which describes the condition in terms of Winnie the Pooh characters
Orange and yellow clouds gathered, darkening in preparation of a Saturnian Summer storm. The birdman flew away from the pursuing tempest, grateful for the tailwind and the clouds that hid him. Lightning flashed between nearby clouds, causing the birdman's hair to stand on end. Then the rain came.
Streams of water flowed past his brow and into his beard. The tailwind became erratic, tossing him about like a child's doll. His wet, blue tunic clung to his thin body proving little protection from the fierce weather. He had to find shelter soon or he and his precious cargo would fall into the clouds below to be lost forever in Saturn's dense, lower atmosphere. He tightened his grasp on the leather satchel that slickened in the rain.
The clouds before him parted briefly to reveal a small skyland nearby. Rain water fell from its edges as wind tore at the leaves of a large grove of Nest trees. The birdman's wings beat harder as he changed course towards the skyland's leafy refuge. "Too much time spent studying at a desk and not enough time flying," he said to himself.
He picked a large Nest tree, flared his wings to stop, but a gust of wind slammed him against a large branch. His feet talons dug deep into the soft bark as his hands grabbed nearby branches. The satchel smashed against a branch opening the top and spilling its contents to the ground below.
The birdman swooped to the ground rapidly gathering the few possessions his harried departure allowed. He shoved a small set of archaeologist's tools and a half finished text on the migration patterns of air whales into the satchel. A magnifying glass was next. He looked about desperately. "Where is it? Where is it?" he shouted to the wind. Lightening flashed showing his most prized possession. Indeed, it was the reason for his current predicament. He grabbed the stone and held it to his chest as he flapped back to a mid-tree perch finding an indention in the trunk which protected him somewhat from the elements. He squatted, folding his large brown wings around his body, panting heavily from the long flight. Lightening flashed all around him as the storm's fury struck the skyland.
He ran his fingers over the ancient carvings on the cold black stone. It was heavier that it ought to be and colder. The raindrops that fell upon it flowed away quickly leaving a dry surface. The stone reflected the lightening for an instant longer than it should. Even in this storm, even with the day's events, even though he doubted he'd live through the day, the birdman smiled. The stone had that effect on people. He looked into the stone deeper. The gaunt image of his face appeared within the stone. In his sunken, yellows eyes he saw hopelessness and defeat. His smile faded as he returned to reality.
His left bracer beeped, the radio phone received an incoming signal. Someone used his priesthood's private frequency. He turned on the device. The person on the screen could have been a birdman except for the lack of wings and horrible foot coverings. A flat human voice came from the small speaker in his bracer. The human used heavily accented Solar Common, the trade language of the Solar System. "Monk Skawk, this is Commander Hans Stryker of the Nazi Rocket Force. You would be wise to respond. We know what you possess. If you return to the monastery with it in your possession, we'll spare the lives of your remaining brothers and sisters."
Skawk, unfurled his wings aching to take to the air, to do something. The rain and wind struck his torso. The birdman forced himself back into a crouch inside the tree. He watched the screen, trying to decide what to do.
Commander Stryker adjusted the swastika armband on the black uniform and repeated the original message. The Nazi shook his head and shouted something in human speak. "I do hope you are there," said Stryker. "It would be a shame if more of your people died today."
The Nazi gestured to someone off camera. Two jackbooted humans brought Abbot Rahk into view. "A pity, really. The Abbot was most informative regarding the key stone."
The Abbot lowered his head. The old birdman looked unharmed but gave the appearance of being utterly defeated. Commander Stryker continued, "Of course, he had to watch several of your fellow monks die before he provided the information we seek. I assume you'll have the same sort of misguided devotion to the secrets of your order so I think a demonstration is needed."
Stryker pulled his service raygun and pointed it at the Abbot's head. Skawk reached for the transmit button but Stryker didn't wait for the birdman's reply. The raygun fired. The Abbot fell backwards. Skawk heard the high pitched war scream of a bird woman followed by a lower, guttural scream from a human. Skawk heard fighting followed by a wet thud. Stryker shouted to his men again then translated for Skawk. "I told my men not to kill her, but if you do not respond I'll have no choice. She will die."
Stryker reached off camera and pulled Sister Tweets into view. Her pure white wings were damaged, her tunic torn revealing most of her torso, but her fierce blue eyes held their usual intense fire. Blood ran from her lips and nose. "You birdmen are a feisty lot," said Stryker. "This female put up quite a fight during your escape. I suspect she cares for you greatly. Still, it is interesting that you left a female behind to fight for you while you fled. You are a master archaeologist Monk Skawk, but you are not much of a man." Stryker squeezed Sister Tweet's face with his hand turning it first this way then that. "Not a wholly unattractive member of your subhuman race. Still, if you will not comply, then I have no choice."
Stryker held his gun to Tweets' head. Skawk keyed the transmit button "No!"
"Ah, so you are there," said Stryker. His pseudo pleasant voice changed instantly to a low growl. "Show me the stone, or I kill her now."
Skawk held up the key stone to the small camera in the gauntlet. "Just let her go," said Skawk barely audible above the wind and rain.
Stryker sneered and shoved Tweets off camera. "She will live, and so shall you. Simply return here with the stone and you can go back to your studies and pious prayers."
"The storm," stated Skawk feeling no other explanation was needed.
Stryker smiled. "I can be a reasonable man," he said returning to a more conversation tone. "I'll bring our ship to find you. Once we have the key stone, we'll leave you and whatever remains of your monastery, but if there is any trick or deception, this flying rock with everyone and everything on it will be destroyed. Do I make myself clear?"
Skawk nodded in agreement.
"Very well, leave this channel open. The ship will follow the signal to your location. Stryker out."
Skawk raised his head and let out a forlorn scream. He knew the Nazis. Their attempt to occupy Saturn forty years ago failed during the Solar War. Skawk's father fought alongside the Solar Alliance to keep Saturn free of Nazi domination. Other planets weren't so lucky, but the Nazi menace never died. Earth disappeared into a black hole, but the Space Rocket Force of the Fourth Reich continued their reign of terror.
Skawk knew the Nazis would kill him and everyone else at the Monastery. The vision of Tweets being pawed by the wingless monkeys was more than he could bear, but he was weaponless. His radiophone was being jammed, and even if it wasn't, the storm made communication over long distances impossible. The birdman hung his head and closed his eyes. His order taught that clear thought solved all problems. The storm raged on but Skawk managed to clear his head somewhat. "Skylord give me strength," he prayed.
Skawk opened his eyes and took a deep breath. He actually laughed when he spied a Numnum tree bent to the ground. He ignored the rain and flew down to examine the small fruit tree. Sap still flowed from the break in the trunk. Perhaps he had allies on this skyland after all. But only they didn't kill him first. Skawk flew off into the rain to survey the skyland and prepare for the invaders arrival.
Commander Stryker strode the bridge of the Rocketship Achilles. The converted passenger ship served its purpose well after the passenger deck was refitted with holding cells and its cargo bay filled with the books and artifacts needed for his research. He adjusted his SS hat to the proper jaunty angle and made sure every part of his uniform was in order. "Status!" he shouted. The crew responded best when yelled at.
"Sir, we are thirty minutes from the monk's triangulated location. There appears to be a sizable floating island, but the storm is making it difficult to be sure," said the helmsman.
"How long until the storm clears?" asked Stryker, not yelling this time. Questions always seemed odd when yelled.
"The winds are subsiding now, Sir, but the rain will continue for another four hours. Given Saturn's short day it will be midnight before it clears," said the helmsman. "Visibility will be low. We won't be able to see him until the last minute."
Commander Stryker laughed. "He won't attempt any tricks, Hans. These Birdmen are proverbial chickens. In case he does try anything I brought along some insurance. Isn't that right, my dear?"
Tweets glared at the Nazi. Stryker was sure she would have spit at him were it not for the gag. "Binding your race is not easy, Fräulein Vogel," said the Nazi conversationally. "The wings, the taloned feet. A bag along with some interesting rope work seems the only solution. A shame, really. You have such a nice figure." The female returned a satisfactory glare of hatred. He could see she wanted to kill him and yet could not. He found such situations very gratifying.
"Do you know why you have the form of a human?" he asked rhetorically. "We Nazis have uncovered the cause. Of course, it's not just your race. Its all of the sub-races throughout the system." Stryker couldn't resist. He removed the gag and waited for the vitriol. Tweets didn't disappoint.
"Human filth! Let me go!"
"No, not yet," said Stryker. "You may be freed but first I have a story to tell you. One that's over five thousand years old." Stryker pushed Tweets into a chair at an empty engineering station. She fell backwards and glared. "Have you ever wondered why there are so many intelligent bipeds in the system?"
"Because the Skylord created us in his image," said Tweets. "It is the only explanation."
"Wrong!" shouted Stryker. "You and the rest of the sub-races were created from man. Humans are the ancestors of you all."
"Lies," said Tweets. "Its all Nazi lies."
