Chapter 13

The USSS Ender's Prize

Barth Vapour was perched upon something which Ensign Pi Larfin had called a wheelchair. It seemed remarkably low-tech for a people with such amazing medical technology. It was essentially a hover chair, such as the one he had been confined to back on the Devastator Station, except that it had no anti-grav capability; instead it was fitted with wheels, and was forced to roll along the floor. It was guided by a little control stick on one of the arm rests.

Vapour held his pink teddewok, Boadicea, between the stumps of his legs. Over the black T-shirt, she wore a blue sash bearing the emblem of the Ender's Prize; the addition to her wardrobe had been presented to Vapour by a giggling Pi Larfin.

Followed by two Security goons, Vapour trundled down the curving corridor. Beside him walked Doctor Cavity Brusher.

"If you feel tired at any time," she said to him, "just say the word and I shall call the meeting to an end."

"You can do that?" asked Vapour. "I thought your Captain Pilchard was in command."

"Oh, he is," said Doctor Brusher. "But I can overrule him on medical decisions if necessary for the safety of my patient."

"Interesting," said Vapour. The concept of having a supreme commander who was not actually in supreme command was alien to him.

"Here we are," said Brusher. As the door hissed open, she stepped back to allow Vapour to precede her into the room.

He did so.

The oval-shaped briefing room was dominated by a large oval table. Around the far end of the table sat a loose cluster of six or seven people, all watching him as he manoeuvred himself into the room. He took the place at the end closest to the door, where a couple of chairs had been removed to make way for him. He heard Doctor Brusher speaking to the Security detail—"wait out here"—and then she followed him into the room and took a seat beside him.

The man at the other end of the table stood up, and tugged briefly on his tunic. It was red, with a black bar across the shoulders. Four silver dots—rank insignia, guessed Vapour—were attached to his collar. Like the Doctor, he wore a silver sigil upon his chest. He was a tall man, and the lights of the briefing room shone off his smooth bald head.

"Welcome, Mister Splitwhisker," he said, his voice calm and mellifluous. "I am Captain Jon-Lurk Pilchard of the USSS Ender's Prize, flagship of the Foundation Fleet."

"Captain," nodded Vapour.

"Please allow me to introduce the rest of my senior staff. My Executive Officer, Billy-Bob Piker." Billy-Bob sat at the Captain's right hand. He wore a uniform practically identical to the Captain's; only the insignia on the collar was different. He had a neatly trimmed moustache, and a little goatee beard. He nodded.

"The ship's counsellor, Dee Dee McTroy." Dee Dee sat to the left of the Captain; for some reason she wore a tight cat-suit—which exposed quite a lot of bare flesh, and emphasised her cleavage—rather than the standard tunic that the rest were wearing. She smiled prettily at Vapour. The Stiff Lord smiled back, then dismissed her as being little more than entertainment for the ship's male officers—it was the only logical explanation for her outfit. She must be some sort of ship's whore or sex slave. "Counsellor" indeed! That was like referring to a CP-Oui 'bot as a master of protocol.

For some reason, the lovely young woman's smile changed briefly to a glare before vanishing.

"This is my science officer, Lieutenant Commander Info," said the Captain, indicating a pale man with slicked-back hair and golden eyes.

"Hello sir," said the Lieutenant Commander. "I wonder if we might discuss, at some point, the intricacies of your prosthetic limb? It would seem to be..."

"Later, perhaps, Info?" interrupted the Captain.

"Of course, sir," said Info.

"My Chief Engineer, Gordo von Seilon," continued the Captain. Gordo was dark-skinned. In the galaxy Vapour came from, dark-skinned humans were very much in the minority; based on what he had seen so far, he had to assume that the same was true of this reality. The Engineer wore a complicated-looking device—a visor of some sort, although his eyes were not visible behind it. A small red light moved continually from side to side, as though the electronics of the device were constantly scanning the room.

