"You really think this is going to work," says Ramon.
I cross my arms. "This is Betelgeusian Stubbornness Logic," I say. "I have to believe it will work, or else it won't. And You have to believe as well." I turn around to where Klunk and Aristede are examining the Barracuda's controls. "That goes for you too. Everyone must believe. That's an order."
"Aye aye captain," say Klunk and Aristede in unison.
The car is currently on its way towards Altair Skep, trailing behind it a substance that is very long and, in the context of the observable universe, very thin.
"You wanted them to just churn out whiteboards," says Ramon. "Do you admit that my idea is better?"
"It's stupid enough for our purposes," I say.
The car's trunk is open, and as we drive through space we deposit an unbroken whiteboard like it's a sheet of paper being laid out of an industrial-sized roll, only this particular roll has a lot more in it that the spool of paper does. Hopefully. "We're going to have to drive fast," I say. "We've only got one shot at this."
"What, you think we'd be out of time if the plan fails?"
"No, I just don't want have to do this twice."
Suddenly a warning light on the dashboard starts blinking.
"Maybe we're out of shots," says Ramon. "Here comes the Student Loan Company."
I turn around. Between Klunk and Aristede there is nothing in the blackness of Space. The ship must be very far behind us still.
"Wrong direction," says Ramon.
I turn back around. Suddenly there is a gigantic Tower Ship looming not a kilometer ahead of us, and a swarm of Mace Heads closing fast. "Alright," I say. "Let's keep an even course."
"You want to ram straight into that thing. Are you nuts?"
"Yes," I say, "always."
"Was that a yes to the first one or -- "
"Turn to starboard by 1 degree. I want to buzz that thing. Aristede, check the radio frequency for the SLC. We're going to give them a message."
"We're going to run straight into the Mace Heads," says Ramon. "Not even close enough to hail them in time. I ask again, captain. Are you nuts?"
"Hey," I say, "Betelgeusian Stubbornness Logic. I have to be nuts for it to work."
"We all do," says Klunk.
Aristede gives her a worried glance. "Are you going to have trouble with that?"
"If I did we would have been Space Toast a while ago. We've been running on nonsense since I joined up with you guys. If I'm objecting it's because the whole thing is out of the mouths of a bunch of beetles -- "
"Hey," says Ramon.
" -- excuse me, the claws of a bunch of Betelgeusians. Not a very good reason after all. So, might as well give it a shot, eh? The crazier the better. What's the plan, Captain?"
I am already unscrewing the back of the glove box. "Full power to the shields and full power to the thrusters."
"That's two full powers," says Aristede.
"Excuse me, are you questioning my logic?"
"Ah, no, no. Full power to the thrusters it is."
"Attaboy. Skipper, Flank Speed if you please."
"Flank what now?" said Ramon.
"I mean floor it." I toss the metal plate aside and jam my non-hand into the battery box. "And I'll hold this for as long as I can. Turn them shields up!"
Ramon cranks the stereo dial to maximum and thumps the gas pedal to the floor, and we lurch forward, swift enough to shove me back away from the engine. A bolt of blaster fire passes over the roof as the Mace Heads move in to intercept. So, no time to waste. I drag myself forward against the force of acceleration and shove my hand back into the engine.
Now the blaster fire is bouncing away from us.
And maybe the folks in the Mace Heads can see that it's being deflected in an arc spanning far to either side of us. The moment we hit their front line, they've already scattered. Well, fair enough. Not like we're trying to smack them out of the sky this time.
"Full power to rear shields," I say through rattling teeth.
"You want to take even more out of you?" says Ramon.
"Shut up and do it or we're Space Toast."
Ramon cranks the Bass dial on the stereo up to maximum, which is just as well because the instant after he does so the car shudders. That blaster fire sure is worse than lasers.
And so we dash forward, straight into the course of the SLC Tower Ship.