"No," said Stryker, "Not lies, history. You see, Earth was discovered long ago by an advanced race who became fascinated with humanity. For reasons of their own, they did not colonize Earth but chose Mars in stead. Then they began genetic experiments altering humans into different forms while they modified the other planets and moons to support life. Our solar system became one giant breeding facility."
"Lies," shouted Tweets again.
"Lies, eh?" continued Stryker. "Then tell me, of all the intelligent life forms in our Solar system, which one is biologically the most different? Which has two more eyes and one more brain than every other sapient creature in the system?"
Tweets glared at him. "That doesn't mean the Librarians of Mars made us! They are no more technologically advanced than the rest of us."
"Ah, but they were," exclaimed Stryker. "Unfortunately a great galactic war occurred. We are not clear on the details, but trillions died. The galactic civilization vanished. Something affected the technology of all the worlds at once. Something took the entire galaxy back to the stone age in an instant."
"That's impossible," said Tweets.
"Not true, for their greatest invention was a system of star-spanning gates that allowed travel across the galaxy in an instant. The technological disease, for that is the best term for it, was spread by this method and activated remotely. Sadly, it was a weapon that never needed to be used. But its creator was banished into another realm, and once she left, the virus destroyed everything. You can't blame her, really."
"Her?" asked Tweets. "The destroyer of galactic civilization was one person? This story is ridiculous. I think the destruction of Earth has done serious damage to your people's grasp on reality."
Stryker smiled. "Earth has not been destroyed, and we of the Fourth Reich will see its return." He kicked Tweet's chair which spun around once. He stopped the spin and leaned in close to the bird woman. Even in a sack she was attractive. "And once we return Earth to our dimension, this system and everything in it will bow to the Master Race." Stryker grabbed her face again and brought it close to his. "And those that serve us well will gain special favor."
Tweets leaned her head back and head butted the Nazi smashing his nose. Blood seeped through Stryker's fingers as he tried to stop the bleeding. He looked around the bridge daring anyone to laugh. Stryker kicked the bird woman in the gut and kept kicking once she hit the ground. "Take her below with the rest of the prisoners! If she misbehaves, have Dr. Standing arrange something special for her."
The guards quickly collected the prone bird woman and retreated from the bridge. "Damned birdmen. Once Earth is returned, I want to wipe out the entire race."
Stryker looked down at his black SS coat. Blood stained the front. It was barely visible on the black cloth, but Stryker knew it was there. "I'll be in my cabin. Call me when we reach our destination."
"Jawohl," said the bridge crew as one. Stryker pretended not to hear the soft snickers as he left the bridge. The Reich's discipline was going to hell.
Skawk squatted quietly near the edge of the skyland, meditating with his wings wrapped around him. A few large raindrops fell, but the storm was almost over. A foggy mist took its place. Such was the nature of Saturn's storms. Night was fast approaching on the planet which spun rapidly on its axis. The phosphorescent floating plankton were already glowing giving a yellowish tint to the surroundings. Somewhere off in the distance, a lone air whale sang its mournful song. Skawk heard an answering song and could tell by the whale song the two were an unpaired male and female. He hoped their meeting went well. Their population dwindled greatly during The Great Solar War.
The birdman heard the Nazi engine long before he saw the ship. Its black and red bullet-shaped fuselage appeared out of the mist moving slowly toward his small skyland. Thrusters vented exhaust downward and sidewards rotating the ship until the Nazi swastika showed on each of the ship's four tail fins. Landing skids extended from beneath the ship's nose and just fore of its engines. It landed in a cloud of mud that kicked up from the soaked ground of the skyland. The engine noise faded and the hatch of the Nazi ship opened. Skawk heard territorial challenge squawks from the skyland's other inhabitants. He prayed to the Skylord that the Nazis didn't have a naturalist on board who knew the squawk's meaning.
A gangway extended from the open hatch to the ground. Two Nazi soldiers appeared and stood on a small ribbon of decking that wrapped around the ship at hatch level. They activated their jet packs and circled the area once then returned to the hatchway. The squawks grew louder. Skawk flexed his wings once, grateful he needed no such device to fly.
Commander Stryker appeared holding Tweet's hair in his hands pulling her forward out of the hatch. Two additional soldiers joined him on the causeway. Skawk's blood boiled seeing her condition. Rope bound Tweets' hands and feet, and more crisscrossed a bag which covered her body. Her face was bloodied and bruised.
Stryker waved Skawk forward as he walked down the gangway to the ground. Skawk spoke out in High Speak, the language of his people. "Can you fly?"
"Yes," yelled Tweets.
Stryker held his raygun to Tweets' temple. "If you communicate with her again in that sing song you call a language, I'll kill her," said Stryker in Solar Common. "Let me see the stone."
Skawk held up the keystone. Stryker motioned to one of the guards to retrieve it.
"Release Tweets!" yelled Skawk.
"You are in no position to bargain, monk," said Stryker.
Skawk prepared to throw the stone over the skyland's edge.
"Stop!" yelled Stryker. "Very well. She will come with Karsten."
A guard took Tweets and escorted her toward Skawk.
The territorial challenges got louder and closer. Skawk heard the pounding of large fists on the ground.
"What the hell is that?" yelled Stryker.
"A local group of animals," responded Skawk.
Stryker motioned to his men waving his raygun towards the trees. The soldiers with rocket packs flew towards the noise as Tweets and her guard reached Skawk. The birdman held up the stone of Karsten's inspection.
"Is it black with etching?" asked Stryker.
"Ya, Commander," said Hans.
"Very well. Bring it and the birds back," said Stryker.
Karsten raised his pistol and smiled at the bird man. "If you try anything, birdman, I kill the girl."
Everyone turned the direction of a scream from the trees followed by a single ray gun blast. A lone Nazi emerged followed by a troop of large winged gorillas. The largest ape grabbed the remaining Nazi by the foot and smashed him into the ground. Other apes piled onto the rocket soldier punching, biting, and rending the poor soul until he moved no more.
Stryker ordered something in his native language, and the other humans opened fire upon the gorillas.
"Get down," said Skawk in High Speak. "Whatever you do, don't respond to the apes. Keep your face down, and don't make eye contact."
The two bird people knelt as Karsten fired over and over again. Several apes attacked grabbing the Nazi and flinging him over the edge of the skyland. Skawk saw several hands and feet land in front of him. One of the apes smashed its fists into the ground and pounded its chest. Skawk felt Tweets start to move.
"Don't," he hissed.
After several more ground smashes the apes flew off to attack the humans. Skawk looked up. Ten humans ran out of the hatch with rifles and began firing. The apes responded as apes do, with devastating attacks.
Skawk cut the ropes holding Tweets with his feet talons. "We fly now," he said. "There are some caves on the underside where we can hide.
"No!" demanded Tweets throwing the bag off and flexing her wings. "We've got to rescue the other prisoners."
"Tweets," said Skawk trying to drag her to the edge. "We have to escape."
"No, there are people trapped inside, and one of them is very important."
"I'm no hero," said Skawk, "I'm just a simple monk who studies plants, animals, and artifacts. Abbot Rahk always said I didn't live in this world and that was good since the world had little use for me."
"Abbot Rahk is dead because he didn't listen to you. He was wrong about you, and he was wrong about the approaching Nazis. You were the only one who knew what they were after. True, you are not a warrior, but you are far from a coward. I've seen you risk your life time and time again to collect rare bits of archeology or study some newly discovered species. What's worse you spent over a cycle with those terrors," Tweets said pointing to the apes.
"They didn't have rayguns!" said Skawk.
One of the apes ripped a raygun rifle from a soldier's hands and beat the human to death with it. Tweets looked at Skawk. "And you think rayguns are more dangerous than apes?"
Skawk just shook his head.
"They have a Martian Librarian on board. One that's an archaeologist," said Tweets.
Skawk hesitated as the battle between winged Saturnian apes and Nazis raged. "We've no way in," he said trying to convince himself it wasn't worth rescuing one of the famed Librarians of Mars.
"There's a hatch on the other side near the skyland's edge," said Tweets. "The Nazis will never see us if we fly off this edge and come up on the other side."
"That's insane," said Skawk.
Later Skawk would wonder why the world stopped when she kissed him. He remembered opening his eyes as their lips parted and staring deeply into her beautiful blue eyes. Of the flight to the Nazi ship and their entrance through the ship's other hatch, he remembered nothing.
After the kiss his first memory was entering the Nazi ship. It smelled of oiled metal and human sweat. Skawk didn't gag but wanted to.
A corridor ran between the two exterior hatches with another corridor running the length of the ship bisecting it. A floor hatch was at the junction of the two corridors. "The prisoners are down there," said Tweets.
As Skawk bent to open the hatch to the lower deck, a human voice yelled something Skawk didn't understand. A raygun fired. Skawk flinched. He watched the Nazi fall to his knees and then to the deck. A burn mark shown on the human's chest. Skawk apparently blanked out Tweets retrieval of Karsten's raygun as well.
Tweets looked down all four corridors. "Open the hatch."
