'Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently by at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the
The Ballad of East and West
By Rudyard Kipling
He was an old devil, a tired devil; and as he pushed the starship through Uttermost Space his thoughts were on his long-overdue vacation.
This voyage would end soon - a few EarthDays at most. Even as he went through the first phases of SpellDown his mind was on the bonus he'd receive for a good docking. Surely more than enough for a DirectSpell return. Enough so he could engage the very best of port wizards, close his eyes and..Lo! he'd be on Avalon. His name was Scratch and as Old Scratch he was known to more than a thousand Navigation Spirits, Control Brownies and Supply Goblins.
Scratch was an Engine Devil and with tremendous overlight speed he was pushing the starliner deeper into the Void. His power cut the very flesh of The Continuum and made hundreds of thousands of lesser spirits in huge armored tubes throw back thick spurs of overheated plasma. It was an Engine Devil's curse that whatever he received was less than he needed. He spent every second of every voyage swearing and sweating over each dram of power so he could hurl the ship to its distant goal. But on this particular EarthDay Old Scratch's thoughts were not on his common duties. His ship was the HolidayOne. His employers: StarFunInc, who ran a fleet of six bargain-fare vacation liners throughout the galaxy. The HolidayOne was the least luxurious and oldest of the six. Still, it was a stout ship, a reliable ship and in good repair. Just now it was being used for the company's annual Honeymoon Special. There were more than a thousand couples aboard, nearly all young, lusty and merry.
Several times Old Scratch found himself turning an even deeper shade of his normal red when he accidentally eavesdropped on the private chatter and thoughts of the young people. He could see nothing - strong spells barred his sight. But those good- for-nothing Brownies darting about the ship were eager to spy on the honeymooners and never missed an opportunity to tell the dull and credulous Goblins the hottest of the hot stories.
Supporting his authority, Old Scratch growled several times at the rowdies, but, but...
But... it only made him dream more of Avalon.
Avalon... Fire, hot enough to whip away this damned chill of Uttermost Space.
First he'd enter the House of Flame, where he'd lie absolutely still for FiendDays on end, making his old bones glad with the delicious heat of it. As Scratch dreamed of Avalon every weary joint and muscle twitched in blissful anticipation. Even for an engine devil three hundred years in space (never mind Uttermost or Innermost or Nearest) don't pass easily. Plus he could never be certain if the bonus would be enough to match his dreams. The Company's chief bookkeeper was a many-degreed blackmaster of financial lies. At StarShift's end a hard working devil never knew how many LT's would be credited - or deducted - from his account.
Scratch dismissed this depressing thought, replacing it with a vision of the fattest possible bonus and what it would bring.
Which was... Avalon!
His best fiendish friend, Ashgaroth, would return to Avalon in a wheel or two. Old Scratch smiled to himself imagining the good uproar they'd have at the "Three Hanged Monks" - the favorite tavern of Engine Devils Local 666. There was a sign on the door that was the delight of every fiend who saw it:
"Softskins Beware! Enter At Your Own Risk!"
Not that softskins - or humans - would be comfortable for a second in the "Three Hanged Monks." There were no tables, chairs, bar - none of the ridiculous paraphernalia the Unfiendish require to live their clumsy lives in comfort. A place where human time, EarthTime, CessiumTime, had no meaning. A place where a mentos shout brought a drink quicker than a decaying atom could parse time; and the treasured silence that followed could last a hundred EarthYears.
Engine Devils were a proud race and disliked all things connected with their soft- skinned masters. Yet they served their masters well. Devils must obey. That was the rule. The Great Spell cast at the Beginning of Time decreed it. Damned Spell! And nothing to do about it. Freights and charter runs, consignors and insurers, bonuses and salaries, cargo terminals and repair docks, and...
"... Spells-spells-spells-spells-movin' up an' down again!"
A damnably good poet, that Rudyard Kipling. Although he'd been a soft-skinned human - and therefore a natural disgrace for an Engine Devil to enjoy - Kipling brought much comfort to poor Old Scratch's life. Even his best friend, Ashgaroth, knew nothing of this secret vice.
