition appears to be ceramic tiles atop a titanium sub-frame. Basically the type of design that would be found on Earth-constructed space craft."

"But nobody from Earth has ever come out this far," Huxley commented.

"Some have," Jake Brown replied dryly. "Not manned of course, but many of the deep space probes sent from Vanguard Explorer have gone even further."

"Were any of the Deep Space probes unaccounted for?" Hays asked.

Jake shook his head.

"How far off course would paying a visit to this planetoid put us, Huxley?"

The navigator yawned then punched a few calculations into his console.

"Well if we were to do a few quick burns with the Bauman Drive and rely on plasma thrust just to settle into orbit, two days tops I would imagine."

"I'm sure nobody wants to hear it, but we really should just stick to protocol," Jake added. "It's an awful long way off course just to find out one of our old probes wound up in the middle of nowhere."

"But," Beanie interrupted, "if we could establish stable orbit of the planetoid ourselves, we could use a Bauman Drive burst to reach escape velocity and slingshot the Earth Star Voyager back on track at four times our current cruising speed."

"Huxley…" Hays said, which inspired a few more calculations from the navigator.

"Um yeah if the Bean-man's right, and he always is, that would knock the whole thing down to about 5-hours behind schedule."

"Considering we're only two years into a 26-year voyage, I don't think 5-hours is too much to ask, Mr. Brown."

Jake grimaced then put his arms up in mock defeat.

"I was given a ship to command kid and ended up getting mutinied and nearly escaped with my life. There's a reason the powers that be chose you to command this one."

Jonathan laughed and extended his hand. Brown accepted the handshake with a smirk of his own.

"But your advice is always welcomed on this bridge as well. Mr. Welles, would you do us the honor?"

Huxley signed, rubbing his eyes.

"Consider it done, Captain. Plotting course to vector 119 mark 12. Priscilla, acknowledge?"

"I'm reading you loud and clear, Huxley," the computer slyly replied. "Would you like me to take us in then?"

"Captain?" Huxley asked.

"Sure," Hays replied with a nod.

"Sure," Huxley repeated.

"For you, Huxley, anything."

TWO

Jonathan Hays felt the odd bliss of cryogenic suspension slip away from his subconscious; the immediately distant memory of a lifetime's worth of fleeting dreams. The warmth lamps clicked off audibly and the stale recycled air of the ship filled his lungs the instant the O2 pump whirled down. Coming out of cryo was never enjoyable, even after only ten-hours of suspension.

He shook off the numbness of his swirling head and put his bare feet on the cold floor of the ship. He had ordered ten hours for each of the crew on their two-day excursion and made certain to take his session only after everyone else had. It was easy to allow the excitement of the situation to compromise everyone's desire to recharge their proverbial batteries but Jonathan knew he would need a well-rested crew if any serious attempts at investigation were to take place.

He stopped by the dispenser and ordered an extra large coffee, black, that yet steamed as he took his seat at the helm of the bridge. The mental cobwebs he had been struggling to shake since awakening were dulled immediately by the familiarity offered by his chair even if a little additional lumbar support would certainly be welcomed.

Jake Brown had been given the helm during Jonathan's cryo session and returned leadership to the rightful captain with a nod and a smile. His abilities as a natural leader were undeniable even if he did lack the finesse to maneuver the massive vessel into a delicate orbit.

"Status report, Mr. Beinstock," Jonathan said after swallowing a sip of the hot coffee.

"We're approaching the planetoid now, Captain. It's small, only about half the size of Mercury but seems to be of similar composition: Lifeless, iron-based, atmosphere comprised mostly of sulfuric acid. What is puzzling, however, is that unlike Mercury, it doesn't share a particularly close orbit to its star, which makes me suspect it isn't in the same spot it was formed initially. Plus its rotation must be faster to account for the gravity holding its atmosphere."

"And what of the craft orbiting it?"

"Oh, right. It's on the far side right now and out of visible range but appears to be in counter-synchronous orbit. I recommend placing the Voyager in similar rotation, just a few degrees above the craft's trajectory so that we will rendezvous within the hour."

"Very good, Beanie," Jonathan found himself saying with a smile. His crew managed to impress him daily, even still.

"How was your nap, Captain?" Dr. Sally Arthur asked through her infectious grin.

"Peaceful," he replied. "Even though the alarm clock always seems to go off just when you're getting to the good part."

"Don't tell me you recall your cryogenic dreams, Jonathan, or I'll have to order you directly to Dr. Eugene's office for immediate evaluation."