Skawk did as instructed, flinging the hatchway open. A Nazi guard looked up from below only to have his face melted by Tweets' raygun. The two birdmen jumped below, landing lightly next to the fallen guard. A Nazi with a white lab smock looked up from the front of the ship and raised his hands in surrender. Tweets leveled her raygun at him.
"The Librarian is to the right," she said.
There were two cell-lined corridors leading toward the aft of the ship. Skawk took the one to the right. Some cells were empty. Others held books and relics. A few contained various creatures from the eight remaining planets and uncounted moons of the Sol system. Skawk released each being telling them to head forward and out the hatch.
Midway down the cell row, a Martian Librarian looked up from a book. Its blue skin had a sweaty sheen to it. The fleshy brows over all four yellow eyes focused on Skawk. The Librarian raised a shortened trunk over his mouth to speak. "Ah, you're hear just as Tweets said. She stated emphatically you'd have a plan for our rescue.
Skawk hit the cells release switch. "Come on. We'll leave from the front hatch.
"Not without my body guard. His family has been in my employ for generations." Without waiting for permission the Librarian ambled two cells away and released a Lionman. "See Garl, the bird woman was correct."
The lionman eyed Skawk as if deciding whether he'd taste good. Skawk had retreated two steps before he realized he was moving.
Tweets ran down the corridor. "The damn doctor released a death bot," she yelled firing backwards. Skawk heard screams from several beings at once. "Is there a back way out?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said the Librarian.
"Well I do, laddy," said the occupant of the next cell. The stunted humanoid form of a Mercurian Dwarf looked up at them through bushy blond eyebrows. You couldn't see his lips move through his even thicker blond beard. "There's an access hatch near the lower engine room. Release me and I'll show you where it is.
Skawk hit the release switch.
"You trust him?" growled the lionman.
"I don't know that we have a choice," said Skawk.
The dwarf ran toward the rear of the ship followed by the others. A Nazi engineer looked up at the dwarf. The engineer hovered over an open engine panel. "Scutter, get back to your cell!.
The last thing the Nazi engineer saw was the gaping maw of an enraged lionman. The Librarian wiped a bit of Nazi good from his silver tunic. "A bit less splatter next time, Garl, if you please," said the Librarian.
The dwarf pulled a large lever on the wall. All the cell doors opened at once. The remaining prisoners lept out and started to run in all directions down both cell rows. The dwarf shooed the Librarian, Lionman, and two bird people into the engine room and slammed the door shut, securing it behind him. "That'll give the death bot a bit to chew on," he said chuckling.
"But the other prisoners," started Skawk.
"Will fend for themselves and cover our escape,' said the dwarf. He stepped over the prone human engineer and opened a panel near the back of the engine room. "Through here. At the end of this tube is a panel with four levers. Turn them each to the right. A hatch will pop and you'll be free.
"You first," said the Lionman. "Never to trust Mercurian Dwarfs."
"Look, Kitty," said the dwarf looking put out, "If you want out then that's the way. I need to do a few things first to give the Nazis a surprise when they fire up the engines."
Tweets pushed Skawk towards the tube entrance. Skawk complied entering the tube. He heard the librarian complain as it followed. Birdmen were used to open spaces. The confined quarters pinned his wings to his sides. It seemed like an eternity until he reached the end. Skawk found the four levers and turned them as instructed. The hatch popped outwards, and he breathed the blessed fresh air of Saturn.
Skawk hopped to the ground. The battle was almost over. The apes had lost. Nazi and gorilla bodies were lying everywhere.
Skawk helped the Librarian down and looked into the corridor. It was barely a birdman's height in length. Tweets came next, followed by the lionman, and finally the dwarf who emerged snickering.
The five hid behind the rocket's tailfins running the last bit into the trees. They took up a position which allowed them to view the battle field.
Stryker stalked around shouting orders. Some humans collected the wounded while others made sure the apes were dead.
The Librarian wagged its stunted trunk up and down. "I believe you angered the commander mightily. He just swore the destruction of your family, anyone who knows your family and anyone who might know your family."
"To have such a powerful enemy is a high honor indeed," growled the Lionman.
"Ach, piss on 'im," said the dwarf. "That bastard made me tune their engines to outrun anything the Alliance possessed. They held a gun to me head while he tested it. I hope he has the opportunity to choke on his own vomit, or better yet me fist. But he'll have plenty of regrets as soon as he takes off," the dwarf said with an evil grin on his face.
The Nazis loaded the wounded onto their ship. Stryker stood there yelling for a bit then entered as well. The gangway retracted, and the engines started. Stryker's voice erupted from a speaker somewhere on the outside of the ship. "I do hope you enjoyed that, monk. I'm about to level this entire rock. Every missile I have will strike this skyland until it breaks apart and crashes into the atmosphere below. And when I do flush you from the trees, the last thing you'll feel is the might of Nazi technology burning you into nothingness.
The rocketship vented exhaust downward lifting the craft into the air. The main engine engaged, pushing the ship away from the skyland. The Nazi raygun cannons began lashing rays of death into the forest around them. Skawk and Tweets started to retreat, but the dwarf stopped them. "Wait for it," said the dwarf slowly.
And then the ship was gone. It just dropped from view.
The dwarf howled in delight. "Die you stinkin' bastard. Die in the depths of Saturn!"
Skawk heard a distant explosion followed by another closer explosion.
The dwarf looked confused. "It wasn't supposed to explode. It was supposed to drop and be crushed by Saturn's atmosphere."
Skawk heard another closer explosion. The rocket ship flew past the skyland, then slowed. Then it began to drop. The rear of the ship exploded sending the ship higher into the atmosphere.
"Gah, you didn't kill him you stupid cat," shouted the dwarf.
The Lionmon growled. "Careful, dwarf. I may decide on a short snack before bedtime."
The dwarf stomped about cursing. "Ach, of all the dense, dimwitted companions, I get the one Lionman from all of Mars that doesn't finish off a kill. Gerhard may be a lot of things, but stupid he ain't. That Nazi rigged the core to short burst them all the way to orbit. Course, they'll never make planet fall again without a space station, but damn. A perfectly good act of revenge ruined!"
Tweets grabbed the Libarian by the truck. "From you, I need answers."
The lion stopped his argument with the dwarf and growled. "Release him. My gratitude for release goes only so far."
Tweets released the birdman. Somehow Skawk found himself between Tweets and the Lionman. It was a completely un-Skawk like thing to do.
"The Nazis said you created the other Solar races from humans. He said you colonized this system through some sort of galactic gate machinery and that you civilization was destroyed by one person. Is this true?" Tweets stood before the Librarian defiantly beautiful even with a bloodied face.
The Librarian took a step back and adjusted his silver tunic. The being's blue skin darkened slightly, and its trunk made an agitated flip upwards. "What my race has and hasn't done is none of your concern, birdwoman. And now, the reason for my rescue. I believe you have something you need my opinion on."
Skawk gave him the stone he showed the Nazis an eternity ago. Tweets made a protest, but Skawk stopper with with a raised hand.
The Librarian pulled some glasses from his tunic and placed them over his lower set of eyes. "A fake," he said making a tisking noise with his trunk. "And not a very good one at that. Were it real I would be concerned, but it is not. Sad really, I would love to see a real keystone. Their value is greater than that of this entire planet."
"I've called for help," said Skawk. "Now that the storm as passed and the Nazi jamming gone, I was able to get a distress call out. We should be rescued by morning."
"Excellent," said the Librarian. "Garl, if you would attend me into the forest."
The two aliens parted leaving the dwarf and two bird people.
"The bird lass irritated the arrogant, four-eyed twit," said Scutter the dwarf. "And it was more than just pulling his trunk. I dunna think he liked what you said. And speaking of trunks, I've gotta go drain mine." With that the dwarf walked off into the woods as well.
Tweets took Skawk's hand. "I have to say you're taking the news of your keystone being a fake very well," she said. "You've studied that thing for cycles yet you took the fact that your cycles of work on the thing were wasted without so much as a whimper? You have changed!"
"My keystone isn't fake," he said pulling the real stone from a fold in his tunic. "But since he wouldn't answer your question, I saw no need to reward him by sharing it. I made the fake while waiting for you to arrive with the rock sculting gear in my archaeologist tool kit. Of course, I had to acid wash it to get the proper look, but all in all, it worked fairly well."
Tweets laughed. "See, you are a hero."
"Only in a passive-aggressive sort of way, and we're still not out of this mess," protested Skawk. "The Nazis could return."
The clouds of Saturn parted showing the planets beautiful rings. Some of the planets 87 moons skitted across the sky.
"We're really going to have to work on your outlook on life," said Tweets. "Its unbecoming of my future husband."
"Husband!" said Skawk. "Who said anything about getting married?”
A mock argument ensued ended by a long kiss. The two kissed until the dwarf returned, let out a disgusted sigh, and stalked back into the forest. The two bird people laughed, looked into the beautiful Saturn night, and took flight.
R. K. Athey
With sight that was not sight, an ancient being looked upon the third planet of a distant yellow sun. Its billions of inhabitants scurried through their day-to-day existence unaware of the drama unfolding heavenward. Tension gripped its populace as regional conflicts threatened to escalate into that planet's third world war.
