All around the cavern, cruel restraints held CIS Navy personnel more or less dismembered. The ones who hadn’t already died or passed out from the pain cried in anguish as the flames leapt at their bleeding bodies.
“I swear, there are no Lord and Lady!” screamed Timby over his suit radio. “Gods, how can you have forsaken these people?”
Timby looked at Nak and Taku.
Nak shook his head silently. “I’m sorry, Timby. I could pump them full of morphine but they’d just bleed it out. It wouldn’t do any good.”
“Distempered spawn of—Argh! We’ve got to do something. Their suffering is opening the portal.”
Timby approached one of the spacers—a Captain, by her white hat.
Impaled on spikes, secured by clamps that slowed the bleeding from the stumps of her limbs. “Oconnor” read her name tag, and the two stars on her collar indicated her rank as a senior Captain.
“Captain Oconnor,” said Timby.
“Who’s there?” she croaked.
“I’m Commander Timby Lupindo of the CIS.”
“What are you doing here? Why am I here?”
“You’ve been captured by Underlings—beings from hypospace. They want you to die in pain.”
“They got that right!”
Oconnor opened her eyes and tried to look down at her body.
“I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
Timby looked at Nak, who was reading her vital signs.
“There’s nothing I can do,” said Nak. “Painkillers would just make you bleed faster.”
“Fuck the painkillers! Fuck the underlings!”
“I know,” said Timby. “I’m here. Your crew are here.”
“My crew? Who?”
“Myers, Smith, Wainwright, Coleman.”
“Al dead, Captain.”
“Well, Gods dammit. Isn’t there something you can do?”
“All we can do is make their passing easier, and yours.”
Oconnor closed her eyes.
“Fuck. This is not how I wanted to go. This is not what I wanted for my crew.”
“It never is, Captain. All you can do is show them—“
“What, that I’m a brave warrior?”
“Yeah. Give your crew courage, and warn the Underlings.”
“Warn the underlings, Ha ha. What good will that do?”
“You’d be surprised. I have experience with this sort of thing.”
“Experience? Is that why you’re here?”
“Yes. I’ve fought these things before.”
“Huh. A lot of fierce fighters were you’re from?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“You have a funny accent.”
“Yeah. I’m from Woofheim.”
“Woofheim? The Lost Colony? I hear it’s a beautiful place.”
“Yes, it is. Lots of trees and mountains. Fresh air. Good food.”
“I wish I could have seen it.”
“Yeah. You would have liked it.”
“Take my tags. And all my crew. Take the tags and bury them in the Wester Wood.”
“I will. I will tell your tale to the monks at the Wester Wood monastery. They will remember you and your crew. I’m sorry that’s the best I can do.”
“It will be enough.”
“Howl now,” said Timby, “And die a warrior.”
“Howl? Are you kidding? I’m a cat.”
“Makes no difference. Let those underlings know you won’t go to them.”
“Howl, Captain. We’ll be with you,” said a pained but clearly Cibosan voice fom a few yards away. That wolf’s howl echoed in the cavern, joined by others. Captain Oconnor gave a feline howl. Timby howled too, and Naketa’s threatening Orcan battle-cry reverberated.
Nak’s scanner beeped, indicating heart failure. He shut it off. Timber carefully retrieved the captain’s identity tags and those of the other crew members in that harrowing pyre. A disturbance could be heard coming from one of the tunnels leading out from the cavern.
“Come on, Timby. We’ve got to go now.”
“I hear ‘em. Just one more—“
Timby yanked the last badge, breaking the chain, and stuffed it in a pocket. He saw something in a nearby tunnel, something dark with eyes and teeth.
“Fire in the hole!” he shouted, and threw a grenade into the tunnel.
He ran toward the portal that had led them to this cavern. It was shimmering and fading.
“Get your tail out here!” he heard Nak shout from beyond, in normal space.
Timby leapt, and felt his stomach churn and brains turn inside out. With a thud he hit the ground. Dizzy, he stood and looked for his companions. They were ahead, running toward the light. Timby checked himself for injuries—he was mostly okay, well enough to run. He pulled another grenade from his harness and tossed it back toward the portal, and followed them.
The explosion knocked him on his snout just as he cleared the cavern.
“Timber, status check,” said Nak.
