MAELSTROM II: ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH
This science-fiction story is to be categorized as an Uber of sorts. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: May 29th - June 6th, 2019.
Phineas Redux - thank you very much for your help *Flower*
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: After having spent a rough year marooned on a hostile planet in a remote star system, the Xeloshian space travelers Doctor Estaliah Whuoshann and Captain Neehka Mertigarne no longer possess the strength and stamina they once did. Though fatigued and malnourished, they are forced to keep moving through the dense forests to avoid being captured by the aggressive Earthlings. When they arrive at a quiet hamlet at the edge of the forest, it appears they have reached the end of the line - will they ever be able to escape from planet Earth?
October 19th, 1955.
To say the remote hamlet of Crystal Springs, Oregon only had little going for it would be to state the obvious. Located in a rural part of the upper north-western state, on a deserted stretch of the north-south US Route that ran through the dense woodlands of one of the numerous national parks, the motley collection of buildings barely registered as a settlement.
If the Lutheran church took care of the spiritual matters of Crystal Springs and its residents, the gas station and the adjacent diner had the worldly matters covered as they were the only places in the settlement where people passing through could spend their hard-earned dollars and cents. The small-fry Edgar's Motel that had been built next to the gas station opposite from the diner saw little business. It only had seven regular rooms and a bridal suite; they were all fairly basic, and the main difference between them was that the suite had a double bed and the others had two singles.
At present, only an old GMC truck was parked outside not too far from the ubiquitous neon sign that informed passers-by that there were Vacancies! The truck as well as the sign had seen better days, but at least they were still capable of doing the job they had been designed for.
A rickety shed made of corrugated iron - the roof was tilting and the door was crooked and ill-fitting even on the best of days - stood next to a tall, spindly scaffolding that carried a hugely long antenna on top. Until recently, the radio repeater tower had enabled the residents to get much clearer signals from the radio station in Diamond Point which was located eighteen miles south of Crystal Springs. From one day to the next, vandals had broken into the shed to steal a few random electronic items that no-one among the residents could see any collective purpose for.
Some three-hundred yards from the central gas station, on the southern outskirts of the settlement, the two-storey mansion housing Martha van Buren's Bug-O-Rama had been left as a ghost house following a bizarre spate of thefts. For four decades, Mrs. van Buren had gone on frequent hikes through the deep, dark forests surrounding Crystal Springs to find insects of all kinds. The smaller critters were killed at once and subsequently pinned to cushions made of ivory-colored velvet and displayed inside the mansion's stately room, but the larger subjects she found were kept alive and put in wooden cages and terrariums along the road. Once they were on display, Mrs. van Buren made sure they were well-fed and healthy so they could provide a creepy thrill for the few tourists who strayed into Crystal Springs on their way through the state.
All the residents of the remote hamlet were shocked when the wooden cages and terrariums were cleared out over the course of two short weeks in early October - it was like someone had deliberately targeted the large insects. When the contents of the drawers featuring the pinned, smaller specimens began disappearing as well, the poor Mrs. van Buren suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a sanatorium. Since no one else in Crystal Springs could be persuaded to take over the mantle of rebuilding the Bug-O-Rama to its former glory, the two-storey mansion and the open, gravelly courtyard with all the empty cages were left as mere ghostly echoes of what had once upon a time been the hamlet's number one attraction.
Something needed to be done to stop the tourists from simply speeding past, so Edgar Clifford - the owner of the diner, the gas station and the motel - had put up a few inflatable puppets at the entrance to his eating establishment. The flying saucer and the familiar silver-gray space creature with the large, bald head, the long arms and the four-fingered hands were all the rage in the larger towns in the area, but they added little to the business in Crystal Springs.
A full year had gone by since the alleged crash landing of an unidentified flying object thirty miles further south, and Edgar had arrived at the conclusion that the public craze involving aliens from outer space had fizzled out. The yo-yo, the Frisbee and the newfangled rock and roll music seemed to have claimed the throne from the flying saucers, but he had yet to come up with a plan on how to make money from those. He had never been short of ideas, however, so in the meantime, he had hand-painted a sign that said Bigfoot sighted here! Hunting season now open! Guided tours only $4! in bright-red block letters.
On the opposite side of the two-lane blacktop that carried a double, yellow stripe down the middle, the dense forest was bathed in glorious autumn colors. Though many of the trees were Douglas firs that were evergreen, there were plenty of red, yellow and brown leaves on the smaller trees. Other colors were prevalent as well: the water in a gently babbling stream was pale-blue, and scattered boulders offered splashes of gray in several shades.
A man dressed in camouflaged fatigues stood stock-still next to a wide tree trunk at the edge of a small clearing. Richard Alderman had gained plenty of first-hand knowledge of the perils of the jungle when he had fought in the Pacific Theater in World War II, and it was clear by his stance and the way he held the hunting rifle that he was well-versed in regular forests as well. More to the point, the steely focus of his sharp eyes made it evident he was on the trail of something.
After nearly a full minute of inactivity, the experienced hunter moved away from the wide trunk he had used for cover; moving slowly and deliberately, he glided through the clearing like the morning mist.
Behind Alderman, one of the leaves of an autumn-colored tree that he had just moved past seemed to blink and let out a long sigh of relief. Grayish-green in nature, the leaf rustled and moved away from the others on the branch. A few more leaves shook a short distance away, and soon, a shadowy figure slipped behind another tree trunk where it disappeared.
The first of the rustling leaves let out another sigh; then a two-legged reptilian creature of extraterrestrial origin rose to her full height. Hailing from the distant planet of Xelosh, the creature's nubbly skin was medium-green on the back and pale-gray on the front. Along her sides, under her arms and down the outside of her legs, the colors blended into a shade that defied description. Dark-green patches of fur existed above her eyes and elsewhere.