Jonathan laughed and took another sip of the bitter coffee.

"No, no, that won't be necessary, doc. Although something tells me you made an appearance somewhere in those dreams, even if I can't remember the details now."

"Sorry to interrupt," the voice of Priscilla interrupted, "but we are approaching orbital range of the planetoid. Would you like me to correct course or will you be doing it manually Captain?"

Jonathan glanced over to Huxley, who gestured not even trying to get involved with an exaggerated shoulder shrug.

"Yes I'll take us in," Jonathan reluctantly replied. "Huxley, announce my position coordinates, if you will sir."

"Sure thing, Cap. We are presently on vector 47.983 on a slightly decaying counter-sync orbit."

"Your recommendation Beanie?"

"Climb to about 59 degrees, Jonathan and angle us downward so that the front shields would be in position to deflect any small fragments the scanners may have missed."

Jonathan's fingers hammered away on the keypad, manually setting the minute sequence of thruster burns that would readjust the ship's trajectory and relative position.

"There, that should do it," he said after squinting at the series of broken lines on the view screen.

"Impressive Captain," Priscilla announced.

"And now," Beanie added with a hint of excitement in his voice, "we wait."

THREE

The forty-five minutes it took for the craft to come into view were painfully slow and Jonathan even managed to swallow down the last of his bitter coffee somewhere during the wait. The last effects of cryo had finally dissipated in the interim as well.

"We should have visual momentarily," communications officer Lani Miyoai announced from her station.

Jonathan Hays leaned forward, his hand automatically finding its way to the base of his chin. At this distance the orbiting craft was merely a spec of light against the blackness outlining the gray horizon of the planetoid below.

"What's our present orbital velocity?"

"1.948 kilometers per second," came the simultaneously reply from both the computer and Huxley Welles.

"Jinx," Priscilla followed up with. "Huxley you owe me so many Cokes I fear I've lost count."

"Tell you what," Welles replied with a grin. "When we get back to Earth, I'll just buy your human alter ego a case."

"Deal!"

"Beanie, do you have an estimate of the craft's speed?" Hays asked.

"1.4 km per second. Our trajectories should intercept in approximately two minutes, 48 seconds, give or take a few milliseconds."

In even the time it took to exchange such information, the craft had indeed doubled then tripled in size on the view screen. Within a matter of seconds it was close enough to identify markings or insignias.

"Is it military?"

"Doesn't look like one of ours," Beanie answered without diverting his attention from the forward view screen.

"It's O.T.Z." Jake Brown announced from the back of the bridge. "I would know their markings anywhere."

"Are you sure?" Hays fired back.

"Positive kid, that's one of their hive ships."

"I'm not picking up any onboard biologic signatures," Sally Arthur said.

"And the internal temperature appears no higher than the surrounding vacuum," Beanie added. "If the ship has life support, it must not be working."

"I wonder how it could have gotten out here ahead of us," Hays puzzled aloud.

"We're about to overtake it, Jonathan," Beanie announced. "Should we fire retros to slow us down? Perhaps attempt to dock?"

"Bad idea," Jake interjected. "Might as well leave well enough alone."

"We're going to board," Jonathan said after a moment's deliberation. Jake signed audibly. "But we're not going to link the Voyager. There are too many innocent lives at stake."

"That's the first sensible thing I've heard all day," Jake mumbled.

"Instead," Hays continued, getting to his feet, "I'll assemble a boarding party for the Voyager's shuttlecraft. We'll dock during the next orbital pass so that the main ship can continue on out of harm's way in the event that it's a trap."

"But Captain," Beanie retorted, "the boarding party would be out of range of the Earth Star Voyager for a little over an hour."

"That's my plan Mr. Beinstock. If this craft goes nuke while we're aboard, I'm trusting you to accelerate to escape velocity and put the ship back on course."

"Well then I'm going with you," Sally Arthur said. "If my readings were wrong and there are life forms on board, you're going to need a doctor."

Jake frowned.

"I suppose I should volunteer service as well. After all, nobody hates the Outlaw Technology Zone more than I do."

"And count me in too," Jessie Beinstock began.

"Sorry Beanie," Hays interrupted. "Since Jake's coming along, I'm leaving the bridge to you and Huxley. You know what to do if something happens to us."

"But Captain if something were to happen to you, I don't think, I mean I couldn't possibly…"

"You can, Mr. Beinstock and I am confident you will. You are the most level headed crewman we have on board."

