Week 21, Fighting the Factory
When we left the crew, they were about to sidle up to the aft of the sabotaged factory that has aimed itself at the Jack.
Gene has set up a "panic button" so that the ship will head off at a right angle to the factory in case of an emergency. He also maneuvers the ship so as to keep only half the factories' engines within the distortion field at any time, this seeming to produce the best effect from our point of view.
We in fact do so, using the time-distorting field of Ashleigh's time machine to throw off the aim of the factory. We snap on the the field suddenly, so they don't get to anaylze its effects as we close. It in fact starts to work, and the aim of the factory goes off. After a few minutes, though, the factory starts to find it's way back. Jeremy then flips a switch on something he dreamed up -- a randomizer in the strength of the field. This appears to work, the factory cannot compensate for this, and it continues to drift off course. Jeremy starts working with the Sim who's with us to analyze what sort of compensation they are trying, in the hope that if we feed that data into out randomness, we can lead them even further off track.
We also decide that it is probably a good idea to check with Jacques, to see what's up with him. We've been worrying about what will happen if Rashid's folks go and gum up that factory, too. So we decide to play the reverse of the old "I don't want to know about it" game that time-travelers play. This time, we do want to know about it, because once we know what's going on, it's harder for them to go and change things on us.
Jacques says that he'll do an inventory of things there, and will shut down the factory. We think that'll be just fine.
About the time we start to think we might actually get out of this mess, we notice something on the hull of the factory. It isn't is it -- the JAS units?
Gene ducks around part of the factory to keep whatever those specks are over the horizon. We take a closer look at our pictures and yeah, it's the JAS units all right. Drat. That means we're going to have to engage them.
A quick discussion ensues. We decide that no one is going EVA who can't fight or fly (by whatever means), and under the circumstances, the only weapons that even might work are the disflorgers. We know that disflorgers are wonderful against people, even people in high-tech battle armor, but we really don't know what they'll do against armored robots. We suspect it's pretty good, but a couple people -- notably Chris -- aren't being overly enthusiastic. When we were discussing boarding the factory, his comment was that this battle is quite likely to be one in which if you get hit, you die and he likes to limit those to one per year, and it's only been a few months since our fight in the Pantope Garden. It looks like he's not going to get his wish, because he volunteers for EVA along with Cantrel and Alag. Lorelei volunteers to ride shotgun in the airlock. Gerard volunteers to come along, but Cantrel doesn't want to trust him with a disflorger. Cantrel does however give two to Gene, one for him and one just in case.
Chris asks Jeremy and Gene to use the ship's radio to broadcast on the common radar bands in hopes that it will make them all invisible, or at least harder to see. They also go out glamoured invisible, and cloaked against psi-detection. They go. After that, one of the AI gravitics experts (whom we've been calling Tin Man) decides to come along, claiming that he has a trick or two up his sleeve.
There are three JAS robots crawling along the hull of the factory. Alag and Cantrel fly high to intercept, and Chris heads for the hull.
Tim Man then radios, "Bogies at 10 o'clock." They look, and there are two more JAS units, these aloft, heading directly toward the ship. Gene starts some evasive maneuvers that he'd programmed into the ship. Gene hands his disflorger to Gerard, and he and Lorelei head for the airlock. Gerard takes a shot at them, but the ship is not a stable platform, and he misses, putting a crater in the hull if the factory. Chris growls at him, "Hold your fire!"
Tim Man, who's been flying much faster than the humans really puts on the speed, and flies towards one. He grabs it with whatever gravitics he's using and tosses it. The he comes back for the other one and tosses it. The second JAS unit fires a wild shot before it goes hurtling. Gene heads back to the factory, and Jeremy re-engages the time field.
Alag and Cantrel arrive at the other three units first. Alag takes a shot and hits. The JAS robot explodes reassuringly. Cantrel misses twice, and then hits one himself. It too explodes. Gene pilots the ship back to its previous position.
The last JAS unit fires at Cantrel and hits. He's not dead, but another one like would do it. He retreats back to the ship, avoiding another shot from the robot.
The JAS robot then fires at Alag, hitting him. Alag retreats too, but is hit by another shot, and goes off the net, flying off into space.
Chris aims at the last one and hits it. It, too, explodes. Chris looks for Alag via telepathy, and thinks he can just grab him. He tries, but Alag slips out of his fingers, as it were.