A thick layer of scales ran down her spinal line from her brow and all the way down to the stump-like tail. Further layers of scales ran across her shoulders, along her arms and out to her claw-like, four-fingered hands. Unlike her wide, prominent jaw that had not evolved too far from the days when her species had roamed the barren wastelands on her home planet, her eyes had grown membranes that saved her from constantly licking her retinas to keep them clean.
She still wore the flight suit she had arrived in - a dark-gray, insulated one-piece that would offer some protection from the extreme conditions that existed beyond the atmosphere - but the four seasons she had spent on the hostile planet had reduced it to mere threads that barely covered her body.
With the hunter continuing to move away and the danger thus growing less for each passing moment, the creature looked around with her purple eyes - that were capable of changing color depending on the brightness of their surroundings - to find her companion.
Only a few moments went by before a second, shorter but beefier, reptilian creature appeared in her field of view. They had moved some distance apart, but it was far too dangerous for them to call out to each other. Instead, the taller of the two creatures slipped back out of sight and into the undergrowth where she could remain hidden from the dangers.
Richard Alderman came to an abrupt halt. He looked over his shoulder like something had tickled his sixth sense, but when the dense forest behind him seemed devoid of the type of creature he was hunting, he relaxed and moved on. Moments later, two loud reports were heard from further into the woods which made him come to another stop.
The shots that had been fired were soon followed by unbridled whoops and cheers from an unseen man - Bart Nelson, who personified the term 'weekend warrior.' The whoops were mixed with cries of "I got that nasty critter! I got Bigfoot! Ohhhh-yeah, I got Bigfoot! Ed Sullivan, here I come!"
Sighing, the far more experienced Alderman knew that all chances of finding the object of their hunt had been blown to smithereens by the racket made by his overly enthusiastic associate. A brief shaking of the head followed as he swung his rifle over his shoulder and trekked over to where the shots had been fired. Their wives knew each other from the hair salon they both frequented, and since he and Bart had discovered they got along well at the bowling alley, they had decided to go on a hunt together - but he had regretted it ever since.
After a brief, noisy and utterly fruitless search, it turned out that Bigfoot - or whatever Bart Nelson had thought he had seen - had made it through the drama unscathed. The two hunters soon packed up and left the dense forests to drown their sorrows in Edgar Clifford's quality draft beer back at the diner.
Once the forest fell quiet again, the two reptilian creatures appeared from their hiding places and met at the clearing. The shorter of the two carried a foot-long rock ax in her claw-like hand. The instrument of death and the grim, determined look upon her face proved that if it had come down to a fight between her and the hunter, only one would have walked away - and it would not have been the human.
"Hvad skal vi dog gøre, Neehka? Der er så mange af dem nu… jeg er så bange for at vi bliver fanget…" the taller of the two creatures said; the stressful undertone to her guttural yet melodical voice was accompanied by much wringing of her scaly hands.
The shorter creature shook her head before she reached up to rub her protruding brow. "Jeg ved det ikke. Jeg ved det simpelthen ikke," she said in a glum tone. While she spoke, she glared at their surroundings like she expected to find an answer to the conundrum among the shrubbery.
"Hvis de gør, så overlever vi ikke!"
"Det er gået op for mig, Estaliah!" Neehka Mertigarne growled while she smacked the side of the blunt rock ax onto her open palm. "Look… I know we'll be in a world of hurt if they ever catch us… and yes, it seems there are far more of them now, but like I've told you two-hundred-and-eighty-nine times already… I just don't know what we should do!"
"If I could conjure up some magic chant that would zap us away from this inhospitable world, believe me, I would! But I can't. I'm a pilot, not a damn mystic."
The conversation between the expert scientist and the Planetary Space Patrol pilot whose star craft had been shot down without warning somewhere over a mysterious, green continent fizzled out after that little crescendo. Estaliah Whuoshann, a renowned Doctor of Astronomy, Planetary Studies and Anthropology on their home planet some two point seven million light years away, let out a deep, drawn-out sigh and moved over to sit on a fallen log. After shuffling around so her stumpy tail would not be pinched or poked by the coarse surface, she observed her companion stomping around.
Captain Neehka Mertigarne had always had far more of a temper than the scientist, and that particular attribute had not left her during the four seasons they had spent in the deep forests - in fact, her mood had grown darker from being a pilot without a ship to control.
Following their daring escape from the numerous humans clad in green uniforms who carried strange-looking pipes from which fire and smoke would escape when activated, they had ended up being hounded through dozens of distance units of the deep, dark forests. Each time they thought they had found a safe spot where they could hunker down in relative peace to await rescue, more humans carrying the feared oblong pipes had appeared.
An embarrassing rumble filled the air. Grimacing, Estaliah pressed a hand against her soft belly to make it stop; Captain Mertigarne offered her a supportive smile. Another rumble proved that the situation regarding food was getting worrisome, if not critical. They had both lost a great deal of weight during their involuntary stay on the hostile planet, and that had affected their stamina. At first, they had been able to move through the forest for days without end to make their escape, but their strength was being eroded by the lack of suitable food.
The regular diet for any member of the Xeloshian species consisted of insects with the occasional smaller mammal thrown in for variation. Although there were plenty of insects around in the woodlands, they were so tiny compared to those found on the home planet of the two creatures they could barely cover their most basic need. Their best day yet had been when they had come across a tall anthill. Once the two reptilians had left, the anthill had been emptied out down to the last critter.
When they had found the terrariums with the trapped spiders and other types of large insects, they had decided to stay close by to preserve their strength. The delicious smorgasbord had only lasted for less than two weeks, but the infusion of solid nourishment had given them a much-needed boost.
Yet another awkward rumble proved that the boost was a thing of the past. Smirking over the embarrassing sounds that were created deep within her, Doctor Whuoshann hopped off the log to do something that would take her mind off the present situation.