Tower Ships are relatively rare. The SLC has a lot of money but they're also smart enough to avoid making too many giant baskets full of eggs, unlike the Separatist Alliance with its S.S. Space Slug. Which isn't to say they're at all fragile -- far from it. They're plated in chromium for maximum laser deflection, they've got blaster turrets covering every every angle at every point, and they have absolutely no windows to the outside, just in case a laser would hit one and pass through the glass. But they're motherships and command centers, not main battle ships. Defensive measures only, thank you very much. The SLC doesn't put them on the front line if they can avoid doing so.
This is not a typical circumstance for them. For one thing, it's going to become increasingly difficult to avoid running into other starships. For another, there's a teeny beeny little automobile heading right for them, so even if they want to avoid an enemy ship their enemy ain't gonna let that happen.
As the blasters start to pound the shields fore and aft, I start to feel a little queasy. Maybe I don't have enough in me to get on the radio. But hey, gotta try. "Aristede, are we on the SLC frequency?"
"Aye captain, she's open."
"Arrr," says Klunk.
"Knock it off," I say as I grab the CB radio. "SS Dickwads, this is the Barracuda. Do you copy? Over."
Kssssht. "What in the hell? Who is this?"
"First of all this is THE Barracuda, secondly we're doing two-way radio talk here. Get your grammar right. Over."
Kssssht. "Copy that." It was a new voice on the horn now. "So the little twerps are finally coming to surrender, is that right? Over."
"Negatory, Pigpen. Better things to do. You mighta noticed that things ain't exactly ten-four in the galaxy right now. But we've got a plan if you wanna listen. Over."
"Does the plan have something to do with that thin white line running behind you? Over."
"Why shore it does, good buddy. And you're gonna help us. Over."
"You want us to help you do anything. Are you nuts?"
"YES," said everyone in the car at once. "Over."
"Well whatever your plan is it already failed. Check that line behind you again. Maybe you should have said something earlier. Prepare to be boarded. Over."
I turn around to see a large and conspicuous gap in the white line behind us.
"Shit. Time for plan B. Barracuda out." I hang up the radio as the space outside the shields turns yellow.
Ramon thumps his hand on the steering wheel. "Great job Captain. You got us captured after all. What do we do now? Drift into the hangar and then blast our way out of there?"
"Now you're thinkin' like I'm thinkin'. But no."
"So what then!"
"Punch our way out of this tractor beam and keep laying the white board. We'll swing around again and call them when we're done."
"I never actually liked this plan," says Aristede. "Driving around the entire damn galaxy? That would take us longer than it will take everything to fall past the event horizon."
"Ah ha!" I say. "That's why it's not working! You do not believe!"
"I have an idea," says Klunk. "Plan C?"
"Absolutely not," I say. "I don't want to be a butt again."
"You're being a butt right now," says Ramon. "Come on. Maybe it stands a better chance than using the car like normal."
"We have no idea what the damn thing will do when we're not in charge!"
"Oh yes we do," says Klunk. "We're in charge as long as we work together."
"And we never figured out who the head was."
"Of course it was me," says Aristede. "For I am the brains of this operation."
"Oh no no no," says Klunk. "I'm the brains of this operation. I bet you were the butt."
Ramon turns back to the two nerds and says "We're kind of in the middle of mortal peril here? Figure out how to push those damn buttons and let's get moving."
Klunk and Aristede shut up and get to work, as best they can. Which is not very well at first. We haven't actually had the chance to practice Plan C and neither of them remembers exactly what buttons they pushed so they're trying everything they can. As we drift closer to the Tower Ship they manage to turn on the windshield wipers, the washer fluid, the stereo, the emergency siren, the police cruiser lights, the emergency landing lights, the stereo again, the air conditioner, and the automated hair stylist, which I didn't even know we had and we almost lose it when I grab it to stop the damn thing from going after my hair. Then they manage to make the trunk fly open and release a cloud of rubber ducks, and that one is also new to me, and so is the bubble machine, and the drag chute, the back patio, the giant amplifiers and the tin cans held on with string.
"Oh hey," says Ramon. "Didn't know we got married."
"Maybe I married you when I jumped in this car. Aristede, what the hell is going on back there? Does this car have some kind of matter fabrication plant in the trunk?"
