A Rock and a Hard Place

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(Written by Griever; posted December 20-31, 2006)

The first time I ever got shot, I was drinking sangria. I didn't even realize what was going on, initially. One minute, there was only the rocking of the waves, some islands barely visible over the horizon, the chilled drink with bits of fruit floating inside, and plenty of sun. I think I'd dozed off, because the next I knew, something was pinging off the hull, and the roar of an incoming engine was being interrupted by sharp cracks.

Then the glass jug sitting beside me shattered, and I finally connected with what was happening.

Luckily, the hind-brain took over then, because if I'd stopped to think I likely wouldn't have lived to see another day. Or night, for that matter.

I still nearly broke my neck in diving into the cabin, tumbling painfully down, nearly cracking my head against the table sitting in the middle of it ... I had enough presence of mind to yank a safety interlock from its wall-socket once the jarring *thud* of impact was dealt with.

"Trigon! Lock it! We're under fire!"

The main display flickered to life, Four-eyes' haughty expression there in full Technicolor.

Uncertainty closed and locked its hatches a moment later, even as footfalls sounded from above.

Somehow, I stayed on top of things. Most notably, myself. I think it was the sense of surreality that did it.

I don't think that a person can ever really convince themselves they aren't immortal without being shown definite proof. Even then, you don't necessarily take it to heart. It happened to me a few years back, but I'd shelved it in the past ... well, here was a reminder, courtesy of Reality.

She can be a royal bitch, can't she?

"Your ineptitude knows no bounds, it seems, wretch. You can't be left alone for even a moment without getting involved in some sort of colossal mess up."

Ironically enough, it was Trigon's summary that planted me firmly back in the there and then again.

It was one of the few times in my life that I'd felt claustrophobic, even as the display shifted to a mast-top camera view of several people of varying ethnicity, all armed, crawled over the top of the deck and tried to get in.

A few feet of to port, a ratty looking cutter was rocking alongside the Uncertainty, an middle-aged Chinese guy screaming his lungs out via megaphone.

I, of course, heard nothing. As little as I'd trusted the goop, it was great isolation when it did work. That and security seals on the hatches would keep pretty much anything short of ... well, I didn't really know short of what. I suspected shaped charges would be the limit for the hull, though even that might not be enough. With the structural integrity field?

And once I was over being scared shitless, I found myself being utterly and totally furious.

I hadn't even realized that I was punching the activation panel when the Handwavium Solid in its cradle underneath the table flared to life.

The Uncertainty shuddered, unsettling my unwanted guests, as the Drive Field snapped on and was reconfigured on the fly. The mast folded down into horizontal position, throwing one of them into the water, and then we accelerated.

Straight up.

Trigon was shouting something that sounded like encouragements, and I was too far gone to care.

The ship's Drive Field has two configurations, one of them being the energy sails. Two of those, one projected via emitters along the mast, the other via the keel, to be exact.

Right then, only the mast's emitters were flaring, full power being directed through them to hop the ship upwards for a moment at something between twenty and thirty G.

Then it stopped, ten to fifteen meters above the surface, and splashed back down.

The deck was clear.

Trigon was shouting what sounded like encouragements.

Next thing I knew, we were blowing through the cutter's bow, splintering wood and bending steel as the Uncertainty leapt forward on her secondary sail alone, skimming the waves for a moment before cutting to Speed Drive and wheeling about.

Wreckage. Wreckage and bodies.

"Not bad. For a human. Now finish them off! Can you taste it? The raw, unchecked TERROR?! It's exquisite, isn't it?"

"Trigon," I said, not taking my eyes off the display. "Shut up. And plot me a course for Tasmania."

There were still people alive down there, likely injured and far away from land.

Still kicking when we left the unfortunate patch of ocean behind us.

Back then, I felt no remorse about leaving them there.

I never would.

Australia likes us. I think. Well, they have yet to toss us out on our asses, and despite Trigon's occasional antics - luckily, none of them as serious as Botany Bay had been - the Uncertainty hasn't been banned from docking or airspace yet.

They may not be entirely at ease with Handwavium, but they've got people outside of the trade zones beat by leaps and bounds when it comes to that. Still, if you want to putter around with 'wavetech and raw Handwavium outside of either the Outback or a Sydney International Spaceport's rented hangar, the place to go is Tasmania.