Neehka watched her companion walk away; then she made herself comfortable on the soft layer of withered leaves and began to fiddle with her home-made weapon. The foot-long shaft was a thick branch that she had snapped in two with her strong teeth. After it had been stripped of twigs and leaves, she had whittled it down to a symmetrical shape. At first, she had wanted to simply turn it into a short spear, but the idea of creating an ax had come to her when she and the scientist had found a cluster of boulders somewhere further south. Several of them had been cracked, and one of the fragments was already shaped like a blade. Though blunt rather than sharp, she had been sure it would do the job if she could only get it tied to the shaft. After much experimenting - and even more cursing - she had finally succeeded in joining the two components into forming a lethal weapon.
Sighing in frustration, she put the ax down next to her and pulled Doctor Whuoshann's shoulder-bag closer instead. Reaching into it, she pulled out their only link to home, and thus their only hope of a rescue: the box containing the electronic distress beacon that she had been able to fix after it had been damaged in the crash landing. The tiny red light on the front continued to blink on-and-off in a steady rhythm. While it proved the apparatus was still working, it also proved that no Xeloshian ships were close enough for any kind of contact to be established.
She had fiddled with it all through the four seasons they had been stuck there - even going as far as breaking into a rickety shed to steal electronic equipment and a few tools - but she had yet to make the breakthrough. Perhaps it would be beyond her to convert the simple signal transmitter into a proper communication device, but she would never give up trying.
Once the square box containing the distress beacon was safely back in the shoulder-bag, the pilot twisted around to see where her taller companion had gone off to. When she spotted the doctor crouching among the shrubbery not too far from the edge of the woods some one hundred and forty paces from the clearing, she let out a grunt and clambered to her feet. Though they were caught in a desperate struggle for survival, the good doctor had never lost track of the mission's original objective, namely exploring the space anomaly known as the Maelstrom and the subsequent mysterious planet they had arrived at once the anomaly had unwillingly brought them halfway across the galaxy. It had often led her to acting before thinking, and this looked like one of those times.
"Oh, Doc," Neehka mumbled as she grabbed the shoulder-bag and the rock ax and set off to intercept the scientist before she could be seen by the perpetually hostile humans.
"Doc?" Captain Mertigarne whispered when she approached the scientist with careful steps. Since no reply was forthcoming, she tried again: "Doc! Doc, for Phirax' sake, will you get down… or better yet, get back! You're in plain sight!"
"What?" Doctor Whuoshann finally said when she realized she was being spoken to. Looking down at where she was standing, and then once more up at the road, she noted that she was indeed sticking out like a sore claw. "Oh… I'm sorry… I'm really sorry," she continued as she tried to shuffle further into the greenery surrounding her.
"Never mind," Neehka said as she knelt next to the scientist. A quick look at the settlement across the two-lane road proved that no humans were present so the danger had not been critical. She glanced up at the sky; not too much time had passed since dawn as the low position of the local star cast long shadows across the houses and the few transport vessels that were parked there.
Doctor Whuoshann studied the settlement rather than the sky. Her purple eyes slid over to the now-abandoned mansion that had housed the free food. A portal made up of two untreated logs and a horizontal plank at the top towered over the entrance to the small forecourt where the empty cages and terrariums were located. The plank still carried the words Welcome to the legendary Crystal Springs Bug-O-Rama! in the weird, local language that she could make neither heads nor tails of. "Perhaps we were too greedy, Captain. We shouldn't have eaten so much so fast," she said quietly.
"Free snacks are free snacks, Doc. Get 'em while they're there or regret it later," Captain Mertigarne said as her own eyes roamed across a few of the other buildings.
Neehka Mertigarne grunted before she turned to look at her taller companion. "And besides, life in a cage is no life at all."
A ripple of chills ran across the doctor's nubbly skin at the words - if they were ever caught, living in a cage was the best they could hope for. A swift execution and subsequent dissection was more likely, however, given the constant display of aggression they had seen among most of the humans they had encountered from the point of entering the planet's atmosphere. To get away from the gloomy thoughts, she turned back to observing the houses across the road.
Several noisy vessels drove past on the two-lane blacktop not thirty feet from their hiding place. Some were large and open at the back like the vessels used to transport the men clad in green; some were small and boxy like the car they had commandeered in their getaway from the first town they had visited four seasons before, Yardley Woods. Now and then, two-wheeled vessels whizzed past sounding like flatulating paqhs.
As they were watching, one of the smaller, boxy vehicles drove into the open forecourt of a location that Doctor Whuoshann presumed was a 'gas station' - Carro-lle, their involuntary hostess from Yardley Woods, had explained that the vehicles were powered by a gaseous substance that needed to be replenished at frequent intervals.
The driver of the vessel - that was red with a white roof seemingly made of some kind of fabric - activated an audio signal that made another human come out of the building adjacent to the forecourt. After a brief talk, the second person, who wore a cap with a turned-up shade and a gray coverall not unlike the flight suits worn by the Xeloshians, took a flexible hose off a rectangular apparatus that appeared to be made of metal with a glassy upper part.
While the servant attached the hose to the rear of the vessel, the soft roof retracted and revealed that the driver was a youngish female of the human species. During the wait, she moved a small, silvery tool across her mouth before she unfolded a colorful piece of cloth that she proceeded to wrap around her hair.
Estaliah and Neehka looked at each other with the same idea forming in their minds - the previous year, they had been successful in evading their original green-clad pursuers by leaving the area in one of the human transports. Chances were it would be successful a second time if they timed it right.
"If only we had another of the brainwave distorters, we'd be in a much better place… literally," Captain Mertigarne mumbled. She squinted as she observed the scene unfold across the road. It did not take long for the person clad in the gray coverall to remove the hose, put it back on the rectangular apparatus and move up to where the driver sat. Once a small transaction had been made, the female drove off in her open vessel. She applied the audio signal for a second time and waved out of the open cockpit at the man she left behind.