"MatFab Plant levels reading fifty percent," says Aristede. "Were running out of button combos here."
"For god's sake," says Ramon, "just fall across the controls like you did last time."
"But I have no idea what buttons we fell on!"
The Tower Ship is awfully close now.
"Come on," I say. "Betegeusian Dumbass Logic, remember? It doesn't matter."
Aristede still hesitates.
So Klunk shoves him off the seat, floats herself over the controls, tilts her torso skyward and propels herself right down onto the panel.
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"There is now a giant hole in the Galactic Ringworld," says Aristede.
"Runs all the way through it!" says Ramon.
"I mean in the side."
Sure enough, there's a giant hole in the side. Big enough that you could fit a whole Tower Ship through it with room to spare. Credit to the designers, whoever the hell they were, that a hull breach apparently doesn't mean decompression. Maybe they use magnets or something.
"Correct me if I am wrong," says Klunk, "but SLC ships don't ever try to approach this thing?"
"You are correct," says Aristede.
"Then what exactly is a Mace Head doing here?"
A lone starfighter of the SLC is flying through the hole.
"Giving us reason to get going," I say. "Ramon, time to burn rubber."
Ramon hits the gas. My head slams into the seatrest as we take off down the road.
Not that we're doing galactic speeds in here, but I don't worry about the Mace Head following us. We're in atmo. Those things fry to a crisp if they try to fly too fast in atmo. Twenty afterburners strapped to your chassis and none of them are positioned in the same direction as any other, so they can't support each other, so the Mace Head fights against gravity one dinky afterburner at a time like a ballerina up on one point, or rolls over and over through the sky and dizzies the pilot to death. There's a reason S.O.P. for dealing with those things is to dive into the nearest planet. Hell if I know why the Planet Barracuda Fleet decided to engage them in orbit. Maybe they were looking for a challenge. Or maybe they wanted to keep the debris field up in orbit where it wouldn't rust.
So we leave the Mace Head behind as we push the car up to 400 KPH, and it almost feels like galactic speed if you roll down the window, which I don't because I'm not a complete idiot. I'd rather watch the trees go by than have my eardrum blown out.
"Jeezy Creezy," says Aristede. "This road looks like a 1990s American Highway."
"Yeah well that's the Americana section," says Klunk. "I think we've got the Planet Barracuda section coming up next."
Sure enough, we're rolling through a place that looks like the canyon we left far behind.
"Hallucinatory terrain?" says Ramon. "Lets you see the land you long to see once more?"
"If that's it," I say, "then it doesn't read my mind well because I do NOT want to be back on earth again. And no I don't think you do either. Aristede?"
"Guilty," says Aristede. "Do you have any idea how long it's been since I was able to contact my Father?"
"Approximately zero seconds," I say. "You're the one with the computer panel, you figure it out."
"That's not what I -- oh, never mind. Let's start laying board again." He punches a button on the control panel and the trunk flies open. The Endless Whiteboard flies out behind us, leaving a conspicuous white line down the middle of the highway.
"Sure it's not going to get run over?" says Klunk.
"Relax," I say. "Nobody on this road but us." A yellow 2003 Honda Civic blasts past the Barracuda. "Or not. Son of a gosh darn fuck, somebody jacked my ride."
"You weren't using it," says Ramon. "You wanna guess who that is?"
"The question is whether you do. Now let's push this thing into overdrive. I wanna get this job done. Full power to the thrusters, Aristede. And this time I mean both full powers. Pedal to the metal, Ramon." I shove my non-hand into the engine before anyone can object.
The sad thing about going this fast in atmo is that you're going way too fast to enjoy the scenery, even at a distance. It's all just a blur and the colors kind of run together, so all you can distinguish is sunlight and grey road and brown landscape, or green landscape, but pretty soon we're flashing through one environment and another so fast that even those colors blur together.
The only clear and solid color on the road is the yellow chasis of a 2003 Honda Civic, always just ahead of us.
"You think she just doesn't want to say hello?" says Ramon.