"My Head of Security, and Tactical Officer, Bork." Like Gordo, Bork was dark-skinned—but it seemed unlikely that he was a human. He did, however, appear mostly human, so perhaps the extensive ridging of his forehead was merely the result of a horrific childhood accident. His eyebrows were so bushy that his eyes, too, were completely hidden. "He also cooks, from time to time," added the Captain. Bork grunted something which might have been a greeting, or might have been an attempt to clear phlegm from his throat.

"And, of course, you've already met my Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Cavity Brusher." Captain Pilchard sat down again.

"Indeed," said Vapour. He looked at Brusher, then glanced back across the table at the cat-suit-clad cutie beside the Captain. He wondered how the Doctor felt about being in the same room as the men's plaything. Perhaps she prefers women? he mused.

"Now, we have a couple of questions for you," said the Captain, "if you are feeling up to it?"

"Go ahead," said Vapour, "although I'm not sure what I can tell you."

"First, then," said the Captain with a warm smile, "can you tell us where you are from?"

Vapour considered the question. He wondered how much information he should give away, and how much he should keep. Cautiously he reached out for the Source, wanting to scan their minds, to get an idea of how much they knew. As he did so, however, he saw young Dee Dee twitch and glance at him curiously. He pulled back quickly.

The Source is strong with this one, he thought. He nodded to himself. Source sensitivity would be a useful attribute in a pleasure slave. Or, he admitted to himself, in a Counsellor. Perhaps I have underestimated her role here after all.

"I'm afraid," he said after a pause, "that is not as easy a question as you might think, and I suspect the simple answer would tell you very little. Can you answer one for me first? How did I get here?"

"That was going to be my next question for you," said Pilchard. The two men stared at each other across the length of the table. Pilchard sighed. "Very well. We do not know how you got on board. We were engaged in a conflict, our shields were raised—and you simply popped into existence in the centre of my bridge. That should have been impossible."

"That never stopped anybody before," muttered Billy-Bob.

"Thank you, Number One," said the Captain.

"I do not remember that," said Vapour, ignoring the interruption.

"No," said Captain Pilchard. "You were unconscious at the time. At first we suspected a trap; your prosthetic limb and your outfit were reminiscent of—an enemy of ours."

"Enemy?" asked Vapour.

Pilchard's lips thinned slightly. Piker took over.

"We call them the Droid," said the Executive Officer. "They were human once. Sorry: 'humanoid biological entities'." Piker lifted his hands to make air-quotes as he said this phrase. "Whatever. Now they are mostly machine. They roam through space looking for raw material to convert. They take both people and technology, and produce more of their kind."

Captain Pilchard shuddered minutely. "They are very dangerous; you don't want to meet them."

Vapour shielded his thoughts carefully. He did not think that Dee Dee was listening in, but it did not hurt to take precautions. These Droid sounded very much like somebody he might want to meet.

"Anyway, we beamed you to a quarantined room, performed a thorough scan, and then moved you to the secure sickbay. We removed your prosthetics as a precaution, once it was determined that we could do so without harming you."

Beamed? wondered Vapour.

"Also, we discovered traces of what appears to be a microscopic alien life form living within your blood. We were unsure whether they were meant to be there or not, but they did not appear to be overtly dangerous so we did not touch them."

Vapour nodded. "Those are the Minty Chlorines," he said.

"Minty Chlorines?"

"They, uh..." Vapour hesitated. The Minty Chlorines were something of an embarrassment, and were rarely spoken of in polite circles. They were a xenobiotic organism which served to purify the bloodstreams of the Stiff—and the Jubbly—and hence strengthen one's connection to the Source. Although Source ability was possible in those without the Minty Chlorines in their blood, it was rare. As a general rule, the higher the Minty Chlorine count in your blood, the stronger your Source ability—and as a side effect, the less likely you were to suffer from bad breath.

"It is a personal matter," said Vapour at last. "Suffice it to say that they help to keep my blood free of toxins."

"Clean living through parasitic symbiosis," said Info. "Fascinating!"

The Captain nodded. "Since then," he continued with his explanation, "you have remained in your bed, in a coma, for several weeks. Until you awoke this morning, that is."