With the excitement over for the time being, Doctor Whuoshann let out the breath she had been holding. "Can't you build one? Perhaps with the equipment you took from the-"
"No. No chance…" the captain said as she shook her head. A final look across the road proved that everything was quiet, so she moved out of the kneeling position and slipped further into the shrubbery. "The distorters may be mass-produced, but they contain highly advanced electronics. There's no way I can engineer it out of nothing here. Or even back home for that matter."
Furrowing her scaly brow, Doctor Whuoshann ran a hand across her prominent jaw. Hunger gnawed in her gut which made it difficult for her to reach any conclusions about anything. Instead, she kept observing the settlement. The building next to the so-called gas station appeared to be an eatery of some sort. It had a row of large windows that revealed that lights were on inside, and also that a human female seemed to be moving along in a strange, hunched-over stance while pushing a pipe-like tool.
A few silvery items had been put up on a protruding part of the eatery. One of them shared an uncanny resemblance to the star craft they had arrived in, and the other appeared to be a member of the Talrinian species - a very, very dead Talrinian considering the way a noose was tied around its neck. Doctor Whuoshann bared her teeth in an ugly grimace at the typical display of human cruelty until she realized the supposedly deceased fellow visitor was merely an inflatable puppet.
Looking further on, the doctor discovered a few of the strange symbols she and the captain had seen in Yardley Woods the year before. One was a silhouette of a long-nosed humanoid straddling a broom, and the other appeared to be a small mammal of some kind that wore a cylindrical hat. "Frickabeet…" she whispered to herself. A faint smile graced her lips when she thought back to the more amusing events they had experienced, but it faded when it dawned on her that she could not remember what the proper term was - 'Frickabeet' had been a misinterpretation on her part.
The low, rectangular building on the other side of the gas station was drawn a good thirty paces back from the road. Another vessel was parked in front of it: it had an open section at the rear and a closed compartment up front, but it only had four wheels rather than the six that were typical on the similar, though larger vessels that lumbered past on the road. Those vessels always trailed a cloud of foul-smelling black smoke, but since the smaller one was inactive at present, the doctor could not tell if it would also emit smoke when working. It had been parked not too far from a tall sign that was illuminated in the evenings and at night but that had been turned off now the local star was visible in the sky.
"Maybe if we tried a vessel that's unused?" she said quietly, pointing at the one she had been observing. "Do you think you could pilot it?"
Captain Mertigarne turned back around; her purple eyes followed her companion's outstretched claw-like hand. "I might," she said after a short time to recall what she had seen in the so-called Ford they had been in the year before. "Turn a key to power up the propulsion system… select forward or reverse drive through manipulating a lever… set and maintain the heading by turning a large wheel… use a pedal to add thrust and another pedal to reduce it… I probably could, yes."
"So… should we try?"
The shorter of the two Xeloshians shot the other such an annoyed glare her eyes turned deep-purple. "Not in broad daylight, we're not!"
"Well, obviously," Estaliah said with a rare squint at the captain. "I meant tonight… under the cover of darkness."
The question hung in the air between them. Before Neehka had time to evaluate the various parameters and process her thoughts enough to come up with an answer, reality raced past and turned it into a lost opportunity.
Several things suddenly happened at once: a tiny human on a red, three-wheeled contraption rolled out of the eatery and drove onto the forecourt. The human - who wore a dark-blue flight suit and the strangest-looking headgear either of the Xeloshians had ever seen - pumped his short legs hard to operate the pedals that drove the miniature vessel ahead. It responded by letting out a rhythmic squeak-squeak-squeaking as it rattled over the coarse surface.
While that was going on, two full-sized humans exited the low, rectangular building and headed for the inactive transport. They were talking among themselves and had no eye for the tiny explorer. One threw a pair of oblong bags up in the vessel's open rear while the other got behind the steering wheel.
"That's the human from before! The hunter who so nearly saw me…" Doctor Whuoshann whispered, grabbing hold of the captain's arm without taking her purple eyes off the scene. "And the other is probably his associate. The one who made all that noise with his fire pipe!"
The human on the three-wheeled contraption came closer, closer and closer still to the rumbling vessel. "And… and… and… oh, no! They haven't seen that tiny Earthling! Their transport will squash him!" the doctor continued.
"Tough," Captain Mertigarne said in a voice that fitted the harsh statement.
"But- no, we have to-" Estaliah Whuoshann said and began to move away from their hiding place.
"Have you lost your mind?!" the captain cried. Reaching out in an almighty hurry, she wrapped her strong, scaly hands around Estaliah's midsection and pulled her back down at once. "Stay out of sight, you fool! You know what'll happen if those humans see us… they have the fire pipes, for Phirax' sake!"
Estaliah tried to wiggle free of the captain's strong grip, but no matter how hard she tried, the grip around her waist just turned firmer. "Let me go! We can't just sit here and- and- watch it happen!"
Across the road, the adult human who manned the wheel of their transport reversed away from the spot it had occupied up against the low building. As one of the large rear wheels bore down on the tiny, flight suit-clad human on the three-wheeled contraption, the explorer in question let out such an ear-shattering wail that the large transport came to a screeching halt.
"Ohhhhh…!" Doctor Whuoshann said, framing her face with her claws so she could cover her purple eyes in a hurry in case the drama would have a bad ending.
As the tiny human continued to wail at the top of his lungs, the two hunters jumped from their vehicle to check up on him. At the same time, a female of the species raced out of the eatery with two further humans in tow: a tall male and the servant from the gas station who had pulled off the upper section of his gray coverall and had tied it around his waist. It revealed a white, long-sleeved piece of clothing that had dark spots by the armpits and along the upper hem.
"Nothing happened, Doc," the captain said - she had never relaxed the grip she had around the doctor, "so let's get back to safety. They got themselves into this mess… let 'em deal with it. There's nothing we can do now."
"Now, Doc. Before they see us."