Her thoughts shifted to the system's fourth planet. As if descending from orbit, she viewed the cold, red planet's surface and the remains of an unmanned vehicle sent from the third planet. The craft lay dormant covered in red dust. She marveled at the vast effort that delivered so little return. "Primitive," she said thinking of the beings who hurled the robot from the third planet. "But with a capacity to adapt."
The nearly airless planet was a venue of her creation. The actors approached. She watched the drama unfold.
Lt. Commander Christian Anderson studied the radar display searching for orbital debris as the Edgar Rice Burroughs orbited Mars. The winged, pregnant dumbbell, called HERB by its crew and support staff, was comprised of three modules. Edgar's living and engine sections formed the heads of the dumbbell, connected by a long shaft, called the spine. The French-built Burroughs drilling platform and the Rice lander formed asymmetric twins hung from Edgar's spine, ready to be birthed in a few days time. The dumbbell's wings were recently deployed solar cells, used for aero braking and as a backup to HERB's controversial reactor.
With all orbital hazards mapped long ago, Anderson's task was nearly useless. Procedures dictated such activities and, thanks to Col. Thomas "Hardass" Hargrove's edict, HERB's crew followed all procedures to the letter.
Preaching regulations as ardent as any Bible-thumping reverend, Hardass demanded behavior of the book, by the book, and for the book. Before Anderson's last sleep cycle, Hardass called him to the engineering module for a reactor-side sermon. The scripture was from Regulations, Chapter 36, verses 1 through 45: Sexual Harassment. His sin: hitting on Dr. Zoe D'Arcy, the French mission specialist.
True, he'd once transgressed. A NASA Christmas party, a sexy red silk dress, a sprig of mistletoe and a few shots of courage was a formula for a tabloid sensation seen around the world. To her credit, it was the most polite shoot down he'd ever experienced having, at least in his mind, the door open for something after they returned. That was the end of it, or so he thought.
The following week tabloids and yellow journals the world over sported their picture and stories of a torrid love affair. NASA, fearing their Western Alliance Mars mission had turned into a love cruise, floated rumors of his removal.
Zoe, a woman of beauty, brains, and a stubborn streak as wide as the Seine River, wielded her considerable influence with the European government. The government informed NASA it would be greatly displeased at his removal for such a "trivial matter."
Until now, the only fallout of the tabloid boondoggle was Hardass' occasional sermons on the evils of space sex and its affect on mission performance. Zoe and he worked well as a team. They alone were to descend to Mars and set up Burroughs, and Anderson contented himself with being the friend of a beautiful woman.
So what had Zoe said to set off Hardass? Believing the best way to handle problems is by frontal assault, Anderson planned his next encounter with the French physicist. Command school taught methods for resolving conflict. He rehearsed these, being the soul of reason, stressing teamwork and trust.
Dmitri Karmolov, physician, physiologist, and torturer, floated into the control cabin and interrupted his thoughts. The Russian, in his slow, thick accent said, "Zoe is in her last few minutes of aerobic exercise. You are expected for anaerobics in 20 minutes."
"Hey, Dmitri. Has Zoe mentioned anything about my behavior lately? Anything that would set Hardass off?"
The burly, fatalistic Russian viewed him as he would a biological specimen. "Who can know what will set Colonel Hargrove off? If there is one thing I have learned from my military career, it's that disciplinary actions are like lightning. Sometime you deserve them, sometime you don't. But they strike where they will, not where you will. If I had learned this lesson earlier and not complained as much then, maybe I would have advance beyond the rank of major."
Anderson could think of a great number of faults that kept Dmitri from going past the rank of major, but knowledge of the human body's response to low gravity and the conditioning needed to stop its ill effects wasn't one of them. He literally wrote the book on the subject.
The Russian bear tapped his watch. "Twenty minutes, Commander. I promise after this workout you won't worry about anything that might upset our beloved Colonel." Dmitri's answer to any problem was more weight and more reps.
Dr. Zoe D'Arcy entered the control room dressed in shorts and t-shirt, still sweating. The damp garments clung to her skin showing every curve of her athletic body. The delightful eyeful usually brought arousal despite Zoe's constant reminders Anderson was her "good friend." Today was different.
"Good morning, gentlemen." How Zoe remained cheerful after one of Dmitri's sessions was beyond comprehension. "Be careful, Commander. Dmitri's in a particularly evil mood today."
The Russian excused himself, "Yes, yes. I've got to reset the rack and thumbscrews before Christian arrives. I believe he has something to ask you, Zoe." With that, he left.
Damn the Russian.
Her smile faded. "Is something wrong, Commander?"
He looked into her dark, beautiful eyes. His speech, concerning teamwork and trust, vanished. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. A slight smile grew on her face.
"Thanks for sicking Hardass on me," so much for command school conflict resolution. She looked confused. "'Unwanted sexual advances' ring a bell?"
"Oh, that. Do not worry, mon ami. Colonel Hargrove overheard part of a conversation and misunderstood."
"Misunderstood, my ass. When have I ever acted inappropriately toward you?"
"Does the phrase 'hottest body to hit space in the Sun' ring a bell?" she said imitating his Texas drawl.
"Oh." Damn that tabloid reporter. "But that was six months ago. Back when I thought I.... You can't blame me for that!"
"I can blame you for a great deal," she said crossing her arms in mock outrage, which quickly softened back to her usual grin, "but unwanted advances are not one of them. That was all a mistake."
He refused to let that smile break his anger.
"Then you've got to let Hardass know it's a mistake. If he blue sheets me I can kiss my next promotion goodbye."
"For the love of Christ, why?"
"It's a secret."
"I'll never understand women. Never. Not in a million years."
"That is as it should be, Commander."
Looking satisfied, she brought up a terrain map showing probable locations of underground liquid carbon dioxide and water. "I think we should drill a bit to the North of our original site. The topology indicates a thinner crust there."
"This is my life you're screwing with, Zoe."
She abandoned her console and looked at him. "They would hurt you for this?"
"Oh they'll welcome me home, throw a parade, talk about how brave I am, but I'll never see space again and never reach full commander."
"You may never understand women, Christian, but I'll never understand America's sexual repression." She thought for a moment more, chewing her lip. "Ok. I promised I wouldn't tell but that was before I knew it would hurt your career." Schoolgirl excitement spread across her face. "Besides, some secrets are too good not to share."
A burst of static from the radio and a warning ping from the radar interrupted her explanation.
"What the hell?" He stared at the console not believing the contact streaking across the screen.
"What is it, Commander?"
"Something at 900,000 kilometers, closing fast at seventy-five thousand kilometers per second. That's one quarter the speed of light!" His hand went to the intercom but the contact disappeared before he could call Col. Hargrove to the command cabin.
As he adjusted the radar settings, another contact appeared on the opposite side of the HERB with the same course, speed, and radar cross-section. It stayed for a few seconds then disappeared. The radio emitted a short burst of static as the blip appeared and disappeared.
Zoe leaned over to view the screen. "A glitch, no?"
"Maybe. Do me a favor, and check the diagnostic server. Cole has it running a full system diagnostic. If something's wrong it should show up there."
Anderson replayed the radar loop. Each contact lasted three seconds with a three second interval between appearances. The speaker emitted regular, static bursts, their volume fading, then gone.
"Nothing from the diagnostic server regarding the radar. Dmitri's rats are still misbehaving, however." Much to the crew's amusement, zero gee struck Major Karmolov's rodent experiment like Viagra; they copulated energetically and constantly. Even Hardass thought it was funny.
"Look at this, Commander. The scanners detected a broadband EM spike coincidental with the first radar contact. It appears every six seconds, in the first contact's direction, and every eighteen seconds in the second contact's direction. The distance between contacts is approximately 12 light seconds. I do not think the radar's malfunctioning. Something's out there."
"So what are you saying? Bug-eyed Martians are coming to pay us a visit because they're displeased with our drilling site? Traveling in teleporting ships at one quarter the speed of light?" Anderson asked.
One perfect eyebrow arched upward in challenge. "No, Commander. What I'm saying is that something traveling four times the speed of light, in a line that crosses over our ship, briefly slows down enough to be detected. And according to this," she said pointing at the reading, "they are arcing back toward us."
Anderson worked it through in his head. Impossible as it seemed, her theory accounted for the readings. He was still struggling to find another, more reasonable, answer when the radar registered an object emerging from the planet's shadow.
He and Zoe struck the bulkhead as HERB spun on its axis. Anderson, by fate or design, landed squarely on top of her. "Didn't Colonel Hargrove warn you against such advances, Commander," she said straight-faced but with a mischievous glint in her eye.
Anderson grimaced. Zoe often joked to defuse tense situations, just when he thought humor most out of place.
He saw Mars come into view from the same side of the craft he was pinned to. It had a green tint now. Years of sub-orbital fighter pilot experience screamed at the wrongness. He should be pinned against the wall opposite the spin.
"That's..." he said.
"...on the wrong side," she finished.