As a point of immediate interest to me, though, it also happened to be the place that was home to one of the best Fen-run hospitals dirtside.

And I needed to get myself looked at. Better safe than sorry, after all.

By the time I actually got there, the graze I hadn't even noticed until the entire pirate episode was over and done with and I was in the process of bleeding on myself, was mostly under control. Synthskin patches weren't cure-alls, but they did well enough with something that was basically a glorified flesh wound. The only thing left was to get something for the bruising I got as a result of the fall.

A few days after that, and still wincing at some of the aftereffects - my back was mostly an odd shade of mottled yellow by then, and I was sleeping on my stomach most of the time - I made my way out of the gravity well.

Miraculously, Trigon didn't prove to be too much trouble during that time. Possibly, it had something to do with the fact that he'd gotten front line seats to a show that included me getting shot and people getting killed. I wasn't about to investigate too closely, though, opting to try and not look a gift horse in the mouth.

So, yeah, other than a getting the feel of cold steel at my throat introduced to me a few years prior to the Wave, that was the only time my life had been in direct danger.

Not counting taking a sailboat hooked up to a Solid into orbit on a grunt and a prayer, and a few encounters with 'danelaw authorities in the early years' - before immediate family used me as an excuse to visit extended relatives in Aussie-land at Christmas.

But that was in another country.

This one, though?

Yeah, I'd been careless. But if there was one thing I'd come to realize in the course of this life'o'mine, it's that getting careless like that once means it could very well happen again.

Like they say, hindsight is almost always 20/20. And over-reacting is pretty much normal when faced with stress.

As is a desire to be able to defend oneself.

Oh, shields, 'gooped hull, and so on and so forth were all well and good ...

... but I've always had an opinion a bit along the lines of the Old Testament about things like this, despite not being religious in the slightest.

A few weeks later I'd squared off a month or two of time in my calendar, and the gears were put into motion.

I was heading out towards the Belt, a bit of a side-job, and more than a month's time of research on the fine art of breaking stuff.

There's a couple of ways to get Handwavium to deliver power, and what's best at tickling a person's fancy is probably what's going to be used. I've had the fortune of my first Solid being able to generate it. And no, I don't know how. I just plug stuff in and it works. How much? Enough to power the Uncertainty and my tinkering with it. There's a lot of other ways besides this one ... ones that don't rely on strokes of luck. Goop an engine, or a few solar panels, and you'll likely get a pretty reliable way of feeding your energy needs. That's the most common way of going about things, even if it's as prone to giving you odd results as anything else.

The problem that gave me the worst headache here, though, wasn't power generation. Not really.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In Fenspace, if you're looking for discretion ... true discretion, you have a few options as well.

You're home free if you happen to run one of the habitats, or the larger spaceships traversing the lanes, but if you lack those nine chances out of ten will have you heading towards the Belt. The tenth is dealing with Whedonites, but that can be iffy at times.

Unless your name happens to be Morden. Or, to that particular group, Manco.

And even when you find a place that's willing to rent you space and be quiet about it, there's usually a favor or two involved somewhere in there.

I had a set of grav-kitbashes ready on-hand, some of them old projects, some patched together new ones, as a readily accepted currency.

I wheeled the Uncertainty around and onto the approach vector, bringing the bow in line with the patch of darker blackness littered by the occasional bubble of transparent, pressurized plastics.

All the while tuning out Trigon's chattering in insistance that we break off to engage the 'impudent trash' that dared to shadow us.

The Village of Hidden Asteroid may not be too hard to find, if you know what you look for, but they take their security seriously enough.

Don't tell anyone, but I like watching the sakura. Always have, always will.

Beginnings and endings, life and death, and everything in-between ... if you squint, you can see it all in the path of a falling blossom.

Besides, they plain look nice.

They're sort of like Nirvana. The state of mind, not the band.

Eh. I never quite got the big deal about that, to be honest. I mean, what's with the big search and all? Just down a couple of beers and spare some time for thought.

Inner peace is overrated.

I'd have been perfectly willing to give it a try there and then, though, given the circumstances.

"Sorry, could you repeat that? I was lost in thought," I said as I shook off the tangent seeing a Really Damn Big sakura tree standing in the middle of the Asteroid's central dome had thrown me into.