Doctor Whuoshann shot the relentless captain a dark glare that rivaled any that had ever gone the other way. "I'm staying! How many times do I have to tell you that we're here on a mission of exploration! We're here to observe, so observe I will!"
The captain shook her scaly head several times like she was trying really, really hard to comprehend the doctor's motivations. She eventually let go of her companion with a growled: "Fine! I hope you'll tell the people dissecting you that you'd like to watch!"
Letting out an annoyed huff, the temperamental Neehka Mertigarne got up and stomped off into the woods where she would be out of sight of the humans.
Estaliah mirrored the huff by letting out one of her own. Settling down deep into the shrubbery, she turned back to carry on her anthropological studies of the humans and their customs, behavior and interaction.
Across the road, the young female bent down and scooped up the tiny explorer in her arms. The strange-looking headwear - a flat cap with what appeared to be a propeller on top - fell off and landed on the ground. One of the tall males who had followed the female there picked it up, dusted it off on his pantleg and placed it back on the tiny human's head.
Doctor Whuoshann strained her hearing to eavesdrop on the exchange between the humans. Although the language was as alien to her as ever, the situation as presented offered a context and thus a good starting point for translating the emotions of the participants.
"Mr. Alderman, Mr. Nelson. May I suggest you pay more attention to what you're doing! Especially when you're driving," the tall male said; he seemed to be a figure of authority as the two hunters stood up straight when spoken to.
"Yes, Mr. Clifford," the younger males said in unison.
The sixty-two-year-old Edgar Clifford focused his attention on the young female who continued to cradle the tiny, crying explorer in her arms. After giving them both another brief check, he faced the hunters once more. "Young Will here likes to drive around on his tricycle… you ought to know that by now. You've seen him often enough."
"Yes, Mr. Clifford," the younger males said once more; both nodded at the older male's words that had been delivered with a certain amount of sternness.
Estaliah Whuoshann's purple eyes darted toward the left when several more humans joined the scene in progress. A female and a male arrived from another of the low buildings, and an elderly, bearded male came out of a building that carried a cross on the front. The latter human was dressed in dark clothing and swept a protective robe or cape of some kind across his shoulders as he walked onto the forecourt. "What's happened here?" he said in a rich voice as he eyed the tiny explorer - Will - who was still crying in his mother's arms.
Even the tall male who had been referred to as Mr. Clifford changed his stance when he and the others were joined by the elderly, bearded male. "Oh, we just had a little near-miss, Father Gordon, but all's well that ends well," Edgar Clifford said as he put a hand on Will's head. The boy's short hair was tousled a little which seemed to calm him down.
The Reverend Gordon Fairbanks looked at the vessel, then at the position of the three-wheeled contraption that the tiny explorer had been sitting on. Then he turned to the two hunters. "We do not want any accidents here in Crystal Springs," he said in a tone of voice that was so stern the hunters could only utter a mumbled "Yes, Father" as their reply.
"We certainly do not," Edgar Clifford said. "I just explained to Mr. Alderman and Mr. Nelson that they need to pay better attention in the future. Isn't that so, gentlemen?"
"Yes, Mr. Clifford," the two hunters said in unison.
"Good," Edgar said before his features softened as he returned to the boy whose cheeks were wet with tears. "Will… I think I may have a piece of chocolate for you in the diner. Miss Hayworth, would a treat be all right at this early time of the day?"
The young female nodded and began to shuffle back toward the eatery with her son cradled in her arms; the tense situation ended after that, and the various humans withdrew to the places they had come from. The two hunters boarded their transport and took off headed north on the two-lane road.
On the opposite side of the same road, Doctor Whuoshann slid around the tree trunk she had been using as an observation post. "Fascinating… highly fascinating… I'm the first Xeloshian ever to witness such a drama. And such a large variation in clothing, age and standing within the tribe… and the size of those beings! Magnificent. Ohhh, I so dearly hope we can get back home so I can update our databases with all we've learned!" she mumbled to herself as she began to move deeper into the forest following in the captain's tracks.
The end of another dreary day on planet Earth was soon upon the two creatures far away from home. As darkness fell, their hunger grew stronger. They had already entered their night shelter to protect themselves from the chilly, damp conditions that permeated the forest during the autumn season, but their reptilian bodies were just not accustomed to the cold that insisted on creeping closer to them from all sides at once, especially not with their bellies devoid of food that could have created some digestive heat within them.
Their night shelter consisted of two blankets that had simply been left behind by a careless human. They had found the two useful items at the bottom of a shallow ravine one and a half distance units or so beyond their original starting point, and each and every night since then, Captain Mertigarne had rigged up the shelter by tying the blankets around a suitable log. It would create a modicum of protection from the ever-present chill, but it was never quite enough.
To preserve their body heat, the two Xeloshians would spend the nights balled up in close company to each other, but neither enjoyed the experience - especially not during the nights where the gnawing hunger in their gut meant they could barely get a wink's worth of sleep.
On this particular evening, Captain Mertigarne was in such a foul mood from the lack of food within her that her body was thrumming with pent-up frustration. That she could only find sleeping spots that resembled freshly excavated quarries only worsened the situation - and her mental state.
And then an owl started hooting in one of the nearby trees.
After the tenth hoot, Neehka Mertigarne grabbed her rock ax and clenched it so tightly that her scaly claws almost snapped the wooden shaft in two. A growl escaped her throat, but it failed to impress the owl that continued to let out its customary calling.
"Doc, do ya think we can eat whatever that flying thing is? Because I suddenly have a hankering for biting its stinking head off!" the captain said in a guttural voice that had a trembling undertone.