Yes, "spells-spells-spells-spells"... Spells to cut the way through. Spells to control that rowdy crowd of hotjet-fiends. Spells to protect the sophisticated and cursedly expensive machinery from the ruining breath of Uttermost Space. Spells of many kinds. And each one sucked out Old Scratch's strength. Frequently he hated his work, which Scratch disliked to admit even to himself. Frequently he dreamed about The Inner Hell - his home. Yes, The Inner Hell, the Fiendish Worlds, whose might and pride had been cast down by soft-skinned Mages millenniums ago. The Flame had perished. Now a common Engine Devil (or SuperProcessor Devil, or PowerGenerator one) must work hard to earn enough to buy a small bit of local Flame for himself. Damn, damn and double damn. Thinking about it, he started to swear=2E That was his common practice. A practice which had made him famous. Old Scratch was a great swearer. He would always grumble and growl, grudge and grunt. His curses were his shield against the incompetence of captains and navigators, port wizards and fiendish innkeepers everywhere. His complaints concerned the common thorns in all Engine Devils' hides. But Old Scratch was the past, present and future master of swearing - of putting tormentors in their place. Some of his curses became legend - as legend as the bureaucratic foulups causing them. He was so surly, so full of lava-hot deprecations everyone cringed when they saw his name on the ship's MasterList.
What no one knew was that Old Scratch had one other secret vice besides his fondness for Kipling. Which was this: he hated his work, but loved it too. He loved the shimmering of the uncounted stars with their fiercely burning crowns when his ship passed by. He loved the storms of hard x-rays near the Black Holes; the many- colored planets, blue, purple, yellow, red or green; the voices of his remote friends coming upon wings of FastSpells from afar. And many other wondrous things, the very sense of an Engine Devil's life.
As for Avalon... Old Scratch returned to his most gratifying thoughts. Yeah, "Three Hanged Monks". Pure bliss. Deep curtains of smoke and black stones floating in the air - air pierced by countless thunderbolts and filled with the most welcome warmth of True Flame. Surely no human weaklings could stand this. Spells running to and fro, burning Fiendish punch, fire sparks dancing and flashing above Engine Devils Local 666.
Scratch sighed in anticipation. He'd be in Avalon soon enough. But first he had to work.
Billy Ivanov was in love. He was ten years old, a round-eyed innocent, and the object of his youthful desires danced before him in all her splendor. She was slim, she was curvaceous, she was torrid. Her name was Lupe Morris - half Spanish, half Amer - and she had night- dark eyes and a smile that lit up his small world. At the moment she was dancing with her new husband, who Billy thought looked like an ape. Joe Morris was his name and he was Amer through and through. Thick of mind and body, with a voice that rattled the ship's hull when he called sweet Lupe's name.
The music was hot, hot, hot; and Lupe jounced in her form-fitting toreador outfit, rousing feelings in Billy wholly unfamiliar but quite pleasurable. The scene on his cabin wall shifted as his eyes followed her across the dance floor - several decks below his lonely berth. He whispered a command and the Vidsprite said, "Yessir," and scrambled back to give Billy a wider view.
The ship's main salon was crowded with honeymoon couples decked out in makeshift exotica for the traditional Costume Ball that was the finale of every StarFun cruise. Some of the costumes were daring - nubile young wives jouncing in see-throughs, muscular husbands strutting in less than what a classical statue wears. A few costumes were modest, but these were worn by middle-aged or even quite ancient couples on their second honeymoons=2E Everyone aboard HolidayOne was exceptionally middle-class. Some had saved for years for an economy berth.
Others were making the trip thanks to the generosity of their relatives. To everyone it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A trip to the sinful lights and uninhibited fun at a Frontier Zone resort. Although if truth be known the resorts were mild- mannered and far from wicked. StarFunInc knew its market well. The chosen resorts catered to conservative tourists on limited budgets interested in mild titillation rather than in-your-face sin. To maximize profits and fill all its berths, the company booked passengers from both New America and New Russia. Crowded as it was, the dance floor was divided by beefy security men strolling the middle zone to make sure the two traditional enemies didn't mix and spoil the fun. Billy whispered orders and the Vidsprite zoomed in on Lupe again, coming in so tight her pearly teeth glittered in the revolving ballroom lights.
"Hey, hey, heyhey!" the vidsprite said. "Look at that, master. Va-va-voom!" Billy was embarrassed, but he didn't call for a wider angle. Then the tempo changed to something romantic and to Billy's immense disgust Joe the Amer Ape clutched Lupe close, rubbing his body against hers.