"You know it I know it she knows it," I say.
"Who knows it?" says Aristede.
Ramon and I say in unison, "Never fucking mind."
It would be very nice if we could pass that damn car and get her out of our heads but then if we do we have to run the risk of actually meeting her eyes and maybe none of us want that.
"How in the goddamn hell is she keeping ahead of us?" says Ramon.
"And how is she going faster than this car?" says Klunk. "Almost makes me think that car had some work done. But nothing ought to be able to keep up with this thing. We wouldn't have put the best parts in a Honda Civic. Wait a second. Hallucinatory Terrain, right?"
"Seems like it," says Ramon. "Oh, hell. Is that what it is?"
"Can't get her out of your head after all," I say. "Maybe you need to go back to earth after we beat the SLC and talk to her."
"She has to contact me first."
"When you're zipping all over the damn place, never sticking around long enough to get a letter or even a phone call?"
"I said what I said."
"For all you know she's been leaving messages for you all over the place and you never tried to find them."
"For all I know she never wanted to apologize for anytning. Can we focus on the task at hand here? Ah ha, ha, ha, ha. Sorry about that."
"It's fine," I say. "Just fine. We've probaly got at least a few hours before we start closing the ring here."
"I have to go to the bathroom," says Klunk.
"Ramon dear, can you turn around and glare at her for me?"
"While I'm driving in atmo? Sorry."
"Are we there yet?" says Aristede.
"He's poking me," says Klunk.
"Hey," says Ramon. "Don't make me turn this car around."
But the jokes fall flat, after a while, as the landscape stays the same grey blur. Thank god for GPS or I'd think we weren't moving at all.
Of course when there's a giant monster looming ahead of you there's a basis of comparison. Whatever the thing is ahead of us looks like a mashup of Godzilla and Bigfoot.
"I watched both of those movies three weeks ago," says Aristede. "Keep driving and it will vanish."
And so goes the next monster, which is a moving mountain of scrap metal. That one's easy to figure out. And then there's the SLC Tower Ship. We're all scared of those things by now. And...then there's a gigantic middle-aged woman with a kindly face and she's laughing like a cartoon villain.
That one almost manages to make Ramon swerve into a ditch. Which is to say, his hands twitch slightly on the steering wheel and it sends us flying over the cornfields before Ramon has us back on the road again.
"You really think that way about her?" I say.
"Nobody's like that, Ramon."
"She came close. Let's just not talk about it okay? We've got work to do."
And so we beat on, hour after hour, maybe even day after day. It was hard to tell in this place. Easy to drift into wondering who built this and why. Maybe Klunk knew.
"How long have we been at this?" I say.
"Maybe twenty minutes?" says Ramon.
"I mean since we saw the old lady. Are you feeling okay, Rob? You've had your not-hand in the engine for a hell of a lot longer than you've ever done before. I was gonna ask how you were holding up but you seemed fine. Uh. Okay, now your face is turning blue."
"We have to get this done," I say. "I know keeping my arm in the engine is dumb but that's the idea right? Otherwise it doesn't work."
"Plan C," says Klunk. "Whoever or whatever that thing is, it works in Atmo."
"Oh right," says Ramon. "And you want Whiteboard to be rolling out the back like it's TP stuck to a shoe."
"Makes me laugh," says Aristede. "Alright my turn again." I hear a thunk as he flops onto the control panel.
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"Maybe we ought to see if this works for going around the whole universe," says Klunk.
"Don't push it," I say, as I step out of the car.
"Oh come on!" Klunk propels herself out the passenger door. "This is a time for us to push limits!"
"Can we just get this over with?" says Aristede. "I want to see Sword Lesbian again."
"Fine." I step up to the White Board, or to the section of it we can see. The part where one end overlaps the other looks like a little trouble but hey, we're not looking for perfection today are we? Quite the opposite.
"Great," says Ramon. "We got the damn White Board. How do we draw on it?"
"Well," I say, "We just take this marker." I take a marker out of my pocket.
"And draw on the entire board?"