Sighing deeply, Estaliah Whuoshann rolled out of her favorite sleeping position - not to mention away from the hopping mad captain - and onto her back. Because of her stumpy tail and the rigid scales that ran down her spine, it was a position she could not stay in for any length of time, so she sat up and rubbed her purple eyes instead. "It's been there every night while we've been here, Neehka. Why all this-"
"Because I don't want to listen to that minion of Phirax any longer!" the captain barked. Thumping her fist into the layer of withered leaves on the ground, she sat up and stared out into the pitch-black darkness. Although her eyes turned nearly pink to compensate for the poor levels of natural light, she was unable to make out which tree the flying critter had taken up residence in. "And I'm so damn hungry I could chew the ass straight off a dead phaloquan!"
"Ew," Estaliah said and bared her teeth in a grimace.
"Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but don't tell me you're not hungry. I can hear your gut rumbling… Phirax, I can feel your gut rumbling!"
Estaliah nodded as she patted her soft belly. "I confess to being hungry, yes. Very much so." Her gut chose that exact moment to make everyone present aware of its emptiness by rumbling just like Captain Mertigarne had said. She patted her soft, empty belly again and let out a dark chuckle. "I have a feeling there won't be too much sleeping going on tonight, so… do you suppose we could… oh… perhaps sneak up to the settlement and see if we missed any food the last time we were there?"
Neehka drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. Although she shook her head at first, she appeared to be considering the suggestion very hard. "I don't like it, but…" she said, running a hand across her scaly brow. Another few moments went by in silence before she nodded. "All right. Let's risk it. If we can't find anything, we can just come back here and-"
"Carry on bickering all night," Doctor Whuoshann interjected in a mumble that made the captain break out in a tired chuckle.
A short while later, Neehka crouched down at the side of the two-lane road. She carried the bag containing the modified distress beacon over her shoulder since it was far too important to leave unattended. A pair of moving lights approached from the south, so she kept a firm grip on the doctor's arm to prevent her from sprinting ahead too soon. As the human transport vessel had gone past in a roar, the night fell quiet once more save for odd, rhythmic tones that came from the gas station a short distance to their right.
"Let's go, Doc," Neehka whispered, changing her grip into a strong push. Soon, the two Xeloshians hurried across the dark road and onto the open, gravelly courtyard adjacent to the old mansion. They were not about to tempt fate by stopping before they reached their target, the Bug-O-Rama itself, so they kept up the pace until they arrived at the wooden portal and the terrariums.
While the captain crouched down behind one of the untreated logs by the portal to keep an experienced eye on things, Doctor Whuoshann ran from one terrarium to the next in the hope that a juicy beetle, bug or spider had appeared in the cages. Although nearly all of the gravelly courtyard fell into the deep shadows created by the two-storey mansion next to it, her pale-purple eyes were able to penetrate the darkness with ease - not that there was anything to see: the cages all proved to be as empty as the stomachs of the two Xeloshians, and Estaliah's spirit dropped another notch for each time her search yielded nothing but dashed hopes.
Reaching the last terrarium, she stood up straight and let out a long sigh. Looking around, she noticed that lights were on in the eatery as well as the gas station. One of the large windows of the eatery revealed that a human was sitting at the counter eating something. The thought of food made her stomach growl even louder and more insistent than before, and she needed to press her scaly hands against her soft belly to make it stop - not that it took her mind off the mounting problem.
"Doc! Did you find anything?" the captain whispered strongly from her position at the untreated logs.
"Nothing!" Estaliah whispered back.
Although the captain's reply was a mere grumble, it was a lengthy one and thus proved easy to figure out. Doctor Whuoshann grimaced in frustration as she ran over to the main building that had once housed the Bug-O-Rama's impressive indoor exhibition. When the original owner had abandoned it, the front door had never been locked and the two Xeloshians had taken full advantage of that fact a couple of times during the weeks they had spent near the small settlement.
After peeking in to make sure that it was still devoid of humans, Estaliah Whuoshann moved back and waved the captain over to her. Once they were together at the front door, they moved into a connecting hallway and closed the wooden frame quietly behind them.
"All right… that wasn't too bad. Now that we're here," Captain Mertigarne said close to her companion's ear so their guttural voices would not carry too far in the quiet night, "I'll go upstairs and try to work on the distress beacon. Please look through all the corners and drawers for… well, anything edible. Yeah?"
"I will, Captain. Our luck's bound to change at some point."
The two Xeloshians shared a brief look that said neither of them really believed in that statement any longer. "Mmmm!" the captain uttered before she hurried through the hallway to reach - and climb - an internal grand staircase.
Both floors of the old Bug-O-Rama mansion were still fully furnished after Martha van Buren's untimely admission to the sanatorium. A high-quality Persian rug held in several shades of crimson had been laid out in the central hallway beyond the front door; a layer of dust had settled on it, but its original splendor was still visible. A faint whiff of the perfume used by the lady of the mansion remained as a ghostly echo of the past, but the staleness of the air and the ever-increasing dust had almost conquered it.
Charcoal drawings, oil and watercolor paintings and wooden frames containing pressed flowers and leaves adorned the walls at regular intervals alongside several old-fashioned kerosene lamps. The glass bulbs were merely for show: electricity had been installed at the turn of the century, and the impressive chandelier in the ceiling had taken care of illuminating the hallway when the power had been on.
The hallway was connected to the stately room on the left, a smaller den-like sitting room on the right, a kitchen area ahead when viewed from the entrance, and the grand staircase just used by Captain Mertigarne. Wooden doors - where the upper sections had panes of frosted glass for reasons that had been lost somewhere during the relentless passing of time - formed the passageways between the rooms. Mrs. van Buren's large collection of critters had been in the stately room before the two Xeloshians had feasted on it.
Estaliah Whuoshann knew her way around, so she went into the stately room like it was her own. She closed the door behind her and moved over to the nearest of the drawers to see if she would be lucky for a change.
The stately room was less stately than it had been when the Bug-O-Rama had been open for the public. The floor had always been bare, lacquered planks rather than being concealed by a rug, but since the Xeloshians - with their wide hips and stumpy tails - could only use the chairs and other seats designed for the humans with great discomfort, they had shoved all the sitting furniture into the center of the floor to have better access to the important matters, namely the free food in the drawers.