Huxley yawned.

"And besides Beanie," he added. "You would be all I would have to come between me and Priscilla."

"Good point," Beanie muttered in defeat.

"Now let's try to keep a little optimism here huh," Jake said. "This is an investigation, not a funeral… Yet. Remember, I'm the one who's been against this whole thing from the beginning and even I'm not as glum."

"Let me page Luz up here to keep you company while we're away," Hays said, knowing Jessie's feelings for the young communication's officer.

"Oh you don't have to do that, Jonathan."

"No I insist, Beanie. Sometimes having someone you care about close by can make all the difference in a tense situation."

"Which is why I prefer you nearby, Huxley," Priscilla added.

The navigator simply shook his head.

"Priscilla," Hays called out.

"Yes Captain?"

"Prepare the shuttle craft's life support for three and warm up the external boosters. We'll suit up and head down to the launching bay right away."

"Consider it done Captain. And please be careful."

FOUR

Dropping silently from the massive underbelly of the Earth Star Voyager, the shuttlecraft hung momentarily in space before releasing two thin streams of retrorocket expulsion from the nosecone. The intense braking pushed the crew of three forward against their seat restraint harnesses as they watched their mother ship disappear quickly from site.

"Matching orbital speed now," Jonathan Hays whispered aloud to himself.

"The craft is now on your vector," Beanie's voice said over the intercom. "It should be in docking range momentarily."

"I see it now," Hays answered. "And it looks a whole lot bigger from the view-screen of the shuttle. Extending magnetic locks."

As if on cue the tiny craft rumbled with the exterior contact.

"Pressurizing boarding tube. Helmets on everybody."

Sally and Jake followed Jonathan's lead in securing their tinted-visor helmets into place. The small cockpit was filled with the sound of suction from internal suit vacuum pumps, drawing the helmets into pressurized lock.

"And docking is complete," Hays announced, his voice distant and tinny due to the helmet's intercom.

"Now comes the fun part," Jake added sardonically.

After releasing their harnesses, which had been all that held them in place in the zero-g environment, they pushed off the seats behind Hays toward the extended boarding tunnel.

"Looks like we've got a key code on the entrance hatch," Hays said. "Beanie can you crack it?"

"I haven't met one yet that I couldn't," came the tinny reply over the helmet's relay. "Go ahead and put the transmitter in place. I should be able to send the code in under a minute."

Jake attached the small flashing magnetic box to the now-opened key hatch on the ship's hull. As promised, within a matter of seconds, the unit flashed three consecutive times indicating the arrival of a code transmission then the red light on the panel display turned green.

"That did it Beanie," Hays commented, his smile apparent even over the intercom.

"The O.T.Z. may like everyone to believe they're technically superior but they still use the same key codes as we've been for years."

Jake slowly spun the release valve on the hatch, which gave off a snap then the unmistakable hiss of air squeezing through a tight rubber seal.

"Coming in or going out?"

Before Jonathan could complete his thought, the hatch blew violently inward, yanking Jake into the vessel along with it. A powerful burst of moving air sucked Sally and Jonathan into the darkness of the craft as well. Inside the pressure stabilized immediately after the initial burst.

"Looks like life support's been off for some time, nearly all of the atmosphere in here appears to have been vented out."

"The shuttle's life support system should be enough to keep both craft stabilized until we can activate this ship's," Sally said, fumbling for the headlamp activation switch on her left glove.

Jake found his, spilling a wide beam of blue LED light into the dusty blackness.

"Dust, I wouldn't expect to find so much airborne particulate," Hays commented.

"Well our own blast of air when we popped the hatch must have stirred it up," Sally said grimly. "And worse still, I fear it's decayed biological material. Even if we get the life support systems up and running, I advise keeping the re-breathers on until the filtration system can scrub the air."

"Decayed biological material?" Jake repeated.

"Uh huh, skin. But I would have to have samples analyzed back on the ship to be sure."

Jonathan had made his way to the entry hall's flush control panel.

"Looks like we can get some interior lighting off the solar collectors here."

With a few flipped switches the ceiling panels flickered to dim life, spilling hazy red light through the swirling dust. The ship appeared far more expansive from within the maze-like corridors than it had from the exterior. Even when Jake managed to pull up a holo-map projection, all three explorers puzzled at the apparent lack of sensible quarters: Notably missing were a bridge, galley, mess, medical facilities, and recreation areas. Rather, the green flickering three-dimensional map that rotated before them seemed to show only a massive central corridor running the entire length of the vessel with repeating side wings at regular intervals in both directions. Even these rooms appeared empty, at least if the projection was any indicator.