"Off!" Billy commanded and the vidsprite scowled, then switched off, dissolving the scene of the ship's main salon. It was replaced by a canned shot of the swirling colors of Uttermost Space. Billy was an educated child who knew there was nothing to be seen at Spellspeed and the images on the vidwall were a simulation, a Fantas, of what space would look like at postlight speed. If mortal eyes could view it, that is. Billy watched the ever-changing colors and shapes for a moment, then turned away, bored.
At first the voyage had been a marvelous first-time experience. He was a half-breed child - part Russian, part American; a subject of immense shame to boy. He was traveling to the Frontier Zone with his grandparents, who were on their second honeymoon. Billy was an orphan and his grandparents had no friends in New Russia close enough to care for a half-breed child. During the voyage he'd kept to himself as much as possible, allowing his grandparents privacy to enjoy this long- dreamed of adventure.
He was the only child on the ship, making him a bit of a curiosity, so he'd Eloised at will, exploring the crew quarters, officers' mess, and all the mysterious corridors permeated with the buzz and stink of spell machinery. He'd even been allowed on the bridge - quite boring as it turned out, since humans did little to run a starship's machinery. He sneered at the memory - the silver-haired captain and handsome first mate strutting about as if they were really in charge, instead of merely being the glamorous and bemedaled servants of the paying passengers.
Billy wished he were an Engine Devil. Now that was real power! Thinking about it, he made engine noises and pushed at the air with his hands as if guiding the ship. Except if this really were his ship, it wouldn't be an old passenger liner. It'd be something huge and military like... like... a space fortress!
Billy instantly took command of the imaginary gun turret. He pointed a finger at the vidwall, imagining Joe Morris in an American military uniform=2E "Take that, you dirty old Amer dog!" he falsetto-growled and he sprayed the vidwall with imaginary projectiles.
At that moment Old Scratch was busy sending out powerdown spells.
The HolidayOne was entering The Frontier Zone, formed of hundreds of newly developed and terraformed planets - cast across the fabric of space like the Pacific Isles on Old Earth. The Zone was inhabited by all the sentient species of the Galaxy - both human and alien. Some worlds were warm, some hot, some green and some desolate. What all had in common was that jobs were scarce but living was cheap, if a being didn't miss luxuries from home. In recent years Zone administrators had pushed tourism to help fill the gap, playing up the Zone's wild and woolly history to attract visitors. The advertisements were clever and the program was a big success, drawing tourists from the Old Colonies, New Russia, New America and even Mother Earth. And the ads all repeatedly stressed that the days of violence and danger in the Frontier Zone were long past.
Old Scratch entered the Zone with supreme confidence, guiding the HolidayOne to port.
The only reason to keep a watchful eye on his surroundings were the military bases, equally divided by treaty between the United Galactic States and the Russian Galactic Federation. The American and Russian bases were huge armored spheres, floating in space and armed to the teeth - grim tokens of past bloodshed. Old Scratch had reason to be confident.
All captains considered the Zone as "Danger Declined One."
Something was wrong!
Billy sat up in bed.
He was sweating heavily, heart fluttering, stomach churning. He looked about the darkened cabin. His grandparents were still absent. The curtain closing off their alcove was open, the bed empty.
Billy couldn't figure out what was bothering him. No nightmare had troubled his sleep. Still, he was drenched with a feeling of tremendous dread. Except for the distant throb of the spellengines the ship was silent. This was normal during the false night when all humans slept. Billy turned his head toward the ship's bulkhead. He knew that just beyond the cantilevered layers of alloy and plas that made up the honeycombed skin was nothing but empty space. There could be no danger there, no monster, no hulking brute bent on tormenting little boys. Nevertheless he had a feeling someone was watching him. No... Not him....
E.. It was watching the ship!
An evil thing. A thing of malice and dark humor. Billy swung his legs over the side of his bunk. He started to rise and then... suddenly the feeling was gone!
He giggled in relief. "You're stupid, Billy," he said aloud, unconsciously using his voice to push away the last webs of fear. "There's no one there." Instantly he felt better. He got up, went to the bathroom, then crept back into his bunk. A moment later he was asleep.
Although he didn't know it, Billy was a budding mage. It hadn't been noticed yet, thanks to his status as a half-breed. Both of the two super power federations, America and Russia, had intensive programs and tests to discover mages and wizards at an early age. Mages were rare. Wizards, who were much more powerful, were rarer still. And it was wizards and mages who made the Galaxy livable for mortals - commanding the demons and their minions to do their bidding. Combining magic with human ingenuity and technology to make starships for space, weapons for war, computers for science and business and even quick cookers for household kitchens.