Timby looked at the bomb. It was dusty but still in once piece.
“The bomb is intact,” he said.
“Well, get your tail out here!”
Timby ran out of the cavern opening into the caldera. He felt and heard the generators warm up and watched as the antenna slewed to a new heading. Timby hadn’t expected that. The portal he had sealed was a small one, enough for a squad of Underlings. If the antenna fully activated, it would open a larger portal into the lower layer of space and armies of Underlings would escape from it. Timby’s only option now was to set off the bomb. Timby looked around. The crater that the subspace array had been built in in would, Timby hoped, direct the blast mostly upward. He ran up the slope of the crater, leapt over the rim, and ran down the outer slope.
He confirmed that everyone else in his party—Taku the dragon, Naketa the Orca, Cala the dolphin, and Puk the … Timby still wasn’t sure what it was—had got the message.
“Taku! Forget the countdown! Fire the nuke! Everyone! Evacuate or get under cover!” Timby said.
“Or just stand there. That’ll hurt less,” said Naketa.
Timby opted for not dying. He leapt into a ditch.
“Fire in the hole!” said Taku.
And that it was. Fusion fire. The TENS electrodes of Timby’s radiation detector let him know painfully that he was being exposed to unhealthy amounts of ionizing radiation. Shit, he thought. This was going to hurt even more. The ground rumbled.
Timby watched the plume expand away from the asteroid. It would be a while before any ejecta came back to the area, but the radiation damage had already been done. Space suits could defend against radiation … to a point. He had exceeded it. The suit’s electrodes had calmed down to an insistent buzzing. Timby sighed; he would have to spend at least a week in a healing tank.
Queasy and with aching joints, he crawled up the slope to the lip of the crater. The caldera was coated with glass, melted silica, iron, and nickel. Of the interspace array that had been under construction, nothing was left. The Underlings would not be launching an assault on this universe from here today.
Timby activated the suit’s emergency locator beacon and went to sleep.
Floating, warm, fuzzy, he heard only his own breathing and heartbeat. The tranquility was spoiled only by the knot in his stomach. Timby opened his eyes. From beyond a green haze, someone waved.
“You’re awake. Hang in there, in just another couple hours we can let you out.”
“I’m hungry,” Timby said.
“Good. We’ll let you have some real food once your treatment is done.”
“I’m hungry now.”
“You wolves! Always thinking about your stomachs!”
“That’s a good wolf. Commodore Hayes is here; he’d like to speak with you about your mission.”
“Okay, let him in. I’m sure he can bore—Oh, hello, Commodore.”
Timby watched as Hayes, the human from the Navy of the Commonwealth of Independent Systems, entered the treatment room. Hayes’ attention was on something about a taillength below Timby’s chin. Timby realized that since he was totally relaxed and healthy, he was “sporting wood,” as humans called it. He watched Hayes’ eyes and smirked.
Hayes’ face darkened. Timby took that to be a blush, filtered by the faint green healing fluid of the tank he was in.
“Oh! Ah, yes. Commander. You look … healthy,” said Hayes.
Timby smirked. “You should see me when I’m not immersed in green goo. Naketa. I want out of here.”
Nak made a show of checking Timby’s vital signs and examining him through the glass.
“By the look of things, you like it in there. Who am I to deny a healthy young—“
“Ow, come on, Nak.”
“You’ve got half an hour more. And don’t struggle. Squirming adds time.”
“Pervert,” said Timby.
“Takes one to know one,” said Nak. “That’s not his actual bone, Commodore. That’s just his urine collection tube.”
“And that other tube, the one going up his—“
“When you soak up a near-lethal doze of gamma radiation, I’ll introduce it to you and let you experience it for yourself. Oh, and stay away from Doctor Strange’s Pleasure Emporium down on mauve level.”
“I’ll just say this: If you value your decency and morals, don’t go there.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Nak with a wink.
“Now as for you, puppy, you seem to like it in there, so I’ll let you have all the time you need.”
Timby’s stomach growled.
Timby lay on the hospital bed, switching the video monitor from one stupid streaming channel to the next, seeking something more interesting than daytime soap operas and speeches from the two competing would-be Chief Executive Officers of Rshast.
