The Universe Between: Part Two


By Scott Reeves

If you haven't read the beginning of this story yet then click here for Part 1.

2. Duncan Norbert

Mothram  clumsily  got  to  his hands  and  knees,  shaken  and trembling. He rested in that position for a moment, waiting for the bile to sink back to his still-queasy stomach.

He  was  stunned.   He had read the reports of persons who  had survived encounters with Banshees.   He knew they put out some type of field,  or warped the space around them,  that induced terror and nausea  and other symptoms in humans.   This was another of the many reasons  humans  and Banshees didn't communicate:  humans  couldn't function in the presence of Banshees.

But  no  report could have prepared Mothram for actual  contact with them. It was the worst thing he'd ever experienced.

He  finally  recovered enough to get to his feet.   He  avoided looking  at the mess in the airlock as he stumbled down the corridor to where Marah had collapsed.   He started to bend over to check her pulse, but stopped himself, feeling that he might faint again if he bent over. "Marah," he croaked out, looking down at her.   "Please tell me you're all right."

She stirred. "Yes sir,"  she laughed weakly.   "I'm all right. I just need to lie here for a few days, okay?   I think a meteor ran me over."

Mothram  slowly walked over to the intercom.   The effects  the Banshees had produced seemed to be  wearing  off.   Slightly.   He touched  the button. "Bridge.   Mothram here.   Is anyone up there able  to answer?"   He listened a moment.   "Hello.   Bridge."   He thumbed  off the intercom and shook his head at Marah.   She was now on  her feet,  swaying unsteadily.   Her face was pale and flushed. "I'd better get up there.   You go to your quarters and sleep.   I'd like to discuss who that man was and what just happened immediately, but  I don't  think any of us can handle that  now.   I'll  call  a meeting  in a few hours."   He uncharacteristically reached out  and brushed her hair.   He quickly withdrew it and put his barriers back in place. "Sleep. That's an order."

She smiled weakly.   Mothram nodded at her and quickly shambled to the lift, slapping at his face to reawaken his tingling muscles.

As he walked toward the bridge,  he passed several crew members staggering about in a daze. One of them had a large wet spot on his crotch.   Mothram  made sure they were all right,  then continued on his way.

On  the  bridge,  he found that his crew had pulled  themselves together. He asked if there were any serious injuries. There were not. He went and stood above Rickman's station. "Banshees were all over  the ship,  sir,"  the pilot said.   "I managed to get us  into hyperspace before I lost consciousness."

Mothram looked at the pilot, finding a new respect for Rickman. How could he possibly have kept his wits about him, fought the pain, to  get them into hyperspace?   Mothram made a mental note to put  a special commendation onto Rickman's service record.

"The  ship is stable,"  Rickman continued.   "We're out of  the forbidden zone."   He looked at Mothram,  eyebrows raised.   "We got lucky. They let us go."

Mothram  shook  his head.   "I don't know.   I have  a  strange feeling the cost of our freedom is going to be extremely high."   He turned to his duty officer.   He was about to issue an order to her, but  noticed a foul odor coming from her.   He realized what it was, and  wondered  that  she  hadn't fled the bridge as  soon  as  she'd regained  consciousness.   He nodded at her imploring look,  and she quickly  left the bridge.  He turned back to Rickman.   "Notify  all stations to relieve any personnel not absolutely necessary to ship's functioning. Sorry, Mr. Rickman, at the moment that doesn't include you. Please set a course for Earth, full speed."

"Yes sir," Rickman said with a weary sigh.

Mothram wanted to go directly to his quarters and sleep off the pain. But he made the rounds of the ship, checking to make sure his crew  were as well as possible,  considering what they had just been through. He finally laid his head on his pillow an hour later.   He fell asleep at once.