A ship, unlike any from Earth, came into view. It was an inverted flying wing with a forked tail section. Sunlight glinted off alien characters painted on its surface.
The source of Mars' green tint was a field extending from the alien ship that surrounded HERB. Their ship stopped spinning as the field disappeared. Freefall returned.
"They control gravity!" Zoe said and then drifted into French.
Lt. Col. Marsha Cole flew into the control room shouting profanities that would make a forty-year veteran sailor blush. Dmitri followed HERB's lanky engineer. Both were in a state of dishevel. Cole's colorful expletive describing the new ship came at the same time as Dmitri's "Bush Moi."
Colonel Hargrove flew into the control cabin spouting profanities, though not as artistically, or profusely, as Cole. His flat top hair was unruffled but his ever-present, unlit cigar was bent to the point of breaking.
"What the hell is going on Anderson? If you fired maneuvering thrusters without my authorization, I'll bust you back to E1 so fast you'll..." Hardass' voice trailed off as he saw the vessel. "What the hell is that?"
"Hell if I know, sir but we think it's capable of traveling faster than light."
Lt. Commander Christian Anderson knew the Marine Colonel had seen much in life. Raised on a small Kansas farm, getting an appointment to Annapolis, being a war hero, then becoming an astronaut, he was a small man's success story. His "by-the-book" style, while unimaginative, made him popular with his superiors.
To his credit, Hardass didn't stay stunned long. "Readings. I want readings from every scanner we have. Designate the unknown as contact Alpha.
"Anderson, get down to Rice and use the high-resolution terrain mapper to get a contour image. Cole, you and Dmitri analyze Alpha's design. Determine if it's inhabited and if so, by what. D'Arcy..."
"I'll use Burroughs spectrum analyzers to determine the ship's material composition."
"Very well. Let's get moving people. I'm on the radio to Earth."
Christian Anderson and Zoe D'Arcy flung themselves through pressure doors, down the spine, and into the Rice lander. Both strapped in. Working as a team, they brought systems from standby to full power. Hardass' image appeared on the communications console. "Mars is blocking Earth so I can't send a signal out. I've tried radioing that thing with a 'Hello' in every language Dmitri and I know. They haven't responded. How's the warm-up?"
"Almost finished, Colonel," Anderson replied.
In the image background, Anderson saw the burly Russian pat Marsha on the butt. People who are intimate have a certain comfort around each other's bodies. While Anderson was no empath, it was obvious something was going on between the crass American and the pessimistic Russian. The two exchanged knowing smiles.
He looked at Zoe. She saw the same thing. Finally he understood. She smiled at him. "That's your secret?"
"Oui, mon ami. Hargrove overheard a bit of conversation between Marsha and I. As you know, he can be most forceful, and you know his rules on fraternization. So to keep them out of trouble, I lied. I believe you call it 'Flying Cover.' Aren't they cute?"
"Freaking adorable." Seeing the indicators turn from yellow to green he keyed the comm channel open. "Warm up complete, sir. Ready to scan on your mark."
"Very well. Prepare for burn." Hargrove chewed the bent stogie with near manic ferocity.
Safety harnesses held them in place as HERB spun under its own power, pointing the underside of Rice and Burroughs at the alien craft.
Their field of view was limited to the Edgar's head and Burroughs. Zoe activated the spectrum analyzers and then pointed Rice's telescope toward the craft. As Anderson activated the radar, sending his scans to Dmitri and Cole, Zoe zoomed in.
"Exciting, no?" Zoe grinned like a child about to ride a roller coaster.
"More like freaking terrifying."
"Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Back at a nice safe space station in orbit around Earth." Anderson examined the contour scans. "Do you see those openings in front? Do those look like torpedo tubes to you?"
A burst of light appeared behind the alien craft. Another ship, similar to Edgar in design, came into view. It had two hexagonal modules separated by a long boom. Six, evenly spaced, cylindrical pods ran the length of the boom.
"Two space ships, mon ami. They're trying to make first contact. We'll go down in history as the first humans to meet extraterrestrials."
"Are you getting this, Anderson? Another craft just appeared," Hargrove said.
"Yes, sir. We have it on our telescope, but my radar isn't showing it at all."
"Designate as contact Beta. Edgar's radar doesn't show anything either. Beta emitted an EM burst as it appeared."
"We picked up something similar before, sir. It's almost as if a rock traveling faster than light were skipping across the top of Einsteinian space. It causes an EM spike every time it slows below light speed."
Dmitri pointed to a monitor near Hardass. He reported his findings in his thick, Russian accent. "We've found possible hatches," he said pointing to a monitor with one hairy arm, "Assuming these are hatches, the beings are slightly taller and wider than humans. This appears to be an airlock."
"Good. Get on Beta," Hargrove ordered.
Cole pointed to Dmitri's monitor. "Hardass, Alpha has control surfaces, so it's designed for space and atmospheric travel," Cole said. Only she dared use Hargrove's nickname to his face. No one else tried. Cole took no shit and dished out plenty. Hargrove seemed to respect that. She floated toward the video pickup. "Hey, Princess. I'm picking up a bunch of signals back and forth between those craft. You think you can use one of those fancy French doctorates to take a look at them. They don't match any PRI or modulation pattern I've ever seen."
Zoe looked at the data streams on her console.
The Alpha rotated until it faced the newcomer. "If those are weapon ports.... Colonel, I think we should get out of here."
"Commander, I’m not blowing a first contact because you've got cold feet."
"Mon Dieu," Zoe shouted, "They're firing at each other!"
Beams, similar to the new Western Alliance charged particle weapons, flashed between the two ships--red from the Alpha, blue from the Beta. The blasts splashed short of their target as some invisible screen surrounding each ship flared in rainbow colors.
Alpha accelerated and was gone. Beta moved closer to HERB. In action too quick for any eye to follow, Alpha reappeared in a burst of light and strafed the newcomer. Beta sent a truncated beam under HERB. Something exploded nearby. Shrapnel bounced off Rice.
Zoe screamed. Anderson ached to do something but, stuck in Rice, he possessed limited options.
"Prepare for burn!" Hargrove said as he rotated HERB in the direction of orbit then ignited the much-protested nuclear engine.
Anderson watched in horror as a red beam beheaded Edgar just behind the command module near Rice. The rapidly vaporizing metal and escaping air flipped his crewmate's section end over end toward Mars.
A second beam struck behind Burroughs toward the drive section. A small explosion, luckily not the fuel cells, sent the engine and spine tumbling away from each other. Burroughs broke free, crashing through the solar wings leaving Rice the sole knot on a long stick.
Anderson ordered, "Emergency separation. Now!"
"They're dead." Zoe sat there, stunned.
"They're all dead. Don't you understand? They're all dead!"
"So are we if we don't get out of here. Start emergency separation and start it now. I've got to give us some cover."
She hesitated for a moment longer. Finally training overtook emotion. Anderson cut power to the radar and established a link to the Burroughs module. "Come on you oversized mosquito. Activate."
Burroughs responded. Anderson initiated its orbital descent program as Zoe detonated the docking ring, shooting Rice away from Edgar's remains. He adjusted his craft via attitude jet and brought Rice into a steep descent in front of Burroughs. Old instincts and reflexes from his career as a sub-orbital fighter pilot came into play. He used thrusters to set his velocity close to that of Burroughs.
A barrage of translight missiles appeared in a flash of light near Burroughs as its retro rockets fired. The drilling craft exploded shooting brightly glowing debris past Rice.
A large mass brushed them, spinning Rice slowly. Hoping the damage was minimal, he let the craft tumble uncontrolled, knowing emissions, whether engine or electronic, would aid the alien craft in targeting them. Sporadic beams flashed past Rice but none struck.
Anderson wished for his old Shrike fighter as he ignited the main engine. Rice spun awkwardly as he oriented the large landing thrusters to get them behind Phobos. He held his breath until several million tons of rock floated between he and the alien ships.
"You did it," Zoe shouted.
"I haven't done jack. Wait until we're down. Then you can thank me."
"Because it’s the only thing this piece of shit is good for. For now we land, wait for the fighting to stop then get a signal to Earth."
"Then we die."
"Hey, we've got two weeks of air. A lot can happen in two weeks."
He wondered why he preferred the slow death on Mars to the quick death that seemed imminent in space. In the end it didn't matter. Dead was dead. Maybe part of him wanted to finally reach his goal of stepping on the red soil. Maybe he just wanted something to do before death, wrapped in a bright red beam, sliced through Rice like butter.
He fired the landing engine to drop the craft toward Mars. Minutes passed. Anderson realized he would soon pass under the futuristic battlefield.
He spared a look toward his crewmate. Her face was a mixture of sorrow and fear. Tears would come soon.
"We'll deploy the drag chute in two minutes. Let's see if they're still fighting."
"Will they shoot at us again?" Zoe asked.
"Only if we look like anything other than a piece of debris spiraling in. I wouldn't worry if I were you. More than likely they're too busy with each other to worry much about us." He knew God damn good and well they should worry but he thought it best to give Zoe something to hold on to.
He rotated the craft to give them a view of the stars. They saw nothing.