A Rasafac nurse wearing a uniform decorated with joyfully playing wolf pups entered his room. He miaowed kindly and said, “Hello, Wolf. It’s time for your walkabout. I need you to get out of bed and walk to the cafeteria.”
Timby’s stomach growled in agreement; his ears grew hot.
“I can tell you’re up for it. I will help you. Sit up now.”
Timby sat up, felt a little woozy, and grabbed the bed.
“I’ll swing you to the side and put some slippers on your paws. I hope you like these.”
The nurse produced some paw-socks with grippy texture on the bottom to match Timby’s paw pads, and decorated with the same festive wolf-pups motif. Timby looked at the slippers and wasn’t sure whether to complain about the indignity, or just laugh and accept this gentle care.
“Nak ordered these specially for you,” the nurse said. “I think they’re cute. They go well with your black fur.”
“I see. Please tell him I can’t begin to thank him enough. Wait. Black fur? It’s blue and black.”
He held up Timby’s arm.
“Black as space,” said the nurse.
“Huh. I was striped black and blue before.”
“Yes, while you were in the tank we watched your fur grow back to its natural coloration. It looks good. Now. Off you go. Down the hall, to the elevator, first floor. Commodore Hayes is waiting for you.”
Timby walked, tentatively at first, and then with more strength, to the cafeteria.
“I read the reports,” said Hayes.
“What reports?” asked Timby, munching on a roast beast sandwich.
“The one from the cleanup crew and the one from your bridge crew who were monitoring communications.”
“I guess we made a mess down there.”
“A phrase was mentioned a couple of times. Underlings. What do you know about them?”
“That’s classified information.”
“I’m the one who classified it,” said Hayes, “And I’m the one who approved your security clearance.”
“You’ll understand if I ask you to verify that.”
Hayes had the look of a superior officer annoyed by a perfectly proper request that he realized he should have expected. Timby took a swallow of ale.
Hayes said, “Underlings are inhabitants of a lower dimension of space. We inhabit their hyperspace. Their space is much bigger, and it’s dying heat death. They’re dying and need energy sources.”
Timby nodded and said, “I had to ask. I’ll add, they really like living things, especially if they have emotions and can suffer. They have attacked me, the rest of my companions, and some of my crew. Your starship crews should be aware of them so they can defend themselves. These ones on that pile of rocks had already built a small portal to their universe, and had kidnapped people from that asteroid—miners, prisoners. We encountered, deep in a mine, a chamber in their universe, pressurized to our needs, and crew from a CIS ship. Mostly dismembered, some barely alive, suffering terribly. Naketa determined that no amount of medical care would ever help them. We agreed, and so did they.”
“We let them die, as easily as we could. We sat with them, Gene. Held their hands, if they still had any. I made them members of my pack and warned the Lord and Lady that they were coming. I remember one, fiery red hair like a fox, didn’t want any drugs. She howled with me; I felt the life pass from her. And so she eased the passing of what remained of hew crew. Sachmae Oconnor.”
“Did you say Sachmae?”
Hayes stood stiffly, obviously shaken.
“Captain of her ship, the CIS Marksman. I have her ID tags, and all those I could recover. In the box there. Please photograph them or whatever. I promised them a place in the Wester Wood crypt.”
Hayes turned away and looked at the ceiling.
“Gods fucking dammit.”
“Yes, Commodore. I’ll see to it.”
Hayes looked at him with tilted head.
“I know monks at the monastery,” said Timby. “I’ll tell them the story. When I ask them to light candles, they’ll light bonfires.”
“Normally we’d want those tags back,” said Hayes, “but given the circumstances, photos will do. So about that nuke. Why did you use it?”
“They were building a portal to the hypospace realm. A big one. Given what we saw in the cave, we decided we had to shut this one down, quickly and thoroughly.”
“Can you describe it?”
“The details are blurry. Some kind of high-flagrancy raveguide feeding a diabolic reflector, the whole thing on a bipolar mount.”
“So you know a polar mount for a telescope, right?”
“Turns on two axes. This thing turned on four. As it rotated in the fourth dimension it seemed to turn itself inside out. Made my stomach want to turn inside out, too. We blew it up. By the looks of things, just in time.”
“I agree with your assessment. Underling incursions are increasing all over. Nice work sealing that breach.”
Timby looked at Hayes and nodded silently, then turned his attention to a roast-beast sandwich.