"This place looks like it was a ghost ship even before it was abandoned," Jake said.

"Still getting no biological readings," Sally added.

"And yet," Hays began then paused in thought. "It looks like this craft was designed to function with minimum life support. Perhaps a cargo transporter of some kind?"

"Yeah," Jake Brown added after a sweeping look around the seemingly endless flickering hall. "Maybe you're right."

"Wait," Sally interrupted, the alarm in her voice clear even through the communicator. "Wait, I have something here."

"A life sign?"

"No, but definite movement at the far end of this passage."

Jonathan Hays was already pointed in the direction indicated, his LED beam reaching several meters ahead of him.

"How far down, Sally?"

"Tough to tell, three, four hundred meters maybe. No wait, now I have multiple signals. Two, three."

Jake un-holstered the stun gun he had built with Beanie's assistance a few months prior.

"Six of them now. They're coming our way."

"I can't see anything!"

"Back up kid," Jake said dryly. "This little baby packs enough energy to rip a hole right in the hull. If they keep coming at us, it may be time to see how much they enjoy being sucked into the vacuum."

"But you said no life readings, right Sally?" Jonathan said, backing up.

"Right, but there's definitely something in here with us. There's eight of them showing up and they are approaching."

"Well just say the word cap, and I'll gladly create an impromptu airlock."

"Alright Jake, but remember there was very little atmosphere in here before we entered and the temperature is only slightly higher than that of space itself. Whatever these things are, I have the nagging feeling it would make little difference which side of the hull they were on."

"There are ten now," Sally said grimly. "And they will be upon us any moment."

FIVE

Jessie Beinstock sighed and rubbed his temples for what must have been the hundredth time since they lost contact with the shuttlecraft.

"This ball of iron isn't making communication easy," he said to no one in particular.

"Stop worrying Jessie," Luz said, putting a hand on her boyfriend's shoulder. "You always fear the worst but this is Jonathan here. He knows what he's doing."

"I know," Beanie said, placing his hand atop hers. "I just feel so helpless, that's all. If I were there with him, things would be different."

"Hey Bean-Man," Huxley said from his console, "It's Jonathan, Jake and Sally on that ship. You couldn't ask for a better trained team."

"You mean besides you and I Huxley?" Priscilla asked affectionately.

"Whatever you say Circuit Breaker," the navigator fired back. "Besides, in thirty-two minutes we'll back around to the other side of this rock and back in range. Then you'll see your worrying for nothing."

Beanie nodded, patting Luz on the knuckles before returning his fingers to his temples.

"Okay I see something now," Jake called out. "Definitely humanoid. Still nothing Sally?"

She didn't respond but both Jake and Jonathan understood the shake of her head indicating no change in the life readings.

"I see them too," Jonathan announced. "Switch to infrared on your visors."

Jake watched as the heads-up-display within the helmets tinted visor flashed briefly then pixilated into the colorful field of heat sensory. Unfortunately the transition was equally unnerving as what standard LED light had revealed. A cluster of a dozen humanoid shapes lumbered toward them. They appeared in shades of red and white around their joints but dark blue and black nearly everywhere else. Definitely not human.

"Should we try to escape into the boarding tube?" Sally asked finally.

"Halt where you stand," Jonathan called out while the bodies were still a dozen meters ahead in the dim passage. "I am Captain Jonathan Hays of the Earth Star Voyager on a peaceful mission to the planet Demeter. We mean you no harm."

The shadows continued advancing. Sally began to unconsciously back herself against the main entrance hatch.

"Halt and identify yourselves, please." Hays called out again, the desperation showing through in his voice. "I fear I have no choice. Lowest setting, Jake, now."

A blast of blue light split the dusty air and caught one of the bodies before them in the knee. The heat of the laser and accompanying flare up appeared intensely white through the infrared displays of their helmets. They fumbled blindly to return to normal light sensitivity. Jake fired a second time, this blast of energy meeting the chest of another body in a shower of sparks and fizzling electrical current. In the instant of the flash, Jonathan recognized the unmistakable forms before them.

"Shells!" He cried out, revealing a handheld blaster of his own. "They're shells."

Sally squinted to confirm the claim. Indeed, the exo-skeletal signature was obvious and as they drew nearer, the dim glowing red light of their orbital lenses was unmistakable; the unflinching stare of a black widow about to devour a fly in its web. Only unlike the shell they had encountered before, these were somehow different.