Four  hours  later,  he sat in the briefing room with his  four most trusted officers.   Chet Rickman,  who had just finished up his shift, looking miserable, being one of the few on board who had not had  a  rest after the encounter with the Banshees;  engineer  Logan White,  one  of Mothram's closest friends; Michael Malone,  head of Ship's Sciences; and Marah Finnis.   Mothram sat at the head of the table, and Marah sat at his right.   She looked around at the men as she said,  "His  name  was  Duncan Norbert.   He  was  with Secret Services.   He was Enhanced,  and was my guide through my first ten years  of life,  when he wasn't off on some mission.   He was a good man." She fell silent. She took a moment to collect herself,  then went on.   "He recorded everything that happened to him on this last mission, and uploaded it into me before..... It's incredible.   What they've found deep in Banshee territory...."

"What is it?" Mothram asked gently.

Marah  looked  at  each of them in turn,  and  then  told  them Duncan's tale.


He  knew  this was going to be an unusual mission when  he  was briefed  and given his orders by the President of   Earth  herself, Marina Farrakhan. It had been several weeks since his last mission, and  he  was enjoying the respite which his teaching duties  at  the academy  provided him.   President Farrakhan's aide called him  late one night,  telling Duncan that he was on hiatus from the academy as of   that  moment,  and  was  to report to  the  President's  office promptly at six a.m.

The  next  morning,  after breakfasting at a  small  restaurant three blocks from his apartment,  he presented himself at the gates of  the  President's estate twenty minutes  early.   Exactly  twenty minutes later he was ushered into her private office.

Marina  Farrakhan,  leader  of  the Earth Council and  all  the colonies  of humankind  which it represented,  sat behind  a  large mahogany desk, fingers steepled.   The official records said she was thirty  years  old,  though  Duncan suspected she were a  few  years older.    Still,   that   made  her  the youngest  President  since Reconstruction. She wore a sharp black suit, and her black hair was cut  short.   A gold earring dangled heavily from her left earlobe. She  was so intelligent that the tabloids,  despite medical evidence to the  contrary,  often  claimed she  was  Enhanced,  even  though Enhanced humans were not allowed to assume the Presidency.

She  motioned  to  one  of five chairs in front  of  her  desk. "Hello, Mr. Norbert. Please sit down."

Duncan  nodded to her,  and sank into the chair closest to  her desk.

"I'll get right to the point.   You of course know that we have been secretly sending small unmanned probes into Banshee  territory for hundreds of years."

Duncan nodded. "Yes.   As I understand it,  the Banshees don't mind the probes. As long as humans don't enter the forbidden zones. And the probes have shown us no signs of the Banshees, no homeworld, colonies, monuments, or anything."

"That was correct."

Duncan   noted  the  past  tense.    "I  take  it  we've  found something."

Farrakhan   nodded   and  handed  him  a   computer- generated photograph. "This planet has been designated J359. Deep in Banshee territory."

Duncan  looked at the photograph.   From a distance of  several thousand miles, it showed a barren planet covered entirely with what were  unmistakably the ruins of a huge city.   Duncan looked up  at her. "This is incredible. Did the Banshees build it?"

She shook her head. "We don't know for certain, but my experts don't believe it's a Banshee artifact.   We're sending you to  find out exactly what it is and who built it."

Duncan's eyes widened. "Me?"

"You're our best."

He  was  silent  for a moment.   He  usually  accepted  without question missions  which  appeared to have no  probability  of  his returning alive. Nevertheless,  he always managed to survive.   But going  up  against  the Banshees seemed like  the  ultimate  no- win situation. He was momentarily terrified. Then the thought of being the first to set foot on the ruins of what was obviously an ancient alien civilization canceled out his terror. But.... "How will I get there?   No one casually strolls into Banshee territory and lives to tell the tale."

"We've  equipped a slivership with some experimental devices we hope  may shield you somewhat from the Banshees.   These devices are barely off the drawing board,  and are as yet untested,  but we have high hopes they will shield humans from Banshees.   I'm sure I don't have  to tell you what implications such shielding devices have  for mankind.