Seven tall book cases had been placed around the room; each book case had been converted to a chest of drawers that each carried ten or so frames that could be rolled out on narrow metal rails. Most of the drawers had been pulled out by either Estaliah or Neehka on their last raid, so it did not take long to establish that no food was to be found anywhere.
The wooden floorboards creaked and groaned from their recent disuse as Estaliah moved across them on her futile hunt for anything edible. Though it was dark in there, her light-sensitive eyes enabled her to give everything a thorough once-over. She looked in the corners of the windowsills, by the dormant fireplace, under the tables, behind the converted book cases and even up at the many arms of the chandelier, but all she got out of it was a crimp in her wide neck.
Shaking her head in disappointment, she moved back to the center of the stately room and put her scaly hands on her hips. Her gut chose that moment to add its two cents' worth by growling loudly - the old mansion seemed to respond to the misery by letting out a creaking sigh of sympathy.
Since it would be a waste of time to do another tour of the stately room, she grunted and walked back to the inner door with the frosted pane, across the connecting hallway and into the den. The smaller sitting room saw five further book cases and thus fifty further drawers, but they were as empty as those in the larger room. All that was left in the den that had any resemblance to insectoid food were the contents of a collection of glass jars and jugs on the windowsills.
Each container held one or more insects of a particular type. Some were crawlers, some had wings; some were large, some were small - and they all had two things in common: not only were they all dead as doorknobs, they had all been submerged into murky yellowish-brown liquid that had the most peculiar smell.
Estaliah Whuoshann bared her sharp teeth in an ugly grimace when she thought back to the one and only time she had attempted to eat one of the creatures stored in the jars; she grimaced even harder when her stomach performed a flip-flop at the mere echo of the incident. It had been a large bug resembling the wonderfully crunchy zenzo beetles - everyone's favorite in-flight snack - from her home planet. To get to it, she first needed to get past the murky liquid.
Despite the fact that the smell tore at her nostrils when she had opened the jar, she had carried on thinking that it was some kind of local herbal seasoning sauce that was supposed to smell that way. She had taken a few gulps of it to be able to get a claw down to the good stuff at the bottom of the jar, but less than ten short time units later, she had needed to rush outside and vomit her guts out in a most vile, volcanic fashion. She could not read the strange human letters written on the jars, but she would never forget the term Lethal! Formaldehyde!
A hard, drawn-out Xeloshian curse that echoed down the staircase from one of the rooms on the upper floor made Estaliah go back into the hallway. When her ears were assaulted by another, even cruder curse, she shuffled up the grand staircase to see what was going on.
The landing and the connecting hallway atop the staircase carried a carpet somewhat similar to the genuine Persian rug downstairs, but it was less magnificent on the whole. There were no kerosene lamps or artwork on the walls - instead, a light bulb protected by an old-fashioned lamp shade featuring an entire row of tassels was hanging down from the inner ceiling. At the far end of the hallway, a wooden staircase made of more basic materials than the grand one went further up to the attic.
Four dark-brown doors led off from the landing; unlike the elegant frosted panes found on the ground floor, these doors were all wood and held in simpler designs. One of them was ajar, so Estaliah shuffled over there.
Captain Mertigarne stood by a desk with her hands firmly ensconced on her hips like she was counting to fifty - or more - on the inside. A heap of electronic parts and the tools needed to carry out the intended task had been spread out on the desk top in front of her, but it did not look like she had been successful in accomplishing anything.
Another old-fashioned, tasseled lamp shade hung down from the ceiling of the former bedroom, but with no power present, it was as dead as the insects in the glass jars and jugs downstairs. The room had bare floorboards save for a small section of carpeting; a quartet of scuff marks on the floor showed where the bed had stood. A rectangular two-pane window above the desk took care of the light, but since the Earth's pale-gray near-space satellite had yet to appear in the night-time sky, deep shadows were the order of the day.
"Problems?" Estaliah said as she moved into the moderately-sized bedroom.
"Oh no, Doc! Everything's exactly as I want it! Crisp, cool and refreshing! Purr-fect… it's constantly hitting the sweet spot. I think we're on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough here!" Captain Mertigarne said in a sing-song voice that took Estaliah by surprise and made her come to a halt.
A few moments went by before the captain continued: "Or maybe I'm just on the verge of breaking through this… this… this damned desk!" she said in her regular guttural tones that had gained an even growlier undertone than usual.
Estaliah smirked hard but made sure that it was hidden from the temperamental pilot - with tempers flaring already, it would not take much to cause a proper explosion. "Ah… all right. I see. I think. What's the snag?" she said as she moved over to the desk to look at the multitude of colorful wires, advanced circuitry, tiny lights and a hundred other electronic items that had been spread out.
Captain Mertigarne sighed and reached up to rub her scaly brow. "I've been trying to modify that damn distress beacon into becoming a two-way communication-link for Phirax knows how long now. I've already tweaked, joined and rewired some of the internals to make it act as a proper transceiver, and I've rigged up a makeshift microphone and speaker system with the parts we took from the humans' comms-tower. I know my electronic skills are very basic compared to those of the experts, but… my modifications ought to work from what I can tell. Only they don't. At all."
As she spoke, she let her claw-like fingers tap and touch the open box containing the distress beacon; then she moved her hand over several of the parts and tools on the desk. Some of it she had brought with her from the toolkit of the crashed star craft, and some she had stolen from the small shed next to the tall antenna - however to mate such vastly different technologies had proven a far greater challenge than she had predicted.
"Well… maybe… no," the doctor said while she rubbed her prominent jaw.
"No, I don't want to sound too negative, but…"
"What?!" Neehka said, spinning around to face her taller companion. "Right now, anything might help… so just spit it out, Doc!"