Of course! They had no biological-half. These lacked the human element of the one she had insisted they take aboard nearly two years earlier. These were entirely machine: methodic, lumbering, terrifying. And then she made the mistake of allowing her field of vision to include beyond the fifteen or so individuals closing in on their group. There were hundreds, no thousands of others just like those before them fused motionless to the very walls of the corridor itself- the entire ship was lined with them, each connected to the frames that housed them with a cluster of tubes, cables and some kind of mucus membrane.

Shots continued to ring out, nearly constantly now, from her comrades standing at either side of her and the light from the laser blasts coupled to the small smoking fires that appeared on the exoskeletons of the targets they were hitting provided just enough visibility to portray the hopelessness of the situation. The pack of advancing shells had grown to fifty and still dozens, maybe hundreds more activated along the walls with motionless figures, eyes glowing red, powering up due to the commotion. Detaching themselves from the membrane like some kind of perverse birth, one after another dropped to the floor. Even the steady stream of fire had done little but to slow the already-advancing group.

"We can't hold them off," Jake finally said after what felt like an eternity to Sally.

"Agreed," Jonathan replied. "We make a run for it. Sally, go, I'll cover you from the rear."

"I'll cover you both," Jake corrected. "The moment you reach the shuttle, drop the boarding tube."

"But you'll…"

"I'll make it."

The leaders of the pack were nearly within grasping range. A well-placed shot from Jonathan's pistol sent sparks raining from its metallic skull, but after only a brief pause, the advance continued.

Sally darted through the tube and flung herself freely into the shuttlecraft's bay. Her sensory equipment tumbled freely from her wrist in the weightlessness but she couldn't spare the concern. Jonathan followed, taking a final shot toward the melee before yanking himself into the pilot's seat.

"Hold onto something, we're taking off," he said.

"But Jake," Sally protested as the shuttles thrusters whined.

She looked over at her fearless shipmate, now in the tunnel himself, his back to the shuttle. His firing was so constant that the propulsion generated from his tiny weapon was actually pushing him away from the mob of shells that spilled into the much narrower space a few feet before him. A few errant shots caught the tube's interior, immediately sending it aflame.

"Sally, hold on," Jonathan shouted as the first of the fires finally burned through the boarding tube. Atmosphere vented violently into the void of space, further tearing the thin tubing to shreds in the process.

In an instant the tube had disintegrated in a flash of flame and turbulence, leaving Jake and a steady stream of emerging shells tumbling freely. The atmosphere within the shuttlecraft was also sucked instantly into space, yanking Sally violently against her harness. Canisters and her equipment that hadn't been secured toppled end over end into the blackness. Then the sensation of acceleration sucked her against the seat as Jonathan broke away from the chaos and pulled a hard u-turn right back into it again.

Shells deflected audibly off the ship's nosecone and view port, some being pushed downward toward the planet until they disappeared a streak of red light upon entry.

Jake fired several more times until close enough for a now unlatched Sally to grab his wrist. Jonathan's grip on her ankle was all that kept them both from tumbling away.

"I've got him," Sally screamed out.

With a tug, Hays pulled them in and activated the shuttle bay's hatch. The area outside the ship was swarming with at least a few hundred shells, all floating weightless, some attempting to push off others and others still clawing in the direction of the shuttle.

Jonathan blasted away from the planet, incinerating many in the orange wash in their wake.

"Almost finished restoring pressure in here," he said. "But it doesn't look like the shuttlecraft's powerful enough to break orbit."

Jake undid the pressure seal on his suit and flung his helmet toward the back of the craft. Glancing at his watch, he said, "The Voyager is due back in about three minutes."

Beanie's voice appeared on the communicator at the same time.

"Everything okay with you guys?"

"Beanie, we're fine," Jonathan replied after getting his own helmet off. "But prepare for a very quick docking. We have a situation over here."

SIX

"No biological portion?" Jessie Beinstock repeated as they whisked through brightly lit walls of white toward the bridge elevator of the Earth Star Voyager.

"Right," Jonathan said. "Completely mechanical shells."

"So they're androids rather than cyborgs," Beanie mumbled to himself.

"And apparently quite adept at living in some pretty adverse conditions," Sally added. "Without the fragility of living flesh to be concerned with, these machines can apparently function even in the vacuum of space."

"And function they can," Jake said dryly.

