It was twenty hours later when Jones rushed into the meeting room, now turned back into a rec room, and stood waiting impatiently in front of the captain. I was sitting with her, discussing in a leisurely way how disappointing it had been that we couldn’t land on the first world besides our own that had shown signs of civilization. Mary was sitting with us, looking very tired and distant; she had just finished the monumental task of hibernating 90% of the crew in less than a week. This was a momentary stop on the way to a long delayed full night’s sleep.
“I figure I’ll only be up another three more days or so. It’ll take that long to get the computers asking the right sort of questions to do a thorough analysis of the zoological data while I sleep.”
“Uhmm. It’ll likely be another three weeks for me.” The captain sipped her tea. “It’ll be that long before the interstellars are engaged and checked out.”
Finally Jones realized he shouldn’t wait longer. “Excuse me, John, Mary, Captain. They’re coming after us.”
“Who is?” the captain asked placidly.
“Someone from Alerzion! There are craft coming after us from the planet’s surface. According to the stealth satellite, they launched about a half hour ago.”
“Two of them. Big chemical jobs. Monster thrusters on them. If they can keep it up, they should intercept in about 12 hours.”
“Jesus!” she was no longer quite so calm. Neither was I. Mary’s eyes refocused out of dreamland.
“There’s more. They’re starting another nuclear war on the planet. It’s quite a sight.”
We got up and went to the control room. Alerzion was up on the main display screen. We could see the puffs of clouds that were springing up from the surface. The oldest ones were starting to turn a touch grey, the rest were still quite white, puffy and growing. Here and there on the surface there were flashes, and after the flashes new clouds formed.
“Who started it? Can we tell? Was it the robots?”
“We can’t tell. We’re too far away.”
“What about the interceptors? Where’d they come from?”
“That we don’t know either. They boosted from the far side of the planet, which is currently out of sight of the stealth satellite, too.”
“Well, it looks like we may have to fight our way out, after all. Jones, get me some readings on those interceptors. What kind of capabilities do they have? Can we outmaneuver them? Can we outrun them? Or will we have to outshoot them!”
“Mary, you’d better stay up for a moment. We may need to make some changes in who’s up and who’s down.”
Mary groaned and nodded blearily.
Two hours later the interceptors had passed close to the stealth satellite and we had a report over tight-beam laser.
The information, now fully analyzed, wasn’t good. Omni gave us the news.
“Those interceptors are monsters. They have at least a hundred times our mass, ten times our acceleration, and they’re heavily armored.
“The only good news is there are only two of them, and they’re on a suicide mission. There’s no way they can have enough fuel to catch us and get back.”
Bradshaw stared at the display. Something new was coming across. He interpreted it.
“Oh, here’s one other piece of news, good and bad. They’ve switched to nuclear power. Their acceleration is down. This means they won’t intercept for another forty hours … we calculated ten before. Unfortunately, it also eliminates any chance we have of outmaneuvering them while we’re still in this solar system. Instead of a few hours fuel, they’re now carrying a few weeks fuel, and they have enough to get back home.”
Omni continued, “We still don’t have any exact statistics on armament. Based on the robot technology we saw on the planet, we expect lasers and nuclear torpedoes. This whole thing looks like something special, but pulled out of the standard robot bag-of-technology-tricks.
“I suspect we may have jumped out of the pot and into the fire, Captain.”
The captain pondered momentarily, then asked, “Omni, what do we have available to confront this situation with?”
“We have two particle guns, two lasers, and one probe. We used the last of our nuclear devices on the plant surface.”
“Damn! Who’d’ve thought we’d need three nuclear bombs! I had to argue hard just to get the two we had. I figured if we ever ran into a situation where we needed three, we’d be dead meat. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy!” The captain pounded her fist on the console.
“What about who is commanding the craft. Can we tell, robot or creature?”
“Are they sending any signals?”
“Yes, but the code is new. Gary and I are working on it now.”
“All right, people. We still have some problems to solve. I want to know more about what messages those ships are sending, I want more detailed analysis of their capabilities, and I want a thorough review of what we can throw against them.
“Also, Mary, let’s review the freeze-up list. We still need to keep the crew size down to what life support can sustain, but those people who will be useful in space combat or divining the intentions of robots or creatures should stay up or be woken up.
“I don’t think I need to say it, but just for the record, folks, this is an emergency!
“We meet again in ten hours. Good-day.”