Tin Man flies toward Alag, as he can see him on his radar. He says that the two floating JAS units will most likely be some tens of seconds in arriving. He also advises that he probably won't be able to pull that trick much more, as a large part of it is the element of surprise.
Chris asks Jeremy to drop the radar fuzz to make it easier to find Alag. Gene balks, since Chris is the only outrider left, and getting hit by the JAS's blaster didn't sound fun. Chris growls at him, claiming that he's okay, and Alag isn't. Gene continues to try to talk Chris into leaving the fuzz up until it's clear that Chris is just getting angry, when he drops it.
Tin Man arrives at Alag, and starts grumbling about not knowing much about human repair. He also notes that Alag's space suit is ruptured, and that has to be repaired first. One of the slung JAS seems to have been damaged by being thrown, but the other is slowing regaining control, and may be able to catch the accelerating group. Tim Man volunteers to patch Alag's suit and lead the JAS around while he's doing it.
Chris looks around for more possible trouble and notices two more JAS making a bee-line for the ship. He alerts the ship and shoots at them, hitting one. The last one makes it to the ship and starts firing at its engines. Gene starts to pull away, ignoring Chris's telling him to hold position. It hits twice before Lorelei explodes it. She notes though, that just before she shot it, it spluttered with sparks and stuff, and there was radio static like it actually shot. She thinks that it's cannon malfunctioned. Maybe seventy years packed in oil wasn't so good for them.
Chris makes his way around the factory to see where the JAS came from. We know from looking at the plans of the factory that it has a dock at each end, and four along its equator. Gene pulls the ship back into position, noting that it's suffered damage to its attitude engines, and is a bit hard to steer.
About the time Gene gets back into position, someone or something launches a large gravity engine out of the airlock, aimed at the ship. Lorelei shoots it, and it careens disabled into space.
Chris flies low toward the airlock and spies two small robots on the hull. They launch three small engines at him. He dodges two, but it hit by the third one, which sticks to him securely. Reckoning that the engines might make another pass at him, but will be a few seconds in getting there, Chris shoots both small robots.
Sure enough, though, the small engines come around for him. He dodges one, but the other one hits him, sticking to him as securely as the last one. Chris shoots the last engine out of the air, and asks if anyone knows anything about gravitics there?
One of the other AIs -- who claims to be a "brother" of Tin Man -- says he'll come to help. They flush the ship of air (after making sure everyone's in a space suit) and the other AI leaves. Just then, though, the factory makes a sudden maneuver, and Gene dodges it. Jeremy tells him that there's another good spot to sit along the equator of the factory that is less vulnerable, but will require flying real close to the factory. Gene, who until recently was complaining about how badly the ship steers says, "No problem!" and roars off.
Chris, meanwhile, has managed to pry off one engine with his TK and hold it at bay while he shoots it. He repeats the procedure with the second engine just as the second AI arrives. As Gene flies over, they both flinch -- y'know, even when you know a low-flying craft is way overhead, you still want to take your hat off -- but the AI (whose name we never caught) so much so that he flattens. The AI makes a comment about how much that time field ruins their senses, and asks Chris if it doesn't do the same to him. "No, I don't really notice it," he replies.
The new AI explains that he doesn't have his brother's fancy equipment. "That's fine," says Chris. "Just keep an eye out while I secure this airlock." The AI explains that he's useless in combat. "That's fine," says Chris, "just keep an eye out." The AI explains that he'll need to be guarded. "That's fine," says Chris, "just keep an eye out."
Chris asks for opinions on how to best lock the airlock. He's becoming impatient, and is contemplating just disflorging the outer door, but wants to know if anyone has a better idea.
By now, Cantrel has gotten back to the ship, and Lorelei is working on him. his space suit seems to be okay, and he heads out after Lorelei patches him up. Jacques reports that his factory is quite secured, and he has secured it by destroying enough of the factory to disable it for some weeks. Gene has sent the two smaller robots (who are being aided by the Sim) outside to work on the attitude engines.
The AI with Chris tells him that he has three small gravity devices that could be used to seal the airlock doors. He says that the seal would likely be as strong as the metal of the door itself. Chris thinks this is a wonderful idea. "You'll have to cover me," says the AI. "That's fine." Chris replies.