But for Billy, all that was in the future - if he was to have a future, that is. He stirred in his sleep, dreaming of Lupe.
The dream Lupe kissed him and purred his name in that funny way she had, making it two names instead of one: "Bil-ly. Bil-ly." Just like that.
Old Scratch was satisfied. All was well.
His latest spell whirled in the very depths of The Continuum and the plasma spurs rushed from the ship's jet spiracles as if from the nostrils of Leviathan himself. He allowed himself a little break.
Had something passed by... just at the edge of his magical sight? A faint tremble, a slight shiver, had seemed to run through the still bones of the ship. One swift second... and then all was gone.
Old Scratch sighed. Too many days in Uttermost Space. Too many spells, too much growling and grousing and drilling of his crew. Rest - that's what he needed most of all.
Then: Oh! Again that feeling of something just beyond his sight. Scratch shook his scaly head. Must be that damned Tob. That damned good for nothing Control Brownie!
It was Tob's task to monitor the upper-port PlasmaFeeder but the lazy Brownie was seldom to be found working in its hot jaws. Yet when it came to Really Hot Stories, Tob was an eager champion. Old Scratch suspected that the miserable Brownie had cast a snooperspell on some of the honeymoon suites and was selling his dirty recordings to the dim-witted Goblins. Scratch didn't blame the Goblins. He felt sorry for them. Their work was the hardest, the dirtiest and the lowest paid. But as for that damned Brownie... "Tob!" Old Scratch roared. "May the angels and elves roast you to devildust! What are you doing, sneaking around in there?" There was no answer.
His Ruling Spell roamed through the ship. An extremely powerful one, filled with wrath.
Finally, "Yes, Master Scratch!"
A frightened Tob wisped up from the burning throat of the PlasmaFeeder. "Report!"
"Parameters all normal, Master Scratch. Generating spirits - density twelve megaGhosts per one magic ..."
"Never mind," Scratch commanded, cutting Tob off.
And he thought, oddity of all oddities. Tob really was at his place. So it couldn't have been him. His big devil shoulders sagged and he breathed a long sigh, thinking, Old Scratchy, you're just too tired. You need rest, my fiendish one. Rest. He'd have to be careful. He couldn't let some tyrant of a Supervisor Enchanter know that he, Old Scratch, firm and solid as stone, who never failed to bring a starship to port, suffered from haluces.
Well, so be it.
Nothing had happened. Remember that, Scratchy. Nothing in general or even in particular had happened.
Back to work.
Spell, spell, spells. Casting, whirling, cutting The Way Through. Another spell. Taking the Brownies' reports. Goblin crew hard at it - keeping the plasma hot for the jet-spirits.
Old Scratch's fiendish team was doing its best, but the cold threat persevered. There - deep, deep in Scratch's memory.
The Void stretching endlessly before the starship was common Uttermost Space, with ruinous streams of many PowerRivers, cold and hot magic torrents, invisible for softskins except for their most powerful Mages. And then:
It was like a short spasm of pain. Pain running through the ship from rib to rib, from strut to strut. Dreadful vibrations touched the StarEngine's external circuits. Small, frightened fiends rushed about in blind panic=2E The vibration shuddered off the ship's skeleton, stippling the very fabric of space like sand raining on the surface of a still pool.
The disturbance rippled out, stirring the deep Spacefolds where swift scout ships waited, listening, listening. Their tensed antennae bristled in reaction. And before Old Scratch could overmaster his crew, coded signals beamed out.
The alarm howled at a most inconvenient time.
Katya's uniform skirt was coming up, up, up. And the handsome young Russian officer's trousers were coming down, down, down. "Damn!" she said.
Not only passion but all her hopes for the future clung to that delicious moment before the alarm sounded. The answer to Katya's dreams was a tall officer with sun- kissed hair and even sunnier prospects. His name was Igor and on his cheek was a dashing combat token - a small, but deep purple scar that whitened when he became upset. And just now as the alarm resounded through the space fortress Borodino Katya saw that scar become as white as the driven snow. Igor's high forehead glistened with sweat.
"Damn!" she said again.
Katya, assigned to the headquarters' cryptographic team, was a common Frontier Girl. Small, slender, yet her figure was somehow lush. Built for the boat ride, as they say. But all that promise of smooth sailing over gentle swells was being forgotten as that damned alarm hammered away and Igor's scar got whiter and whiter.