"What bothers me most is that apparently we didn't destroy the Outlaw Tech entirely. If they're out even this far, it stands to reason that they could be anywhere and likely are."

"Hmm," Beanie mused aloud. "That's quite possible. Especially if what you say about the ship lacking any sort of command center is true. I fear the vehicle we've encountered is probably simply a drone craft, a drop ship perhaps designed to be a part of a bigger caravan."

Jonathan nodded solemnly as they approached the bridge.

"Captain on deck," Priscilla announced as they entered.

"Please everyone, be seated," Jonathan said as he approached his console at the helm. "In less than one hour we'll have completed our final orbit of this planetoid. In that time we'll have to have reached escape velocity."

"Not a problem," Huxley called out from his console. "I have our course all plotted and inputted into Priscilla already. Just a few thrusts of the Bauman Drive and we'll be ready to leave this ice cube in the rearview."

"That's great Mr. Welles, just what I was hoping you'd say. But before we blast out of here, we're going to need to reactivate your rail gun Mr. Brown."

Jake smiled.

"Would love to kid, except at escape velocity I would only be able to get a few shots off before we would be out of range."

"Enough of them to destroy that carrier?"

"Not likely, unless of course I could put one directly through it's fuel supply. But then again, if the holo schematic we saw was any indication, I don't know that it even carried a fuel supply or had thrusters of its own. I suspect Beinstock wasn't too far off the mark when he said it could have been part of a convoy."

Jonathan Hays sighed.

"Well we're not leaving until that thing's destroyed. There were enough shells on board to easily begin a planetary occupation. The last thing I'm going to do is stand by and let the O.T.Z. turn Earth into the next World's Fair Station."

"Locked in orbit as it is, it would most certainly take more than a few lucky rail gun shots to destroy the whole carrier," Beanie said bleakly. "It would actually take a great deal of impact force."

Jonathan gazed blankly at the view screen; it's display vivid with the planetoid's swirling clouds of sulfuric acid meeting the blackness of space.

"Unless," Beanie said with sudden furor, "yes of course, why didn't I think of that sooner."

"What?" Jonathan said, becoming caught up in the passion before understanding it.

"We've only got forty minutes," Beanie fired back. "We better get down to the cryogenic chamber."

SEVEN

"So we're sure everything's set," Jonathan said again as the O.T.Z. carrier came into sight on the horizon.

"Come on cap," Huxley said through a toothy grin. "We've been over it a dozen times already. The Bean-Man doesn't make mistakes."

"Actually," Beanie began to correct then swallowed whatever it was he planned to say.

"We'll reach escape velocity in thirty seconds," Huxley announced. "Final burn of the drive complete."

"Give the word Beanie," Jonathan said.

"Jake is the manual release set?"

"Checked it myself."

"Okay then, three, two, now!"

Jonathan tapped the key sequence in his console pad, jettisoning one of the Earth Star Voyager's cryo-tube life pods.

"And we're peeling off now cap," Huxley said confidently.

"Priscilla," Hays ordered, "Give us visual of our '6."

"You got it Captain."

The screen changed before them to display a quickly fading planetoid and a streaking life pod just as it made fiery contact with the O.T.Z. shell carrier. The larger craft rotated violently several times on impact, leaving a trail of twisted metal and sparks as is spun.

"Now let's hope my calculations are correct," Beanie said, cutting the silent anticipation that hung heavy in the bridge.

Then suddenly the carrier shifted on its axis and began to plummet into the upper reaches of the planet's green haze of atmosphere. The crew cheered in unison as the sparks of intense friction began to spill from the sides of the carrier and then again when the flames of incorrect reentry consumed the hull.

Upon last observation, a streaking flash of orange amidst a sky of swirling green was all that remained of the craft and its malevolent cargo.

"Thank you Priscilla," Hays said. "That'll be all."

"Anytime, Captain," came the reply as the view screen returned to normal view.

"We'll have to be especially cautious now that we've discovered the O.T.Z. has not been destroyed after all."

"And especially now that this new breed seems unaffected by the few weakness we knew of the shells," Sally said.

"I don't know about the rest of you," Jake Brown interrupted, "but all of this excitement has me hungry enough to actually want some of the lousy food here."

"A bite sounds pretty darn good to me," Beanie added enthusiastically.

"I think we can let Priscilla take over for a bit," Huxley added. "Our next plotted destination? Brenson's Star System."

"It's settled then," Jonathan Hays said to his crew. "Our real next destination is the mess hall. And if you don't leave clean-up for me this time, my treat."