"You'll  take  the slivership and make a high warp  jump  into Banshee territory,  cutting  out  of warp practically in  orbit  of J359." Duncan raised his eyebrows.   A high warp jump was dangerous enough,  but  cutting any type of warp within the gravity well of  a solar  system,  let alone within orbiting distance of a planet,  was almost suicidal.   Farrakhan had anticipated an outburst from Duncan upon  hearing  this.   She was gladdened when none came.   "We  have every  confidence  in your skill as a pilot,  and think  that,  with great care, you will be able to pull it off.

"Actually,  getting in looks like the easy part.  The Banshees may discover you on the planet.   Your chances look....  Well,  they look pretty slim.   But they're not zero.   You know the risks.   Do you accept this mission, Mr. Norbert?"

He  had  been staring at the photograph while she  spoke.   The thought of exploring an alien ruin was irresistable.   He handed the photograph  back  to her and stood.   "Madam President,  how  can  I refuse?"

Marina  Farrakhan  smiled  her  legendary  smile,  and  nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Norbert."

As  usual  before a mission,  Duncan was given five days to  do whatever  he wanted,  and  access to as much credit as it  took  to satisfy his every whim.   The government gave him this vacation time whenever it was possible,  whenever the mission facing him wasn't so urgent  that giving him the time would jeopardize it.  They gave him the  time  because usually the missions he went on had virtually  no chance of success,  and he probably would not return alive,  so they wanted  him  to live it up,  just in case.

  There was time  to spare before  this  mission.   The alien ruin  had  waited  perhaps billions  of years, so it could just a few more days for Duncan  to enjoy himself. Duncan took the time to go to some of his favorite places.   He  went  to  Greece and stood for awhile staring  at  the Acropolis.   He went and stood at the edge of the glassy, blackened plain  that used to be Washington D.C.   And he spent a whole day at the  brothels on the dark side of the Moon,  where he rented a large suite  and hired a harem of twenty women who satisfied every  sexual fantasy he could think of.   Duncan had no living relatives,  and he had  been  forbidden  to  see the few friends he  had  when  he  had accepted the mission.

So  after five days of living high,  he boarded a shuttle which took him out to Earth Station Goliath for a final briefing, and then to the sliver ship which orbited nearby Pluto. From there,  he flew alone and eager toward his rendezvous with the unknown.

Duncan  planned to drop out of warp 1200 kilometers from  J359. As the time drew near, he began running checks on ship's systems, in preparation  for  the transition.   However,   a million and a  half kilometers out, things went seriously wrong.

He had just finished a check on the cooling system when he felt a  sickening lurch  that  sent his  stomach  into  his  throat.   A thunderous  crack  echoed in his ears,  and the  ship  creaked  and groaned as if it were ripping apart. Stars suddenly appeared on the forward  viewscreen,  replacing  the blank whiteness of  hyperspace. J359 filled the center of the screen,  a dead and rust-colored rock. It  grew  rapidly  as Duncan's ship hurtled toward it  at nearly  a million kilometers an hour.

Duncan cursed. Ordinarily, upon dropping out of warp, the ship would  have been practically standing still.   But this time it  had been  violently ripped out of hyperspace before he could cancel  the velocity  differential.   So his motion relative to normal space  had been  translated  with  the  ship, something that  shouldn't  have happened.

He consulted the computer. If unchecked, the ship would impact with J359 in just over an hour. He would barely have enough time to slow the ship down for a rough landing.

He  reached  down and toggled the forward thrusters to burn  at maximum.   With difficulty,  he made a few minor course corrections. Then, satisfied everything was all right for the moment, he went aft to find out what had gone wrong.

Smoke  filled the engine room.   The ventilators were  whining, overburdened.   Duncan,   wearing  formulite  gloves,   removed  the smoking, red hot, warped housing of the hyperdrive engine.   Inside, the engine itself had been torn from its mounts and thrown backward, reduced  to a pool of bubbling slag.   He stared at it dumbly.   He had never heard of such a thing happening.