Disappointment shone in Katya's big dark eyes. She was thinking, this young busybody seems to be the only one on the whole base thin-witted enough to marry a girl so common. He's my passage off this awful place. She'd be swept off to the glamorous life of an officer's wife back in New Russia With a thick Frontier Officer's spousal credit to nourish her. Dim as Igor was, he was from a good family and destined for promotion. And if only Katya could latch on it would be the end of the squalid existence she faced in the poor neighborhoods of her home planet. Her heart and hopes sank as Igor moved away, clutching at his trousers.
"I'll be damned! What's going on? False alarm? A training exercise?"
Katya knew she'd been defeated. But she was game and tried to make that defeat temporary.
"It's all right, Igor, honey," she said, standing on her tiptoes to kiss him. "Never mind. Next time..."
Igor complained, "Those upper echelon arse kissers will never allow us to.." His voice trailed off and he shook his head at the unfairness of it all.
He made a small shrug of apology at Katya, fastened his uniform and pushed open the door of the tiny chamber they'd chosen for their love nest - hidden amongst all the machinery that littered the Borodino's powerplant level.
"What's worse," he said, "it's my turn in the chair!"
By this he meant he had the shooting officer's duty watch. When the alarm sounded he was the officer in control of all warsystems on the great space station, with hundreds of men and hundreds of thousands of fiendish creatures waiting to be unleashed at his command. As he stepped out of the chamber and looked back at Katya, who was adjusting her clothes, he thought, The poor little fool. Is she serious? To consider me such a dolt as to marry her? It's just a little fun I want. But she- she...
The corridors of the Borodino were filled with tramping. The boomgrates bellowed, "All hands on deck!" And Igor angrily brushed away all thoughts about Katya. Let the Engine Devils get her! They were crazy about that kind of thing, it was said... And he rushed on, charging through the throngs to the command center.
It was a wide hall with shields built of the very best armored alloy.
Good metal was accompanied with good spells - eleven mages not less then fifth class and three real Wizards. Igor took courage from all that strength as he glanced about the command center, moving at a controlled fast walk for his seat. Then he looked up at his problem on the huge vidwall and cursed.
The damned Amers were close, way too close. Suddenly the chamber's armored shielding felt very thin.
A huge anatomic chair caught his body like a predator. He found himself praying as the heavy bars locked him in place, with a clang like prison gates slamming closed. A combat helmet lowered from above, covering his entire head. Inside, the helmet's display flashed red and blue. White lines shot across and through it.
Igor saw instantly what was happening: Yeah, coded transmission. On a secret pulse wave, changing its length and frequency each second. Hiding precious information in waves of white noise. He searched, searched, then - That's it!
And he had it by the guts.
Igor may not have been very bright - he only thought he saw through Katya and in the end he would happily succumb - but he was a genius in the chair. He feared it, but once in its clasp he became part of it. Igor was the top of his class in the training exercises. He played the warboard like a grand musical instrument. Fingers flashing, throat-miked commands singing the song of death.
Deep in the weapons room hundreds of fiendish inhabitants stirred, obeying his orders.
Mentos - mental exchange - is much faster than words or fingers. And so that was what Daniel Carvaserin, the Wizard-In-Chief, used when he received Igor's commands and roused his hordes.
Carvaserin had trained his magical crew well and in no time at all his fiendish scouts received their orders.
"Uruumph!" belched Chyvaist, the tiny DeathSpirit. He was curled in several smoke rings and he floated up from them to the ready-to-shoot missile. "Hey, guys," he cried, "it's time for a feast! Target in range!"
"Will somebody shut him up!" growled Homula, the great Daughter of Death. She rose from the far corner, an immense black cloud, shapeless and faceless - Homula, mother and feeder of the forever hungry DeathSpirits. She took charge, gulped down the ready time and saw she had five seconds before launch - more than enough time to talk, to consider.
"Maybe we'd better check this further," she cautioned.
Chyvaist turned the color of old blood. "What's to check?" he said. "We've got our orders. If we wait... and I'm caught out... then boom! A big damned boom!" In the curling wheels of red smoke that formed him there appeared something like an odd, crumbled up and quite evil face. Chyvaist was only an old DeathSpirit, that's all. Waiting out his final moments.
"Let 'em be roasted!" spat Khinvaist, another battle spirit.