"Zoe, find us a landing site on the other side of the planet.
"Oui." He had never known her to appear so frail. The woman who stubbornly set her oar against the rapids of life was now adrift.
He remembered well seeing his wingman's Shrike explode on his first combat mission, the paralyzing fear and knowing he was next. All you had to do is survive one more minute. In times like that anger made a good oar.
"Zoe, I need you mad. Hate the bastards that did this. Do whatever it takes to get through. Keep thinking, 'Today we live. Tomorrow they die.'"
His words sunk in. While she didn't look angry, she didn't look helpless. "There is a relatively flat area we can make near Burroughs' original landing sight. I'll try to patch into the global mapping satellite. If it's still there, maybe we can get a signal to Earth without danger."
Anderson overrode the computers preprogrammed landing sequence. He judged the distance to the landing site and their rate of descent. The thrusters fired again to bleed away their velocity. Shortly, Rice dragged against the thin Martian atmosphere. "Drogue chute deploy in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1-now!"
With a bang the chute deployed. Deceleration pressed them into their seats as the thin fabric bit into the atmosphere. As he had hundreds of times in the simulator, Anderson continued landing procedures. "Disengaging drogue chute." Another explosive charge released Rice, and they were in free fall again.
"Engaging thrusters," Anderson continued. With a loud roar the landing thrusters burst to life pinning them to their seats. An anvil of weight fell on his chest. After a ten count it lightened enough for him to breathe again.
"We'll overshoot the original landing site," she said. "I'm activating the terrain mapper to look for another."
The mapper would send a flood of emissions to the aliens yelling "shoot here" but Anderson decided if the engine didn't give them away nothing would.
An image appeared on the center monitor. "Here. This is a wide, flat plane on our current course. It should do."
Alarms began buzzing. "Oh shit. We're losing fuel, Zoe. We've either got a tank rupture or a line break."
Anderson ran through the line pressure readings to localize the break. Just before he began diverting fuel down an alternate pathway something in the fuel system exploded. Rice tumbled wildly toward the surface. "We're going down hard."
The French scientist closed her eyes. Anderson wished he could do the same. He adjusted the craft to go in butt first, their best chance at survival.
He'd faced Death before. Learned to stare the Grim Reaper in the hood and laugh as he ducked past his skeletal grasp. There was no way out of this one however. The bastard was going to win.
For some reason his mind flashed to an old movie made in the late twentieth century. A red pinto station wagon with two Illinois Nazis fell from a bridge for an impossibly long time. He looked at Zoe and said, "I've always loved you." He thought it a very Zoe-like joke.
She didn't get it. "You have the worst romantic timing possible, mon cher." She grabbed his hand and squeezed.
They fell toward their fate and the red planet.
END CHAPTER 1 #
BEGIN CHAPTER 2
Dealbinder, Verlian master of the Long Haul, sat on the command dais with ears laid flat, back hair ridged up straight, claws yearning to be unsheathed, and a low growl escaping his muzzle. He expected the attack on his ship, such was the nature of the Kurr, but turning guns on a defenseless ship boiled his blood.
Earth made its first stumbling steps into space, attempting to create a colony on its nearest planetary neighbor. As the cub race made its first effort to stand upright, the Kurr slapped it down.
"Status," he growled.
His black furred weapons officer, Quickeye, reported, "The Earth ship's severed command section continues its plunge toward the planet. Deep scans show intermittent life signs. The Kurr ship entered the atmosphere and is crash landing nicely."
"May they do more crashing than landing. Attach a grapple beam to the section showing life signs. Be careful. Earth doesn't have inertial dampeners."
Shortdraw, a diminutive Brewer, approached Dealbinder’s dais. The being was one of Brewers aboard the Long Haul. "Dealbinder, permission to send a few Brewers over on a gravity sled. The Earthers won't be as excitable if they see one of us first."
Shortdraw, his helmsman, shamefully lacked hair and was only two-thirds Dealbinder's height. Despite his shortcomings, he had a point. The Brewer's shorter stature would less agitate the frightened Earthers and their size would let them navigate the Earth ship better.
"Make it so. Send Scuttler and Wallclimber on Bay f4's grav sled." He hated to lose that shipment, but he couldn't let the Earthers suffocate.
Bay four split end-to-end releasing the Long Haul's precious liquid payload into space. It saddened Dealbinder to see the canisters float away. He looked longingly at his own glass, half empty of Earth's greatest export.
The forward view screen showed the two Brewers on bay four's sled moving toward the severed head of the Earth ship. The grapple beam stopped the spin and arrested its fall toward Mars. If the section maintained atmospheric integrity and the airlock still functioned, the doomed Earth expedition might live. If not, he would morn the young race's failure.
Dealbinder thought of the planet-fallen Kurr. His claws unsheathed themselves as anger swept over him. If the Earthers perished, the Kurr would provide them an honor guard to the afterlife.
"Status of the Kurr ship."
"They've skidded to a halt. I'm reading three probable life signs. No power emissions from their ship."
Dealbinder smiled. Except a Verlian smile had nothing to do with happiness. He addressed Brightsmile, his wife and second in command. The Brewers joked that that made her the actual ship's master. Dealbinder failed to see the humor in it. If he heard such comments, outside the considerable earshot of Brightsmile, he showed the Brewers how little humor he saw in it.
"We'll need a landing party to recover the ape-cats and, if possible, their superluminal drive. I'll know how they developed and equipped so many translight vessels so quickly even if it costs every Kurr its skin."
Even now, Kurr ships drove the Verlians toward Earth. With the Verlian armada called toward the Riss frontier, the ape-cats made short work of the diminished containment fleet.
There was no way to save Earth from invasion.
He watched the gravity sled stop next to the broken vessel. The Brewers entered the ship.
Dealbinder waited a few minutes until impatience got the better of him. He clawed the communications channel open. "Scuttler, report."
"We've entered," the Brewer sounded out of breath. "The airlock is intact, but the ship is leaking air. Only a minimal atmosphere remains. We found two of the crew unconscious and in bad shape with multiple contusions, abrasions, and broken bones. The third attacked us with a wrench. The old guy wouldn't quit. We finally had to sedate him. We're shoving them into e-suits now, preparing them for transit."
Dealbinder sighed, a trait Brewers and Verlians shared. "I'm greatly pleased at least some of the Earthers survived. Two perished. That's two too many but better than I expected."
The view screen snapped to another image. Shortdraw pointed at it and said, "Looks like we have more survivors, Dealbinder," Shortdraw pointed at the view screen. There, hanging beneath shiny fabric, bobbed another piece of the ill-fated Earth ship.
"Quickeye?" Dealbinder queried.
"Scanning. Two life signs, both probable to strong."
"Never underestimate an Earth pilot." Dealbinder's ears wagged in amusement.
Shortdraw drew his lips back showing teeth. A Verlian would see that as aggression. With Brewers it showed amusement.
"Scuttler, get back to the ship. Looks like we have another rescue operation for you."
Did they all survive? If so, this was a joyous day indeed.
Quickeye broke him from his reverie. "There's been an explosion on the landing craft! They're falling with no thrusters."
"Ready the grapple beam!" Dealbinder ordered.
"They've dropped below the horizon," warned Quickeye.
"Set course for orbit above the falling vessel. Engage superluminal drive, level one," ordered the ship's master.
He prayed to Seers past, supplicating them to guide his helmsman, as he watched the Brewer work. No Verlian could match the speed of Shortdraw as he swung the ship toward Mars and engaged the superluminal drive.
The forward view screen showed the Long Haul's phase field cycling through the color spectrum from red to blue then bright white. As the ship transitioned from normal space to superluminal space, the screen showed an instant of blackness, and then exploded back into real space, phase field changing from bright white, to dull red, then fading to invisibility. The view screen snapped onto the falling craft. The status bar beside the image indicated altitude and rate of descent. They were too late.
"Engaging grapple." Quickeye didn't wait for the order. A green-gray beam struck the small lander surrounding it in a gravitational field, first neutralizing then reversing the planetary pull. Dealbinder watched the status bar. The fall stopped just short of the planet. The craft began to rise.
"We've got them!" shouted Quickeye.
Verlian roars and Brewer cheers erupted on the bridge of the Long Haul.
Anderson and Zoe held hands as they fell through the Martian atmosphere. He added the missed romance to his list of unfulfilled dreams. Death would come soon in the form of bounces and skids across the Martian landscape.
Centrifuge-like gravity nailed him to his seat. Rice's fall slowed, and then stopped. Confusion gripped Anderson's mind until he noticed the green-gray glow of the alien gravity device. So Death was not to call so soon after all.
He watched the altimeter drop to 10 meters, and then climb. The force reduced to the point he could breathe again.
"Why have they not killed us?" Zoe asked, her voice strained from the effects of high gravity.
"Don't know. Maybe they're in a taking prisoners mood now. Who can figure the psychology of bug-eyed aliens," Anderson answered, his head pounding.
Zoe actually smiled. Her face contained fear, worry, sorrow, and pain, but for an instant she smiled.