He  called  up  data  on the computer  terminal  on  the  wall. According to  records,  the  ship  had struck a  gravity  shelf  in hyperspace.   The shelf was a mere bump in normal  space,  but  it became  a  mountain  in  hyperspace, from which  it  extended  into infinity.   The  engine,  which  was the only part of the ship  that actually existed in hyperspace, had been snagged by the shelf. As a result the ship had dropped from hyperspace.

Duncan  scanned the area around J359.   The gravity shelf made a wide circle, 4 million kilometers in diameter, with the planet at its center. Duncan was fascinated. Nothing like this had been  known  to exist.   It was as though the planet and  the  space around it was pinched off from the rest of the universe.

Incredibly  old  alien  ruins,  and now  this,  he  thought  to himself. Fantastic.

With  the  hyperdrive destroyed,  getting back home would be  a problem.   More than a problem.   An impossibility.   The slivership was equipped with a backup,  intraplanetary hyperdrive.   That would let  him leap a short distance, but not too far;  it would burn out after three or four light years. After that, he'd have to make the journey  on thrusters alone,  and he didn't have near enough fuel to do  it.   Besides,  that way would take a thousand or more years to return to Goliath.   And then there was the Banshees to worry about. Traveling that slow through normal space,  he probably wouldn't make it beyond J359's solar system before they were on him.

To make it home,  they'd have to send someone else into Banshee territory to retrieve him.   He doubted President Farrakhan would do that.

He  resolved  to  make  his exploration  of  this  artifact  as satisfying as possible.   A memory so bright he would carry it with him into the next life.

He  returned  to  the  bridge and  strapped  himself  into  the crashcouch.   After  swiveling the control panel across his stomach, he began flicking switches.   The forward thrusters cut out,  and he used  the maneuvering thrusters to position the ship for entry  into J359's atmosphere.

He recorded a log and transmitted it toward the listening posts at  the edge of human space.   Even though someone coming after  him was  unlikely,  he  still included a message saying he'd  head  for G313M, if anyone cared to rendezvous with him. Would be there, say, two weeks from today. That should give him enough time to conduct a preliminary exploration of the ruins.

Entry took place fifteen minutes later: a brief shudder pulsed through the ship.

He'd  never entered atmosphere going so fast.   Maneuvering was tricky.   The  ship  didn't  want to obey his  directions.   But  he wrestled  with it, riding the bucking,  swaying ship as his stomach rose into throat.

The  incredible vista revealed once he was close enough to  see it, barely registered in his mind.   Great plains of metal stretched between  towering stone and metal  buildings.   Enormous  catwalks spanned  the  air between the buildings.   Great gaping black  holes studded  the  surface at rare intervals, apparently extending  deep below the surface.

Duncan aimed for one of the plains.

The   planet's   atmosphere  was  so  thin  as  to  be   almost nonexistant. Still,  it was a challenge bringing the ship in.   But he was an excellent pilot; the ship jolted and bounced several times as  it swooped down on the plain he'd chosen.   But it touched down, and came to a rough halt after skidding nearly two miles.

He  unstrapped  the  crash harness and  stood,  stretching  his stress-tensed muscles. As he did so,  he ran a systems check on the ship;  nothing that had been damaged was irrepairable,  except  the hyperdrive, of course.

An  hour  later  he emerged from the ship,  wearing  a  minimal spacesuit with a supply pack strapped on the back.

The  ground underfoot was metal,  a metal so polished he  could see the stars reflected in it. It stretched away into the distance, to  the buildings towering at the great plain's edge.   Large  rocks and  small fine grit littered the plain.   Here and there the  metal was crumpled into twisted, deep depressions.

The planet had taken a heavy battering from space.

Duncan brought a pair of binoculars to his eyes and studied the skyline  at the  plain's  edge.   The buildings  towered  into  the perpetual  night  of the star-dusted sky,  like huge fangs  reaching toward  the heavens. Most of them were metal,  with rows of windows looking  out  over the plain.   Most of the window panes were  still intact;  obviously  they weren't made of  glass.   Amazingly,  light shone from the windows of some of the buildings. A very few.