None of the supernatural recruits on board the` Russian space fortress cared a bit about the fate of their fiendish kin powering the enemy ship. Those who die are weak and must die, was their motto. Which was one of the cruel, circular laws of the Fiendish World. Some theorized this natural cruelty was the secret of the ancient victories of human enchanters over the powerful but savage Demons and Devils and their lesser kin.
"Good luck," sighed Homula.
Like a mother, she feared each battleraid. She fed her crew, cared for them, and she knew each launch might be their last. And she worried, What if those damned shatatniks had a powerful Wizard aboard?
"Well, time to go." This from a column of red smoke that entered the rocket warhead.
Another puff of smoke - "Okay, boss, I'm ready!"
"Good hits," growled Khinvaist, entering the Fiendish Circle - the engagement of all battle spirits' minds. This allowed ghosts and other magical creatures to see what was happening on the battlefield.
Homula whirled the dark veils of her bodysmoke and joined the party.
The Fiendish Circle transmitted the image from the missile warhead to the central post monitors.
Igor once again requested information from the database. And then, and then...
"Wah! To work, to work you miserable horde!" boomed an old bearded dwarf. He was crouched in the middle of the optics drive inside the base's big main supercomputer.
"Well, well, what are you doing? Don't, please, don't!" This was for Jungde the HellBat, the message bearer and executioner.
Although both dwarves and Jungde were rather small (the HellBat, for instance, was no more than a fingertip in height), the passions burning there were intense. "How dare you tell me what to do?" shrieked the HellBat.
A long whip snaked in the air.
"Information request! Codes accessed! Read, you fiends, read! Or I'll crack your thick skulls and tear your beards to pieces!"
Mighty spells cut in, accelerating the timeflow. What seemed like long minutes for the team of OpticsDiskDrive Dwarves was nanoseconds for Igor, who'd just miked the command. With many curses and much blame-heaping the great force of ODD dwarves rushed to their places. The huge disk began to rotate. Sitting above it in special cradles, dwarves began to read the stored information. Another team was busy rotating the drive.
"Well, well," the HellBat said. It seemed pleased and its hideous face reflected a shadow of a smile. "So be it. Continue working!"
That's it! For Igor there was no mistaking the electronic signature - it was American military code, no doubt about it. You could kiss his ass and call it Father Lenin if it wasn't so. Woolly-footed Yank bastards, how dare they even think of it? They'd disguised a Class A destroyer, bristling with the latest weapons, as an elderly civilian cruise liner. And from all the red alert signals on his visor those weapons were moments from firing on the Borodino.
Igor took it even more personally than that. They were about to fire on him! The response was clear. Strike first! To do otherwise risked certain destruction - or a firing squad if you survived long enough to face a court martial. But Igor didn't have his shooting orders. The authority to take this most final of all actions was not his. He waited, moist breath clouding the vidmask. He properly kept his mind blank. He was a tense, vibrating weapon ready to be unleashed. Igor didn't wonder that the long peace in the Frontier Zone had been violated. If asked, he'd say it only figured that those sneaky devil Amers would pull such a trick - violating all laws of warfare, plus the shaky truce that had been in affect for so many years. It didn't matter to those murderous bastards this was a Danger Declined Zone, declared so by solemn men in sober clothes.
A voice barked, "Dolgov, what's happening?"
Shivers ran up Igor's spine. It was the Wizard-in-Chief! "An Amer destroyer, Sir, pretending to be a cruise liner."
"Stand by. I'll try to stop him first."
A moment of relief. Mixed with disappointment. He was ready to shoot, dammit! But no, caution first. Let the Wizard-in-Chief deal with it.
The wizard would call upon the Engine Devil. Igor knew those creatures of the cold death of Uttermost Space were protected with the hardest and most solid spells. If any being could stop the Amers it was their Engine Devil.
As the master wizard and the Engine Devil conferred, Igor continued to monitor the enemy destroyer. Now he could see it really was a civilian liner. But it had the armor and weapons and intelligence gear of a Class A destroyer. The ship's interiors had been gutted to make way for the most modern of hyper engines. And there was a young Engine Devil ready and fresh on first watch. He knew all his observations were being shared by the devils in the weapons room. They'd be outraged at such a long delay. Their fiendish blood would be aboil with the desire to kill, kill, kill. "Dolgov!" The wizard again.
A breath of hesitation, then:
"You must shoot!"
Igor almost slammed his palm on the fat red fire button. Training held him. He was the shooting officer. In such circumstances the shooting officer must be certain. Commander Rusinov's voice crackled in his ears.