As Rice rotated Anderson sighed in relief as he saw the Edgar-shaped ship above them.
"The good guys, no?" Zoe asked.
"Maybe. At least they aren't the 'blow you to bits' guys."
One of the six cylinders was split lengthwise and opened to space. The gravity beam guided them into that opening.
Another beam, from inside the cylinder, took over holding Rice in place. The cylinder closed leaving them in darkness surrounded by the gravity beams glow.
Another light entered the container. A circular hatch opened casting a bright light silhouetting a bulb-headed humanoid figure. The BEMs had arrived.
It rode a circular piece of metal with a control panel on one edge. It orbited Rice twice, and then landed near the airlock. There was no way to keep the alien out. An airlock system designed for ease of use cycled. The alien entered.
As the humanoid stepped into Rice, Anderson realized the alien didn't have a bulbous head. It wore a helmet and held two space suits, no thicker than his coveralls, in its hand.
As the being pulled off its helmet Anderson was surprised to see a human face looking back at them. A perfectly ordinary, everyday, seemingly human face broke into a grin as he laid lustful eyes on Zoe. She was still clad in shorts and a tee shirt. "I'm not interrupin' anything am I?" The voice was Southern.
Anderson protectively stepped in front of her.
The newcomer grinned and tossed the space suits toward the pair. "Y'all want to suit up and get into the Long Haul. There's some folks in there that want to meet you."
"Nothin' gets past you chief. I'm Reginald Montgomery. Now let's shake a leg."
"And we're in a vessel that can go faster than the speed of light."
"The Long Haul ain't fast, but she's a good ship. Still, she's faster than anything the ape-cats can field. Now come on."
"And you're here to rescue us?"
Apparently Reginald had had enough of Anderson's inquiry. "Shut up and suit up now, or I'm leavin' you here for the rest of the trip!"
"I think we should do as he asks. Our other option is to make love until Rice runs out of air, no?"
Anderson did a double take at Zoe. Had he heard what he thought he heard?
"Ah the French woman. I wasn't sure whether it was you or Marsha Cole." The Southerner peeled off some French that made Zoe blush.
"You speak French very well. Too bad your vocabulary is not as cultured as your accent. You're from the future, no?"
The stranger smiled crookedly. "More like the past. Now, would you please get in your e-suits? I'll explain the rest when we get inside." With that Reginald exited the lander.
Anderson and D'Arcy did as requested. The e-suits were simple coveralls with feet, hands, and a helmet. As he pulled the suit over his shoulders it began sealing itself along the front and tightened around his skin. The suit remained baggy around his joints. The helmet was self-sealing as well.
They boarded the thin plate hovering just outside the airlock. Anderson stumbled as he stepped onto it. Suddenly he was much heavier.
"Careful Zoe. This thing has a gravity of about one g." Even with the warning she stumbled.
Anderson heard Reginald's voice. "I'll lower the gravity a bit." He did something with the controls and suddenly Anderson weighed less. He heard Reginald's voice speaking in some guttural, growling language and another, much deeper voice, replying.
The sled glided back to the hatch with no sense of motion at all.
"The ship's master, what you'd call a captain, has lowered the gravity ship-wide."
The iris hatch opened into a short tube ending in another iris. The first hatch closed once the circular sled passed through. Anderson heard atmosphere hissing into the tube. When the hissing stopped, the other hatch opened revealing a hexagonal corridor running the length of the ship. There was an iris hatch on each of the corridor walls. Anderson guessed the corridor connected the command and engine compartments just like Edgar's spine.
Even after years of being in space, Anderson felt his stomach turn as Reginald rotated the sled, landing it on a black painted floor.
"Always remember, black is down," Reginald said.
Anderson tested the air as Reginald helped him out of the e-suit. It had an odd, musk scent.
The corridor looked cavernous. At first Anderson thought it was six months spent in HERB's cramped confines. Then he realized the ceilings were abnormally tall. "How did humans get a ship like this?"
"It's not a human ship, its Verlian. Oh, and they call us Brewers, not humans. Y'all come this way to the bridge. Ver Kiterler is waiting."
"The Verlians have a habit of calling things by their function rather than title. They also use nicknames a lot. My great, great, great, granddaddy went to work brewin' beer for the Verlians back in the 1800s. So they call us brewers. Kiterler actually means 'deal binder' in bear-speak. He was called Brewbringer before the Seers sent us to rescue you. Not a bad fellow once you get to know him."
"They like beer and you brew it?" Zoe asked.
"I'm a helmsman. I don't brew beer. A lot of us still do though. The Verlians just haven't gotten around to renaming us yet. And no, they don't like beer. More like worship it. You see the Verlians are a naturally aggressive race and latent telepaths. Beer calms 'em down and heightens their empathy with other Verlians. That's why they can switch nicknames the way humans change hairstyles. Confusin' as hell if you ask me."
Anderson wasn't sure what he expected telepathic aliens to look like. He was sure, however, that he never expected them to look like bears. But there they sat. Three very large brown, black, and blond bears intermingled with two humans.
Of course, calling them bears was like calling humans apes. They were of ursine ancestry but had longer fore limbs. Their hands were very odd indeed, possessing retractable claws extending from their fists. They walked on four legs as often as two and sat on the ground with a back and armrest extending from the deck. The aliens were as tall sitting down as a human was standing.
The bears were in constant conversation speaking in baritone voices through a complex mussel. Both humans and bears sat behind consoles made of an unknown material. On a pedestal in the middle of the bridge sat Ver Kiterler, Dealbinder. The bear motioned them toward the pedestal with one extended claw.
"Welcome to the Long Haul. Please accept our hospitality."
Another Verlian, with blond fur and blue eyes, brought a tray containing three glasses and a large pitcher, all filled with an amber, frothy liquid. Reginald held up his glass and toasted, "Confusion to the Kurr."
"Here, here," quoted Kiterler as he drained the pitcher and belched loudly. "Ah, now that's something to fight for. Drink up. As the Earth author stated, 'for tomorrow we may die'."
"No thanks. I'm on duty." Anderson had no desire whatsoever to drink.
The bridge went dead quiet. Even the Verlians stopped talking. All eyes were on Anderson. Zoe leaned over and whispered in his ear. "Perhaps we should drink, mon cher."
Anderson and Zoe smiled at each other and reached for the proffered glasses. He held his glass up. "May all Kurr engines explode on takeoff." He tipped the glass, drained the contents, then belched loudly. It was beer of decent quality.
The bridge erupted in rebel yells and Verlian roars.
Kiterler slapped Anderson on the back sending him to the ground. "Now that's a fighting spirit. We may just win this one."
Reginald bent down to help Anderson up. "You done good pard’. Refusing a Verlian's gift of beer is a quick trip to the infirmary."
Kiterler placed his pitcher-sized mug back on the tray. "No doubt you have many questions. We'll do our best to answer them. Right now we must get back to our wayward Brewers. Shortdraw plot a course back to Scuttler and Wallclimber."
Reginald replied in Verlian and assumed a position behind a console. A chair lifted out of the deck as he approached. The consoles adjusted for human or Verlian use.
The ursanoid bear spoke to the black furred Verlians. The forward view screen displayed the horizon of Mars. The image magnified. He and Zoe could see the Edgar's severed head.
"They're alive?" Zoe asked.
"They are indeed. All injured and unconscious but alive, if not-so-well. We'll place them in a med-bed as soon as they're aboard."
"They are alive," Zoe said as if trying to convince herself. "They are alive," she said again convinced. She hugged Anderson hard. He hugged back.
"I knew all along Hardass was too mean to die."
"You and he have much in common then," Zoe said and hugged him again.
She gave the ship's master a long, around the neck hug then kissed him on either side of his mussel. The Verlian hugged her back burying her in fur.
The Verlian spoke to her in French. She smiled.
"What'd he say?"
"He said I hug like a Verlian."
"A great compliment, I assure you Commander," Kiterler ruffled Zoe's hair the way Anderson's father did to him as a child.
The black furred Verlian spoke. An image of the Kurr vessel appeared on the forward view screen. The image then dimmed and blurred.
"What's going on?" Anderson asked.
"The Kurr have thrown up a dispersion screen around their wrecked vessel. It prevents us from scanning or using the grapple beam." The Verlian captain looked at
"I think I'd like that a lot," Anderson said. "Whoever did this to Earth was going to pay."
Anderson smiled like a schoolboy after his first kiss. Zoe's goodbye lasted until the Brewers catcalls and whistles turned into comments about someone getting a hose to break them up.
That warm feeling was quickly replaced by anger when Reginald let slip details of the Kurr invasion fleet.
"What do you mean they're going to invade Earth?" Anderson yelled more than queried.
The sled glided over the Martian landscape approaching the downed Kurr ship. The plan, such as it was, involved landing near the craft, boarding it, then kicking ass without taking the prerequisite names.
"Calm down, chief. There ain't nothin' you're gonna do about the Kurr comin' to pay Earth a visit," Reginald Montgomery said. "Besides, that's two weeks off. A lot can happen in two weeks. Hell, two weeks ago you prolly didn't believe in space aliens. Now look at you, on an assault team with two of 'em.