Some  of the buildings were made of stone,  although these were toppled over and in such decay that they were barely recognizable as buildings.

How  long  had this great shattered ruin lay in wait  for  Man? Duncan wondered.   President Farrakhan's people thought it was tens of millions of years old. For those long years it had waited as Man puttered about on his small planet, developing enough brains to send Duncan here to boggle at it.

Duncan  put  away the binoculars and started across the  plain. The  stars were crisp points of  fire  dusting  the  sky  above, glittering indifferently as he trudged toward the ruin.

Halfway  there  something at the corner of his eye  caught  his attention. He looked into the sky.   Far above the horizon,  smears of incandescent light grew larger,  then faded,  only to grow again. Like  a rhythmic pulsing.   Or something throwing itself against  an invisible barrier and rebounding.

Duncan knew immediately what it was:   the Banshees had finally come  for him.   Only they weren't able to come down to the  planet. Something blocked them, and they were battering themselves senseless against it in their fury to get at him.

It must be the gravity shelf surrounding the planet, he thought to  himself. In effect,  the gravity shelf isolated J359 from  the rest of the universe,  and the Banshees,  probably due to some facet of their unknown composition, couldn't get past it.

     His mind raced at the possibilities. Perhaps humans could make artificial gravity shelves,  on a small scale,  and surround  ships with  them.   The Banshees  would  no longer be  able  to  prohibit humanity's travels.

Duncan  watched  the  light  show in the black sky  for  a  few minutes. Abruptly it stopped; the Banshees vanished, leaving bright afterimages on his eyes as he stared at the stars.

Doubtless  they  would  be there waiting for him when  he  left J359. He sighed and resumed walking to the line of buildings at the plain's edge.

When  he reached them,  he found that none of the buildings had an entrance at ground level. His seismograph told him that the bulk of  the ruins lay underground;  the buildings towering over him were minimal compared to the tunnels catacombing the ground.

He explored the buildings along the edge of the plain,  looking for  a way in.   Two miles to the right,  he found one:   a curving, elaborate  arch framed a huge,  gaping black maw in the side of  one building.   He looked back at his ship,  a tiny speck faraway on the plain, then turned and stepped through the arch.

He  reached  up and clicked on the floodlight on his  shoulder, bathing the hallway in the first light it had seen in  uncountable ages. It sloped sharply downward. Doorways lining the sides opened into branching passages; Duncan glanced in a few of these. They led off  into  darkness.   Some  of the doors led  to  stairwells  which climbed  to  this building's higher levels.   Still other doors  let into huge, spacious rooms, lacking in any furnishings.

The  particular building he'd entered was one of those few that were made of stone. The hallway walls were laser smooth, showing no signs of seams or bricks. It was as if the building had been carved out of a single, tremendous block of granite.

     Duncan moved down the hallway,  following its slope.   His feet kicked  up a fine mist of dust as he trudged along. Several hundred feet  beneath  ground level,  the stone hallway gave way to  one  of metal.   The  point  at  which the two materials  changed over was seamless; the metal and stone simply blended together.

He  kept  to the main hallway,  glancing into the rooms  as  he passed.   They  were remarkable in their plainness;  not one of them contained  furniture or other artifacts.   No carvings on the walls, no pictures: nothing. Approximately one third of the rooms were lit with  a strange half-glow which seemed to have no exact source;  the light seemed to diffuse out of the air.

Everything  he  saw  was recorded into his  datacore;  when  he returned  to Goliath he could download his head into the  mainframe there.

The only sound in his ears was the cycling of his rebreather.

The  hallway twisted and turned and descended so often that  he lost all sense of direction. Thankfully his automap kept track,  so he'd have no trouble finding his way out.