"Dolgov! We can't stop it!"
"Give the order, sir. I must have the order."
Each word, each spell, each command was being recorded. The Borodino's database already had the vital information leading up to this moment. An Amber Class Destroyer, pretending to be a cruise liner, was threatening them. Later the record could be shown to the United Worlds Organization as evidence. Those damned Amers would see..
The orders came fast and harsh:
"Shoot, dammit, shoot!"
"Yes, sir. Shooting procedure in operation sir. "Weapons room. All systems in order. Target in range... "Launch!"
Igor depressed the firing button and... "... At last," grumbled, "we get to go."
And in the strange stilled time of the weapon's room Igor heard the long hiss of the firing tubes, the sound of it hanging in the air like a slow-burning fuse, and then the missile slid out, sleepy, just waking up, but waking up grumpy and now it wanted a target.
Immediately after Igor slapped the button he nearly shit his pants. Then euphoria caught him as all as the data rushed in. Raw signals, shouted voices, the smell of magic and the mental echo of fiendish personalities.
It was fantastic!
This was Igor's first combat launch. All the simulator training and polygon shooting was replaced in a heady rush by real experience.
The missile containing Chyvaist sped toward its target.
A small team of goblins fed the engine, stoking it with hot spells. And Chyvaist himself - curled in a red globe in the very middle of the warhead - was honing in on the enemy ship. His senses penetrated the spells shielding the ship.
Igor flash/caught Chyvaist's observations and was surprised. The ship seemed too weak for a destroyer. But was that part of its disguise?
He shuddered as Chyvaist's evil and hissing voice crawled into his mind like a poison.
"Hey boss! I'm on target! Goblins ejecting!... Done!... Yeah, I'm up on 'em!...
"Okay, now... now...
A pause and then Chyvaist's "voice" came, so calm, and so... cruel...
Then: "Uh, boss. "Boss?
"Big fecal OOPS, here."
"Uh, I don't know... but I think we're in some deep ass, Boss. Real deep!"
More static... "Uh, Boss?... Boss?
Igor couldn't answer.
The DeathSpirit's message had come through loud and clear.
Igor was crying.
Old Scratch was in big trouble.
Something was happening all around his ship. And those miserable soft-skinners were sleeping. Couldn't they see? Couldn't they hear? Couldn't they feel the sticky web they'd just entered?
A deathly cold web. So cold even he, Old Scratch, was frightened. He continued his work, but... Was that someone calling him? Nonsense.
The voice of a DeathSpirit? Howling and roaring of a Goblin team? Voices of confusion: The missile!... Turn right!... No! Too late!... And... Damn!, there's civilians aboard that ship!
Tearing his very soul and body, Old Scratch clawed for all his power and hurled the liner to the side.
He roared in pain, already understanding all was lost, but still trying to save those damned softskinners, whom he despised so much. Frightened dwarves, goblins and brownies cried in panic... and in that same moment the missile reached its target. In the missile hundreds of thousands of hungry ghosts, tortured with bitter desire, rushed forward, devouring all wizardry, dissolving every bit of magic powering and shielding the ship.
Then the high-explosive heart of the warhead burst through and flame waves roamed the chambers and corridors.
Billy was asleep.
But his dreams had turned grim and he was uneasy.
A sudden sense of cruelty roughed his senses and he shot up in bed. He felt It coming for him! A beast rushing down with slavering jaws.
Instinct took over and as he threw up his hands he hurled a hard spell! His first spell.
And then... boom!
Billy closed his eyes. Fire scorching and hammering all around. And he shouted, "Lupe!"
The explosion broke the liner into three parts.
Cold talons ripped at Old Scratch's heart. Black blood covered his sight. Nothing to do... all was lost. His pain and despair made him forget even about his own approaching death. Poor Scratch. He couldn't do anything to save his ship. The missile's WarSpell was too strong.
Maybe - if he was given the chance - he'd complain to the Ruling Spirit. This was intolerable. Too damned much!
First, who in the hells was responsible for that damned DeathSpirit? The whole breed was dangerously irresponsible. Something had to be done about them. Everyone knew DeathSpirits were a race noted for refusing to speak to their enemies until the day of the Great Judgment.
Second, this spirit (with a disgustingly evil name, which cannot be said aloud by a well-respected Engine Devil for fear of soiling his tongue) was REALLY, REALLY eager to kill.