"I'll handle it," says Klunk. She propels herself into the backseat of the car and flops down on the controls again.
There is a blinding flash of light, and in the next second, a shiny little red robot, about yea high, is floating where the car had been.
The robot flies right at me, grabs the marker out of my hand, uncaps it and flies over to the white board. Then its feet glow blue and in the next moment it's gone into the distance, leaving a single line of marker ink along its path of travel.
"That cinches it," says Aristede. "Plan C is the best plan."
"Assuming you want to be a butt," says Ramon. "But you have a good one anyway. No sense being redundant. Hey, Robin, any idea how long we'll be waiting?"
Suddenly the car is precisely where it had been earlier and Klunk is floating out of the passenger seat like she's looking for a place to be sick.
"Voila," I say, as I run over to take her remaining hand.
"Ahm fahn," says Klunk. "Thawas. Fun. Dun ledme dothadagain." And in a moment she's asleep on her...feet. So to speak.
"I have got to try that sometime," says Aristede. "Ah, hell. If we want this to work I have to try it right now, don't I? Don't wait up." And this time it's Aristede jumping into the backseat, and another bright flash of light, and the little red robot zipping away, only it's across the plain, and then suddenly there's a dark line being drawn all the way across the sky.
I turn to Ramon. "Please tell me you're not going to do that as well."
"I'm thinking I have to."
"Oh come on!"
"Someone has to bring this thing close enough to the Event Horizon, right?"
"Oh no," I say. " Oh no no no you don't. Don't you fucking dare."
"Well someone has to do it, right? And I can't let you do it and I won't make anyone else do it. And hey, either way I'll see Sword Lesbian again, right?"
"And never see me again?"
"Ah, yeah. Well."
"You know you're not just my pilot, Ramon."
"And you're not just my captain. Well what are we then? More than friends?"
"Wings. Two wings, one bird. I go where you go."
"Hell yeah." Ramon gives me a fistbump. "So we both jump into the car then? Wait. We can't leave the other two behind on Weirdo Station."
The car reappeared precisely where it had been. Aristede stumbled out of the car, into Ramon's arms, and fell asleep.
"Especially if they think we ditched them," says Ramon. "Like, bye fuckers, have a nice nightmare."
"So what do we do? Bring them along on a mission of almost certain doom before they have a chance to object?"
Ramon shrugged. "Maybe I'll think of something. We've got a little time to wait."
So Ramon is sitting there in the dirt with Aristede's head in his lap, staring into the distance like the dark line on the horizon is the least bit interesting.
Well I mean it is, from an objective standpoint, but when you're in a crummy ringworld full of dumbass illusions the whole thing starts to wear on you after a while. So I'm also sitting in the dirt staring at the dark line because what in the hell else am i going to do, and I get so bored that I barely even notice the shiny silver mass that's suddenly passing across the line.
I stand up, accidentally brushing a sleeping Klunk aside. "We're gonna need to think of something fast," I say. "The SLC got here after all."
"They can't get in can they?"
"Oh I don't know," I say, "maybe you should ask the giant rip in the ringworld." As if in answer a single blaster bolt passes over my head."Yeah see that settles it. Duck and cover, come on."
We drag our sleeping friends behind the car in an attempt to take what cover we can. It's a bit like trying to hide from a sniper behind the single bush in an empty field. There are plasma bolts peppering the other side of the car now. They lose most of their power in atmo, thank god, and maybe this is a wider atmo than most considering the size of the ringworld. But that just means we've got a few minutes instead of a few seconds.
"Alright," I say, "tell you what." I scooch back a bit, open the car door, and toss the seat cushion back over the controls. "I'm gonna slam this seat cushion real hard and maybe that will press as many buttons as possible at once and then the robot can do its own thing."
"Wait," says Ramon. "What happens if the car transforms before you get your arm out?"
"It means Klunk and I are a matching set."
"But..you've only got the one working hand. So do you lose the shorter arm or...Robin, don't do this. Please."
"Hey," I say. "What has been our motto today?"
"It has to be dumb enough to work."