"Ooooh! Such a hip response! I should expect nothing less from someone with references from my Great Rival!"

Apparently, my inattention didn't matter much.

If the sheer incredulity of conversing with what is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian version of Maito Gai has to be experienced to be believed.

Yes. Even the bowl cut.

Especially the bowl cut.

Being given the 'grand tour' of the whole place, with running commentary about the Burning Power Of Youth and how it guided them on their way to the Stars - well, they got that right. My brain, it burns - that occasionally trails off into Russian I can almost, but not quite, follow ...

There and then, I decided that next time I'd have a tape recorder on me.

First Rule - there's gotta be someone out there who'll pay for it, no matter how silly it is.

Besides, I'm always looking for new things to add to my mix of psychological warfare tools.

I've never really been a fan of energy weapons. Don't have me try and explain it in a rational way, it's just how things are.

The irony in that being that, had I been one, I could have just done a work-around on the Uncertainty's shield arrays and gotten something at least marginally useful ... or so I liked to think to myself.

Especially when things were going awry with the hardware ... which they were.

Finally, after close to a month of trying out various things, and often just bashing my head against a nearby tree-trunk in frustration, I threw my hands up and gave up on trying to come up with something simple and seamless.

Again, there was irony to be found in this, since as soon as I actually stopped and thought about it the idea went and jumped out at me.

Well, not literally, but it well may have.

I went from sitting next to the tarp that had my project's parts arrayed on it to standing and running off towards the nearest lift-shaft in next to no time flat.

I mean, honestly, when you fight your way against a problem and don't manage to get any headway in despite all indications that it ought to be working just fine thank you ...

Let's just say that I was feeling pretty damn stupid some four hours later, when the assembled barrel and power delivery circuitry hummed steadily before going *zapp* when I hit the breaker.

You know the saying 'once bitten, twice shy'?

A little while back, when Trigon was stewing and bitching and moaning after his failed attempt at the plant and animal life in the vicinity of Botany Bay, I figured it was time to apply that little tidbit.

Hence, I neutered the Uncertainty of its AI connection and proceeded to work on something that would let me be sure Trigon stayed contained when I wasn't there to contain him.

It took me a bit to kludge together a working model, which was then worked down into a sort of 'security card' - if your average security card were half-an-inch thick and a foot long.

Normally, it wouldn't have worked - see, most Quickened AIs are integrated into a ship's 'wavium at a pretty basic level. Locking them out would entail tearing the guts from the ship, and even that was likely to be little more than an interim measure.

Trigon, though - and this I've managed to figure out via trial and error, mostly - resides in the set of crystalline Solids that govern the original Speed Drive's expansion into energy sails.

As much as he can be said to reside anywhere, really. Still, he hasn't been able to get into the Uncertainty's 'core' Solid.

Anyway, I came back to the test area, lugging my surplus of 'security cards' with me in a duffel.

Then I rigged one to be slotted in-between the powerplant - a 'wavium battery - and a set of hastily acquired hardtech capacitators that became, pound for pound and inch for inch, the heaviest and largest parts of the whole damn design.

What's in a 'card'? Imagine the gutted cross between a microwave and a vacuum tube, and you're pretty close. Most of the actual bulk is due to the heat-sink plates and isolation.

A few hours after that, and having spent most of those in a pleasantly dreamless sleep, I grinned, and fumbled about for the ammunition bin. The target, I ascertained, was still where it had been set up at the beginning of the 'project', the stars beyond this little dome on the surface of the Hidden Asteroid were twinkling merrily, and I felt I had a right to be more than a little smug.

What followed next was ... well, let's say I misjudged the conductivity, and resilience of the coils a little. Just a teensy bit.

The good news was that the target, a six inch thick plate of metalloy I'd had hauled from the Village scrap-cave, was basically one big hole with torn edges. The osmium rounds went right through, digging into the rock beyond, at a ludicrous rate of fire.

The bad news, I groused as I picked myself up from behind a handily placed rock, poking at the tears in the upper layer of my coverall and thanking Eris I'd had enough of a mind to get one of these from the locals - it looked more like a set of bomb disposal gear than a coverall, really - was that I would need to put together a new prototype, since the old one had just suffered a ...

... what do you call it again? Oh. Yeah.

A case of rather terminal malfunction.

I have a problem with weapons.