They seal two airlocks this way. When they get to the third one, there is an explosion as the AI sets the last lock, and the airlock blows open. The AI flies off, buffeted by both the escaping air and debris, and under his own power to avoid the debris. "I'll catch up to you in a few tens of seconds, " he says. "That's fine." is the now-predictable reply.
Cantrel arrives where Chris is. Chris explains that he's checking out the inside by second sight and that there are two small robots aiming yet another gravity engine out the airlock. Chris grins and says, "Explosive decompression. They must be getting desperate -- that'll ruin their course even more. Jock activated nine JAS, and we've accounted for seven. It might even be safe to board."
"I wonder what'll happen if we disflorge the engine?" wonders Cantrel.
"Oh, it'll probably make a mess," says Chris.
"Why not. I'll keep an eye out."
Cantrel flies over the airlock and shoots into the lock as he's pushed away. He bullseyes the engine, which doesn't explode, but it does tear itself apart into a mass of fragments and debris, which flies everywhere. Chris, watching via second sight, loses track of the two robots that were controlling the engine. They are presumed destroyed. They wait for the dust to settle, and in the meantime the AI arrives back.
Next, Jock opens up a radio channel and says, "Oh dear, oh dear, I've blinded them more and distracted them, but I've caught one of their attention and it's after me."
"What did you do?" asks Chris.
"Well, I ---" Jocks radio goes out.
Everyone sighs disgustedly. They probably got him.
Meanwhile, Tin Man has got Alag's suit repaired and is heading back. Tweedledee, the JAS that seemed to have been hurt by Tin Man's maneuver, is so far away that it'll never catch up. Tweedledum, though, is in pursuit. Tin Man asks for advice, and Chris explains that he wants Alag back because we don't know how long he'll live, and besides, as things are, he'd just as soon get rid of Tweedledum. Tin man says that they'll be there in about two minutes.
In the meantime, Cantrel wants to take a quick check in the airlock. Gene doesn't like the idea, with the JAS coming back and no one on the facotry hull to guard, but Cantrel explains that two minutes is a long time, and they won't be that long. Chris agrees with Cantrel, explaining that he doesn't like being snuck up on.
"Your turn to go first." says Cantrel.
"My turn?" says Chris in mock annoyance. "You and Alag always go first. I'm reserves, remember?"
"I remember. Do you remember what happened to Alag and me?"
"We're down to reserves. Your turn to go first."
Tin Man's brother says that he's picked up a distress signal from Jock, which is good, because it probably means that he's still what passes for alive.
Chris goes into the airlock and looks around. There are lots of flapping cables, floating debris, flying papers, and so on. No sign of life though. Cantrel follows. Chris opines that it might be reasonable to board once Tweedledum is taken care of. He pulls out a grenade, and pins it to the wall with TK, and patterns it so that the pin will pull on his command, or if it's tampered with by unauthorized beings. "It'll guard our backs," he says. Cantrel thinks this is a good idea and does the same with a concussion grenade.
Then they leave the airlock, and await Tweedledum. Jeremy gives status, explaining that all the goings on have probably made it so that the factory cannot correct enough to hit the Jack, but his other calculations give another ten minutes until the point-of-no-return, and it'd probably be best to follow through.
As Tin Man makes his closest approach to Tweedledum, Tweedledum shoots at him and hits. Tin Man managed to shield Alag from the blast, and is hurting, but still functional. "Just lead him to us," says Cantrel.
Chris watches the aiming pattern of the JAS and opines over the net that it's probably going to shoot at him, then Cantrel, and then him. Chris and Cantrel aim. As the JAS closes, it fires first, aiming at Chris as he predicted. Unfortunately, there is a splutter along out of its maw and not a blaster bolt. This is too bad for it, because a split second after that, Chris fires. He hits, and the JAS explodes. A split second after that, Cantrel carefully eases up on his trigger.
And there we pause. Seven of nine JAS robots are destroyed or lost. Two airlocks are frozen, one is open, and the factory slowly losing air through the blown airlock. Alag is about to be delivered to Lorelei. Tin Man is badly hurt. The two small robots and the Sim are working on our ship, which Gene is piloting a few tens of feet from the surface of the factory. Jacques's factory is disabled. Ashleigh and Jake are working the time field, which is successfully deflecting the factory from its course. Jeremy thinks we've saved the Jack, but there are still two JAS units left, and we should play it safe. Besides, we really ought to rescue Jock.
Copyright © 1998, Jim Burrows. All Rights Reserved.