"That's right. Now, as soon as I smash the cushion I want you to thump the whiteboard. Hopefully we can get this thing to follow basic instructions."
"Aye captain," says Ramon.
I bring my good hand down hard on the seat cushion.
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"Okay," says Ramon, "I had kinda hoped it would stick around a bit before taking off. At least it took the tarp along."
"What exactly was that tremendous noise?" says Aristede, now thoroughly awake along with Klunk.
"That was the part of the SLC ship within the ringworld's atmosphere," says Ramon, "being struck by a tiny object that already had enough momentum to make its mass impart millions of joules into a very narrow space. One hopes there were not too many deaths upon that ship but I can't be sure where it went anyway."
"Great," says Klunk. "And this giant rainbow tarp? It's on its way to the black hole?"
What Aristede is referring to is a curious sight -- every bit of space from the Whiteboard to the dark line on the horizon is covered in a plastic cloth that features vertical stripes in every color of the rainbow. The cloth appears to extend outward beyond the Ring and far out of our sight into Space, and it appears to be moving forward as swiftly as a hawk flies, as if the Whiteboard were a giant roll letting the cloth out yard by yard, instead of fabricating the tarp out of nothing.
"We can hope," says Klunk. "And that's the idea. In the meantime, Robin, you look like you're gonna have a hell of a hard time eating food now."
Klunk is referring to the fact that my right arm has been replaced at the shoulder by a cloud of glowing blue electricity.
"It's fine," I say. "I'll just eat food off the ground like a chicken."
"Oh no you won't," says Klunk. "I'm going to make you a decent set of prosthetics while I make myself some. I'm sure this station has plenty of spare material."
I look her up and down. Which is not as difficult as it might be. "How exactly do you plan to do that?"
"With a helping -- uh. With help. From everyone who has hands. Call it a Big Bang Day Present, how's that?"
"We still need to complete the last part of the plan," says Aristede. He whips a small datapad out of his pocket. Then he tosses it away. "Okay so it's not like I can hack into tech whose specs are completely unknown."
Ramon runs to fetch the data tablet.
"Oh come on," says Aristede. "I told you it wouldn't work."
"You come on," says Ramon. "We're doing stupid ideas today. So I'm going to take a wild guess and say the username and password here are "Admin" and "password." He taps the screen a few times. "Yep. We're in."
"Don't do it yet," says Klunk. "We have to be certain that the tarp has reached the black hole. I don't even know when that will happen. Or if."
Suddenly the tarp pulls taut.
"That's the signal," says Ramon. "Alright, here we go."
So it took me a while to explain the idea to Klunk because she'd never seen one of these tarps, and to Aristede because he never went to a public school. The idea is, gym class in grade school sometimes has this big old rainbow tarp, and the kids gather around it, and they can play under it or something, but the real fun is when everybody grabs a section and starts shaking wildly to bounce the tenis ball around. And then the closing act is to let the ball roll to the center...everyone lifts their arms up...and then brings them down real hard. The resulting wave travels to the center of the tarp and makes the center snap upward, firing the ball towards the ceiling. We called it Shoot the Moon. It works real well. Too well sometimes. We broke a ceiling tile once.
So I figure, if we can get the tarp into the black hole, maybe we can snag whatever's in there and, like, shoot it out of the hole or something. Or turn the black hole inside-out. It's a stupid idea but the whiteboard wouldn't have let us do this without the idea being stupid so whatever.
So. Now we're feeling the weight of acceleration as the Galactic Ringworld rockets upward in space...
And now we're floating in the air as the Galactic Ringworld reverses course and rockets downward...
And we shouldn't be able to hear it at all,
but in the distance, I hear a distinctive FWOP.
And all of a sudden, there's sunlight streaming in, through the crack in the Galactic Ringworld.
For a moment, all is silence.
"Question," says Ramon.
"Is this good news or bad news?"
"No way to tell," says Klunk. "Until we check it out." She propels herself towards the crack in the sky, and all we can do is try to keep up with her, as we stumble our way towards a galaxy that probably looks different than it used to.