Billy-Bob Piker leaned close to the Captain and whispered something in his ear.

Pilchard nodded. "Also, about three days after your own arrival—we're not sure exactly when, because nobody saw it happen—your teddy bear appeared in your bed."

"Teddy bear?"

"The, uh, pink toy you have there on your wheelchair."

"Oh. It is a teddewok," said Vapour, a little embarrassed to notice that he had brought it with him. "Boadicea."

"Boadicea?" asked the Captain. "Interesting." He paused, and Vapour watched him cautiously, but he did not seem inclined to expand upon that observation. "So, now that you know how you got here—or at least as much as we know—can you tell us where you came from?"

Vapour nodded thoughtfully. He stared at the table for a few seconds, wondering how to proceed.

"I think the simplest answer to your question is that I come from another universe. A parallel universe, if the term is familiar to you?" He stared around the table at the nodding heads.

"We were—engaged in a conflict of our own. For twenty years, a rebellion has raged against the rightful rule of the Imperium. We had tracked the Rebel forces back to their home base, and were about to strike a decisive blow, when—something happened. I am not sure what it was, but everything went black. I woke up here." He shrugged.

"I see," said the Captain. "And what makes you think that this universe is not your own?"

Vapour thought about that. It seemed likely that the "Counsellor" had detected his cautious probe, and already knew his secret; therefore it only made sense to reveal it.

"It tastes different," he said. "It feels different. She knows what I mean"—Vapour nodded towards Dee Dee—"or she would, at the very least, be able to detect the same differences I am detecting. I am sensitive to the Source."

"The Source?" asked the Captain. Beside him, Dee Dee McTroy frowned thoughtfully at Vapour.

"It is our name for the ... framework of the universe," said Vapour. It was true, more or less, and it gave away no details.

Dee Dee leaned in and whispered something in Captain Pilchard's ear. The Captain nodded.

"And your injuries? If it does not distress you to speak of them—did you receive them in this battle?"

Vapour smiled bitterly. "Not the last battle, no. I lost my arm a long time ago ... in a galaxy far, far away." A slightly puzzled expression flitted across his face and was gone again. "In a duel with Count Ducky. I was young and brash, and he was better than I was. My legs I lost to my former mentor, who betrayed me and the Imperator; most of my other injuries—some of which your Doctor Brusher kindly healed—were received then, when he dropped me in a river of magma and left me to die. In a strange twist of fate, my mentor then turned my own son against me, and I lost my prosthetic legs to him, just a day before that final battle."

"That is certainly rather unfortunate," agreed Captain Pilchard. "I am sure that..."

Suddenly the ship rocked around them. Moments later, the lighting dimmed to red, and the computer's calm voice said: "Red alert. All crew to battle stations."

The sigil on the Captain's chest beeped, and another voice said: "Captain Pilchard to the bridge, please."

Pilchard tapped the badge, and Vapour realised it was a communicator. "Acknowledged," he said. Then, to Vapour, he said: "My apologies. It seems there is a small matter which requires my attention. Do you mind if we continue this conversation at another time?"

Vapour gaped at him. A red alert, the ship obviously taking fire, and the Captain was politely requesting a leave of absence from a conversation with a mysterious stranger? What in Hell's Handbasket was wrong with these people?

The ship shuddered again. Vapour realised the Captain was still calmly awaiting his reply.

"Of course," he said.

Captain Pilchard nodded. "Thank you." He stood up, tugged lightly on his tunic, and gestured for the rest of his senior staff to file from the room.

"Uh, Captain Pilchard," said Vapour as the others began to leave—clearly the Captain was in no hurry—"may I accompany you to your bridge? I would be interested to learn a little more of this new universe in which I find myself."

The Captain frowned at him for a moment. "It may be a little dangerous," he warned. "It seems we are under attack."

"I am prepared to take that risk," said Vapour. Besides, he thought, if the ship is destroyed before you ever get to the bridge, will it make any difference?

"Very well, then," said the Captain. "If you wouldn't mind joining us, Cavity, our guest will be visiting the bridge."