Actually, I have a problem with power, regardless of the form it comes in.

There and then, I was only considering immediates ... later on, though? I hadn't met Scott, then. I hadn't met any of the number of people who'd think I was a decent enough bloke to know how to restrain himself in some situations.

Having power makes me itch to use it. Even considering having it ...

Yeah, it's one of the reasons I play the recluse. Not the only one, not the most important one, but still up there.

There and then, though, sitting in the gloom of red light in the Uncertainty's cabin and not doing anything ...

My hand was itching to pull a security interlock on the weapons mount, pump the drive for all it was worth, and go up there.

Maybe I was getting better on the restrain thing, or I wasn't as bad as I'd semi-convinced myself, but it took a few months and an almost-combat situation to draw that reaction out.

Relays were transmitting clean and clear, and the disco-ball holosphere projected everything in detail into its transparent interior.

Four days ago, Maetel and Quinn got in touch with me regarding something brewing in China. Not surprisingly, they'd surprised me with it, since I still wasn't doing much in the way of keeping up with the news during the time period.

The scope was ... a bit daunting, and even if I had been in touch with reality more than I was at the time, I likely wouldn't have caught wind of the whole thing.

I don't interact with Trekkies all that much, and a fair bit of the contact I do have with them is usually made via the Morden express. Yes, Quinn is a regular with them. No, we don't talk much. Or, at all, really, unless one or the other has a reason to.

That they, or she, wouldn't care to inform me they were about to pull the biggest planned operation in Fendom history ... well, alright, maybe not quite the biggest. Most flashy, though? Very likely.

So, there I was, sitting near the bottom of the Yellow Sea and playing dead like I'd been for the past three days.

Meanwhile, up above and throughout PRC airspace, Fenships and Peoples' Liberation Army fighter jets were giving one-another the dance of a lifetime.

And an unassuming train was using the confusion to ferry a number of cars and several hundred Chinese Fen out of Beijing, picking up speed slowly but surely as the first twitches of authorities seemed to realize something was wrong.

I cracked my neck, my fingers, and chased the desire to go weapons' free away despite the fact that there was a fair chance the Galaxy Express' cover would be blown as soon as it lifted and a friend of mine was likely to find herself under fire.

Nah. That was why we're here, I thought to myself.

And hit the drive toggles.

That's the wonderful thing about the Uncertainty's shields. In most ships, and most cases of drives, they and whatever protections they have are separate.

In our case, though, the shields were the drive. Under Speed Drive, it was the bubble around the ship - it's structural integrity field and deflector - that moved. Under Acceleration Drive, a few projector relays were added to the array and reconfigured to create a directed gravitational effect ...

Once upon a time, Trigon nearly used them to start the mother of all fires.

If there's ever been the Swiss Army Knife equivalent of force fields, I'd like to think it's what I cobbled together.

This time, though, the ship rose almost hesitantly, as fields interacted and sometimes meshed ... badly ... whereupon I was forced to correct whatever I could and deal with the instability fallout.

Usually, the Acceleration Array doesn't work in combination with the Speed Drive field. Usually, meaning when one is trying to move the ship one way, while the other insists that, no, it's way is the correct one.

Not pretty.

Then again, I wasn't trying to do that there and then.

My concern was solely with keeping the Uncertainty whole, or at least not very shot up ...

The Chinese had fighters, missiles, guns and ground-based radar arrays. They had ECM. They had ECCM. They also had the Trekkies to deal with, but that didn't stop them from looking.

Eventually, they'd notice the train about to lift off that was a mile or two away from the city by now.

That is, unless they were presented with something that completely threw their sensors ...

My desire to go shooting-mad went under, squashed mercilessly because it was costing focus.

The energy sails flared. I knew they did. I could see the power they were drawing, and it was as much as they pulled during full-out acceleration burn.

On the tactical plot, the red markers of the fighter jets suddenly jinked wildly, before settling back into controlled flight ...

... as tens, dozens, then over a hundred faux signatures snapped into being, and communications bands were flooded with insane crackling.

Trigon had spent the last few months only scarcely entertained, and now he was going to town with his newfound semi-freedom.

All things considered, I thought as I worked the drive field to keep us up and moving, all the more power to him.

On the plot, the faint signature of the Galaxy Express flared as it lifted ... and nobody cared.