It wasn't right, Old Scratch thought. And then, wham! The explosion reached critical and triggered an ultrafast extrapolation of the PlasmaFeeders. Overheated substances rushed over the fiendish crew.
Tob was the first to die.
Others followed immediately. Along with all the softskinners they despised so much. But it hurt Old Scratch. Hurt him most deeply. It was his duty to protect those despised ones.
Then he felt a small bit of brightness tickle his weary soul. Somewhere out there one of the softskins survived.
But who? And how?
Billy couldn't have answered the question himself. How could it be that he was the only human to survive the tragedy of HolidayOne?
He had the numb memory of his last actions in the cabin. He'd thrown his hands up like a shield just as the flame waves had reached the door. And in that moment a desperate desire for life made him reach out - a jumble of words, images, thoughts. He wanted to be safe. To live. To breathe. To hear his heartbeat. Nothing more. "Lupe!" he shouted, and in his shout he knew she was gone. More terrible still, so were his grandparents.
And he ran, ran, ran...
Ran to a place, ran to a time until he found himself quite whole and unhurt and floating in space over the bursting liner.
Old Scratch was finally forced to abandon his engines - his ship.
In the final moment, trying to save anybody - never mind if they be fiend or human - he cast a spell of reversion. Pouring the vortex of burning flame into the black hungry mouths of his engines. He couldn't have done it earlier, he had to wait until the attacking flame was near enough. Unfortunately for his crew "near enough" meant their deaths.
He tried to save them, but in the end he couldn't do it and the "near enough" spell saved his life.
He didn't want to live. Shame, bitter shame fouled his soul. His ship, his passengers, his crew, all gone.
If he'd had a choice he would have chosen to die along with his crew and all those wormy softskins.
But, O Mother Destiny! That damned spell saved Old Scratch against his will. The spell he cast worked quite well without the will of its master. And like Billy, Scratch was thrown into the burning space. Flame tongues licked his red skin - then... suddenly he forgot about the pain.
His senses were overwhelmed by a terrible vision.
But was it haluces?
Or was it real?
He wasn't sure, but it seemed to him that somewhere near - somewhere... quite... near, but not in the same Void - something great, something enormous lurked.
That form, that entity stretched... O Mother Destiny, it stretched beyond the beyond! The entity was all, it was nothing, it was everything, it was... like being able to see Darkness. What he saw, or imagined he saw, was a creature of intolerable might and power - such might, such power that even Old Scratch had never experienced such a thing. But here it was at hand. It was... Ah, please, not so near... because Scratch suddenly knew this Thing, this Being could easily tear him to pieces with a single glance of its hoary eyes.
That was enough for him. He tried not to look but those terrible eyes start to turn... he felt the creature's every movement... nearer and nearer.=2E. no way to escape... And then he lost consciousness.
Igor was tragically conscious.
Between shoot and hit - like thought and action - there is slow-collapsing shadow. There are many Cancel/Abort stops along the way. But those points pass quickly and then all of a sudden the DeathSpirit is saying "Uh, boss?" and there are no more in betweens.
No place to cancel.
Nowhere to stop but the end of all ends.
In the very last moment he saw it all, saw a vision more savage than any nightmare. He saw the cabins filled with innocent people. Saw their faces, some awake and knowing, some asleep and saved from that final horror. Although it was impossible, Igor believed he could hear their desperate cries echoing in Uttermost Space. Then all was cold, silent Void.
Except the mocking voice of Chyvaist, who didn't give a big stooping DeathSpirit fart if it was a mistake or not. The fewer softskins the better. And if anybody objected they could take it up with his Shop Steward, because this had been a "shoot and no cancel" operation from the beginning.
"Direct hit, boss!" he gloated. "Nice work. Pity it was a wrong'un or there'd be bonuses for everybody."
Then all around him Igor heard a victorious roar sound through the Borodino's Command Center. It rang from chamber to chamber, through the com center, the on watch mess and the lavs and finally into the Hall Of Magic where Carvaserin was smiling his Master Wizard's smile, watching the enemy ship's final blazing gasp, thinking he'd won a great victory over the Amers.
And Igor realized he was the only human in the space fortress who knew what had happened.
He tore off his helmet. The autoreturn swooped it up and away, taking all hope with it.
He stared blindly at his warboard. His heart was racing, his body poured sweat as if trying to flush away sin.
And he thought:
What have I done?