He  began to feel insignifcant compared to the enormity of  the place.   As far  as he knew,  he was the only living thing in  that vast,  ancient  masoleum. Or was he alone?   Perhaps unseen things lurked in the shadows beyond his light, monstrous creatures licking their slobbering jaws at the thought of having him for dinner.

He chuckled to himself. Come and get me.

A  mile  below  ground level,  his indicators showed  that  the atmosphere--air  pressure,  gases and all--had reached Earth-normal. He  boggled  at that for a moment.   How could it  be?   Why  Earth-normal?

He shrugged his shoulders and removed his helmet.

The  air  smelled musty,  like a tomb that had been sealed  for centuries.   He  took a deep breath and almost gagged on the  smell. But  he'd soon grow used to it,  and having his helmet off made  him feel  not  so detatched from the ruin.   He took his gloves  off  as well, adding still another sense with which to experience the place.

For the next seven days he explored the ruin,  staying within a few  miles' radius of his ship.   By the end of those seven days he was frustrated.   The ruin refused to yield its secrets.   For a man used to getting immediate results, that was annoying.

But everywhere he went he found the same thing: cavernous rooms and small rooms,  wide hallways and narrow tunnels,  all filled with nothing.   He  knew it would be a mistake to think that just because the small, infinitesimal portion of the ruin he had explored held no artifacts,  there were no artifacts to find.   But that's the way it appeared.

Several  times  he donned his suit again and ventured up  above the  life-zone  which  blanketed the lower parts of  the  ruin.   He climbed  to  the  tops of several buildings.   The  only  difference between  those  rooms  and the ones below were  the  windows,  which afforded him an excellent view of the plain on the one side,  or the ruins  stretching  away to the horizon,  a sea of shattered towers waiting patiently beneath the unblinking stars.

The only remarkable thing he found was a huge resevoir of water deep  within the bowels of the ancient city.   It was  enormous,  a small ocean. As he stood on its shore,  eating lunch,  the air near him wavered and a faint glow flared to life.   It lashed out at him, passing harmlessly through his flesh.   And it disappeared before he even had time to react.

A Banshee had managed, however weakly, to make its way onto the planet.   But  thankfully it had been so weakened it was  powerless, and  must  have  been snapped back over the gravity  shelf  like  a rubberband stretched to its limit.

Duncan laughed in belated startlement, touching his cheek where the Banshee had touched him.

     They wanted him, and they wanted him BAD. Duncan wondered,  as he finished eating: was this planet,  this ruin,  important to them? Had  the Banshees kept humanity out of this portion of the Galaxy to protect the secret of J359? And what was that secret?

"Give it up!" he shouted,  his voice echoing off the water and the faraway walls of the resevoir's cavern.

He  packed  away his lunch and headed off down a tight  tunnel. Soon he would call it a day and return to his ship for sleep.   He'd been  sleeping in the ruins for the past few nights and was  looking forward to a soft bed.

Ten  minutes  later  he saw a light at the end of  the  tunnel. Duncan quickened his pace.   He exited the tunnel into a room mind-bogglingly  huge  and brightly lit.   The roof and  walls  were  so distant  from  him he could barely discern them.   He could  see  no source for the light; it seemed to radiate from the air itself. The room-Duncan felt that `room' was too small a word for this place; it didn't  convey  the sense of its staggering size;  but just then  he could  think  of  no other word for it-was completely  bare  of  any furnishings or decor. The only object visible was a tall pole a few hundred  feet  in front of the doorway in which  he  stood.   Duncan walked towards it.

He  stopped a few feet from the pole and examined it.   It  was ten feet high,  round,  and made of a silvery metal that dazzled his eyes.   It's  entire surface was rough and serrated,  and gave  the impression of being impossibly sharp. Duncan casually reached out a finger  and lightly touched the pole.   Cursing,  he jerked his hand away and saw blood welling from the tip of his finger. He stuck the finger  in  his  mouth and sucked.   Looking back at  where he  had touched the pole, he saw a few drops of his blood glistening against the rough  surface.   As  he watched,  they seemed to  dwindle  and evaporate, as though being absorbed into the pole.   A moment later, the drops were gone.