"Tell you what, we capture any ape-cats we'll send 'em on to Earth so the big shots can see what's coming. We already stockpiled a bunch of equipment and such for Earth's defense. Problem is the people of Earth'll use it to blow each other up if we expose it 'for the Kurr show up. Tell me I'm wrong, and I'll call you a liar."
Anderson wanted to protest but couldn't. The Chinese decided to cozy up to the United Islamic States using the leverage to retake Taiwan and threaten Japan. The Western Alliance and UIS arms race would soon end as the twenty-year cold war became hot. War was imminent.
"Perfect time for an invasion," Anderson grumbled. "If they have any luck, the Kurr will sit back and laugh as we blow each other to kingdom come."
"Actually, pard’, it may be the best time. Just think, all those weapons you were gonna use against each other can be turned on the Kurr."
"All they have to do is pit one group against another then mop up anything left standing. It's what I would do if I was them," Anderson said.
"That's cuz you ain't a Kurr. I've never heard of one negotiatin' or cuttin' a deal. They've always conquered and nothing short of conquered. Hell, the last planet rolled out the welcome mat and said 'Y'all come on in.' Stupid Arvin.
"The Kurr never knew defeat until they met up with Verlia's armada. Not that the Verlians needed that many ships. When a sublight ship meets a translight ship it’s a one-sided fight fer sure. Back then the only way we could lose was to run out of missiles. That all changed after the Kurr developed a superluminal drive of their own. Have to admit; never thought the ape-cats would do it.
"Now the main Verlian fleet is on its way. It's just gonna be fashionably late to the party. The Riss decided they was up for a fight and learnt they was wrong the hard way. Problem is while the Verlians were off teachin' the lizards a lesson, the Kurr up and launched a translight fleet.
"Kicked what few ships we had on the Kurr border in the teeth and headed toward Earth."
The gravity sled halted next to a rock outcropping. "Alright, the Kurr ships on the other side. Remember, pull the trigger once to fire once, pull the trigger twice and hold for continuous fire." Reginald hefted his own phase/pulse rifle.
"Yeah, yeah. I got it," Anderson said.
The Verlians walked on all fours with a much larger version of Anderson's rifle strapped to their back. The giant aliens lead the way.
The radio in Anderson's suit spoke in guttural Verlian tongue. He saw the others pointing their weapons toward a lone boulder away from the outcropping. Something not quite humanoid leapt over the boulder and began a run-jump in their direction.
Against the United Islamic States, if one jihadist ran toward a group of armed men, a squad of jihadists were ready to open up from hiding.
Anderson looked up in time to see three forms leaping from above. "Behind us!"
One creature fell toward him. Instinctively he rolled backward, bringing his legs upward, catching the creature in the midriff. He kicked upward hard sending the Kurr flying in Mars' low gravity. The time spent in Dmitri's torture chamber paid off at last.
Anderson rolled over pressing the trigger twice and holding. A stream of bright pulses left the barrel catching the Kurr just as it landed. Its midsection exploded, spraying blood and entrails across the red sand.
Anderson looked for a new target. Thomas, the one called Scuttler, lay on the ground, unmoving, his e-suit and flesh ripped open exposing his crushed rib cage and intestines to Martian air.
Reginald pointed his rifle at the murderous Kurr but not before the creature leapt. His shot missed.
Anderson pulled the trigger once catching the Kurr in mid leap. Its helmet caught the blast spreading red goo over Reginald.
A Verlian, Brightsmile maybe, held a Kurr impaled on her claws. The creature fought but to no avail. The claws extended through one shoulder and one leg.
The original Kurr continued its charge. "These guys are madder than jihadists,"
"Hold off, pard’. I've got somethin' special for this pussy." Reginald pulled a grenade from his arm, throwing it toward the Kurr. It exploded before reaching its target sending white tendrils in all directions. These wrapped around the Kurr, entangling the alien better than any straight jacket.
Reginald's Verlian must have equated to 'toss it' because Brightsmile hurled the impaled Kurr into the air. Another tangle grenade intercepted it binding the Kurr into an efficient package.
With the Kurr bundled, Reginald checked Scuttler's wounds. "Nothin' we can do. Damnit Tom, why'd you have to go and git yourself killed."
More Verlian on the radio. "Alright pard’. We're done for the day. Brightsmile and Barrelhugger are going to investigate the Kurr ship. We're to bring Tom and our captives back to the Long Haul.
With three Kurr and three of HERB's crew in coffin-like med-beds the Long Shot headed toward Earth. It's master launched another long-winded monologue on Kurr tactics.
Anderson watched the view screen. The Sun dimmed to a pinpoint, then brightened every few seconds. "We're skipping." Anderson didn't realize he'd spoke out loud.
"What?" rumbled the Verlian, a bit perturbed at the interruption.
"Like the stone across water, no? Traveling faster than light then dropping back below light speed," explained Zoe.
The Verlian wagged its ears. It took Anderson a second to realize it was the Verlian equivalent of a smile. "Just so, Lt. Commander. The superluminal drive places us into a higher energy level where we travel much faster than in normal space. Much like an electron being excited to a higher energy level, we're able to 'excite' our ship to a higher translight energy level. We can't stay at that level long and fall back into normal space, or level zero. It takes our engines a few seconds to recharge and throw us back into translight space again. I've never thought of it as skipping stones but that is very much the same concept."
As if uninterrupted the alien continued, "The documents we are giving you also contain likely landing spots. The Kurr will attempt to form beachheads on several continents, then expand from there. They love personal combat and will do their best to engage in it early into the subjugation.
"If they hold to their normal tactics, they will destroy many of your population centers in their first attack, decentralize all military command and control structures, and move as many brewers as possible from your large cities."
The Verlian began walking to the door and motioned Anderson and Zoe to follow with an extended claw. Reginald followed. "Its time to take you back to your ship. The sled is programmed to take you to your space station. Explain to your people. The Kurr are coming. Hold out. You must hold out. If your planet falls, we won't be able to extricate the Kurr easily."
They walked down the hexagonal central corridor of the Long Haul. Dealbinder stopped next to the iris hatch, and motioned the brewers onto the small sleds used to navigate the cargo pods.
Dealbinder opened the hatch and guided the sled through. On the other side sat Rice in the middle of numerous crates of all sizes.
"We will defeat the Kurr space fleet. What remains of our containment fleet has joined with Alpha Centauri militia ships. Once the main Verlian armada arrives, we'll begin our assault. Both my race and yours depend on Earth holding.
Dealbinder pointed toward one of the med-beds. "This is Claw Leader P'Krom of Clan Glory Hunt. He survived the crash and was captured during your raid.
"He's sedated now and should wake up in a few of your hours. Keep him and his crewmen under close guard and bound. At first they will try to escape. Barring that they will try to kill themselves. This translator will allow you to understand them.
"These units contain your crewmates. I fear they're in bad shape. The med-units will repair their injuries given enough time. "
"It's time for you to be leaving. Good luck to you and your race." With that the Verlian opened the airlock to Rice.
The Verlian must have retreated quickly because the cargo bay opened, revealing absolute blackness. In a flash of light, Earth was above them. The sled lifted out of the bay. Anderson watched the Long Haul flash out of existence as it leapt to trans-light speeds.
The sled upended itself and made a swift approach toward Station Icarus.
Anderson looked at Zoe. She played with some sort of handheld device left on her chair by a Verlian or brewer. "So let me get this straight. We've just met not one, but two, alien races."
"Yes," she stated as she activated the device. A small hologram appeared on its surface. She fiddled with the device and the image enlarged.
He continued. "One employs humans as brewers the other is out to conquer and subjugate Earth."
"Yes." She put the device down and smiled at him.
"And I'm so in love with you none of that really seems to matter. Am I insane?"
Zoe laughed a bit, unstrapped and sat in his lap. "Yes, but you are so cute when you are crazy."
They kissed all the way down to Icarus.
With sight that was not sight, an ancient being looked upon the third planet of a distant yellow sun. Its billions of inhabitants went about their day-to-day existence unaware of the drama unfolding heavenward. Tension gripped its populace as regional conflicts threatened to escalate into that planet's third world war.
Earth's civilization had been subtly guided by her kind for two hundred years. Now the guidance would be less subtle. Without interference a devastating war would occur within six of Earth's months razing the planet, killing billions. Civilization would be slow to return to such a world.
The Kurr acquired the superluminal drive with a minimum of help. Decoying the Verlian fleet was more difficult. Delaying Humanity's war even more so. The being smiled pleased with her ingenuity. The actors played their parts wonderfully.
Now an invasion killing millions would prevent a war killing billions. Earth would emerge from the invasion united. Her kind would see to an alliance between Earth and Verlia--an alliance to see them through the coming darkness and beyond.
A white furred hand lifted a mug of beer to her mussel. As was the custom of her race she drained the beloved beer in one prolonged swallow, then belched loudly. For better or worse, humanity was about to be introduced to the universe. The Verlian Seer smiled. She hoped the universe was ready.