He  withdrew his finger from his mouth.   He slowly spun on his heels, studying the hazy distances of the room. "Well,"  he said to himself.

There  was a sudden sound like rushing wind behind him,  and he whirled back to the pole.   The air next  to  it  shimmered.   A featureless,  colorless humanoid  shape coalesced out of  the  air. Duncan  stepped  back.   He reached out and attempted to  touch  the vague shape. His hand passed through it.   The surface where he had touched it whirled excitedly,  like roiling smoke,  and then settled once more into seeming solidity.

A projection or something, Duncan thought to himself.

A  sudden voice emanated from the form.   "The seed we  planted has come to fruition. You are acceptable to us." It raised its arm and  pointed to the center of the room.   As Duncan  watched,  space there  seemed to twist in upon itself,  and he felt himself and  the room  seemingly tilt in towards the disturbance.   He felt as though he were about to tumble down a very steep hill. He fought the urge to  reach  out  and  grab onto the thorny pole  to  steady himself. Instead,  he  dropped to his knees and braced himself with his hands on the ground.

The  disturbance below him- in front of him? -twisted  more,  and then the fabric of space seemed to rip open.   Blinding light poured into the room, forcing Duncan to shield his eyes and lower his head.

"Where are your brothers,  the others of your kind?"  the voice of the apparition asked.

"Very far from here," Duncan answered.

"The door is open.   Go and bring your brothers to this place." Duncan suddenly  went  cold  as  a connection  was  made  with  the interface on the back of his neck. Data poured into him,  two faces were  burned  into  his mind. Then the connection  was  withdrawn. Duncan  shivered  uncontrollably,  his eyes seeing nothing  but  the brightness  pouring  from the rent in space.   "Go,  and bring  your brothers. Bring the ones I have shown to you, as well."

Duncan, unable to see, rose to his feet, fell flat on his face, and then crawled backwards to the tunnel behind him. Once he was in the tunnel, he was beyond the effects of the space warp. He climbed shakily  to  his  feet,  and then he ran away as fast as  he could, filled  with  awe  and  anticipation and an urgent  desire  to  lead humanity back to this place.

It  took him several hours to return to the  slivership.   Once there,  he cleaned up the hyperdrive housing and installed the small intraplanetary hyperdrive.    He  considered  it  a  very   likely probability  that no one would be waiting for him at G313M.   But he couldn't afford to worry about that; he had to believe he'd survive this mission.

Next  he  recorded a thorough log of everything he'd  seen  and transmitted it to the nearest listening post.   Then he fought down his excitement enough to lie down and sleep for a few hours.

When  he  awoke,  he strapped into the crashcouch and  launched himself into space. He told the computer to automatically jump into hyperspace as soon as the ship cleared the gravity shelf.

Then he waited.

Just as he'd expected, shortly after the ship left the planet's surface, the Banshees returned. They waited just beyond the gravity shelf,  shining  smears of  smoky light against the  background  of stars.   He  imagined he could feel their attention focused on  him, feel their hungry anticipation.

Why  were  they so intent upon killing him?   He  doubted  they merely wanted to capture him.

Soon they  were  a looming wall of light several  miles  long, blocking his path, growing nearer with every second.   Finally the ship  passed the gravity shelf, and they were there,  winking  into existence all over the ship. Agony jolted through his body,  and he writhed  uncontrollably,  the  unyielding straps of the crashcouch biting into him. He watched through pain-clouded,  barely conscious eyes as the Banshees on the bridge drifted toward him.

It  was  over as suddenly as it began.   The ship  jumped  into hyperspace and the Banshees vanished, caught off guard.   In seconds they were thousands of miles behind him.

Duncan sighed wearily, thankfully,  and unstrapped himself from the crashcouch.

Was it all in vain? Would anyone be waiting at G313M?

To be continued

Copyright 1997 by Scott Reeves

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