"Well, I was just thinking," Estaliah said, performing a wide shrug that was made all the more impressive and effective by her broad, scaly shoulders, "perhaps its range is too limited?"
The captain nodded as she turned back to the equipment that was as stubborn as she was. "Yeah… I've already thought of that… but we'd need a Xeloshian power source to amp it up further. We're not going to find one of those under a fallen tree, are we?"
"No, I don't suppose we are."
Silence fell between them for a few moments; then Doctor Whuoshann broke it with a quiet: "Or maybe the Maelstrom doesn't relay the signals like we hoped it would… maybe the transmissions just aren't going through… or even the distress beacon…"
The silence returned and soon turned into tangible gloominess. Several deep sighs followed as the captain glanced at the confusing mess of tools and parts she had to deal with. "If that's the case, we'll die here. And soon if we don't find any food. Were you able to find anyth-"
"I couldn't even find him!" Estaliah said and broke out in a hoarse snicker created by the hunger that gnawed at her gut - and the desperation that slowly began to weigh down on their shoulders.
The faintest flicker of a smile spread over the captain's lips; it soon faded. Moving away from the desk and her creation that she had assembled from a heap of inhomogeneous parts, she inched past Estaliah and walked over to the door. "I need some air, Doc. Please don't touch anything until I get back… on second thoughts, perhaps you could try throwing the damn thing onto the floor a couple of times. It might get the data streams sorted."
"Oh, I better not," Estaliah said as she glanced at the confusing mess of print circuits, cross-attached wires, blinking lights, swirling doodads, messy beebobs and assorted other highly advanced thingamajigs inside the distress beacon's open box.
With the captain having gone downstairs for her much-needed, and well-deserved, break, Doctor Whuoshann resumed her search for anything edible. The corners of the former bedroom that held all the electronic equipment offered little apart from dust, dust and more dust, so she ventured out onto the landing intending to inspect the three other rooms on the upper floor.
The hinges on the door to the first room she arrived at resisted every attempt of being opened so she could peek inside. Rusty and tight from years of disuse - Martha van Buren had only ever used it as a storage room - they withstood all methods of persuasion until they were exposed to a hard shove from the doctor's broad shoulders. As the door finally creaked open, a similar squawking noise seemed to come from another spot on the upper floor, but Estaliah was too busy looking into the dark room to pay any attention to it.
Although there was a promising, large-scale cobweb in the far corner of the room, the amount of ancient clutter she would need to scale to get to it made it too much hassle for too little potential bonus. Grunting, she closed the door she had worked so hard on and took a step back while she pondered what to do. Then her stomach sent out a rumble which made her move onto the next room.
There was even more clutter in the room that formed the second stop of her mission of exploring the mansion's upper floor. In addition to the obvious hazards, the window at the far end had been obscured by a huge pile of boxes which left the room in complete darkness. Even considering how well her eyes could negate such conditions, the risk of breaking a limb - or her neck - was too great, so she backed out of that one as well.
The final stop on her brief exploratory quest proved to have a greater potential. Not only was the amount of clutter limited which left all the corners free, the rectangular window let in a fair amount of natural light which, aided by her purple eyes that had already lit up at the prospects, offered her a good opportunity to investigate everything thoroughly.
Just as she stepped over the threshold, another odd squeaking-squawking-scratching noise reached her ears. Moving out of the room, she looked down the staircase expecting to see her fellow Xeloshian back from her break. "Captain? Neehka? Did you say something?" she said, but no reply was forthcoming. When nothing further happened, she performed a shrug and moved fully into the final storage room.
Her patience and perseverance were finally rewarded when she noticed something scurrying across the dusty floorboards in the near corner. Zipping over there in a flash, she leaned down and stretched out her claw-like fingers to be ready for anything. Her purple, unblinking eyes were out on stalks as she kept the floor under strict observation.
As a half-inch-long bug akin to a kwalsanwa rock-dweller suddenly appeared not ten short distance units from her claws, she thrust out her right arm and scored a direct hit on the bug's thick armor. Though rigid, the crawler's back was no match for the strength of her claw, and she ran it through in a single stroke. "Food!" she said with a grin as she moved the wiggling treat up to her mouth. The beetle was black with dashes of red on the armor, but the color mattered little to Estaliah Whuoshann - opening her mouth, she sucked the bug off her claw and began to crunch on it with great relish.
Yet another squeak was heard elsewhere on the upper floor, but now that the hunt was truly on, the doctor had no time for anything else. Her first beetle in a fair while had been great but not enough to fill her need, so she moved down flat onto the dusty floorboards to be closer to the action in case any other beetles would rear their round heads.
A short while went by with no activity whatsoever before a second kwalsanwa-like bug stuck its head out to see what had happened to its buddy. Estaliah let out a victorious "Ha!" as she prepared to make the killing blow.
Just as she thrust out her claw-like finger to stab the little critter, a squeak loud enough to wake the dead was heard from the room with all the electronic equipment. Not only did it mean her claw missed the target completely, she jerked into the air from the fright. The bug was only too happy for the reprieve and zipped back under the baseboard.
"What in the name of Phirax the Unholy was that?" Estaliah croaked as she leaned back on her muscular thighs and began to dust off her soft belly. She came to a freezing halt right in the middle of a sweep when her mind finally connected the dots. "The distress beac- the comm- the communication- Ohhhh!" she cried as she jumped to her feet, flew out of the storage room, onto the landing and finally into the former bedroom that held all the electronic equipment.
The little red light on the box containing the distress beacon had changed its pattern. It was no longer flashing on-and-off in a steady rhythm; instead, it had turned into a solid light indicating that a connection had been established.
"Ohhhhh!" Estaliah groaned as she threw her arms in the air - then she ran over to the door to shout down the grand staircase: "Captain? Captain?! Where are you? Get up here! We got- there's… there's-"
She never made it any further before another squeaking-squawking-whining-howling-whistling noise was heard from the communication device that the captain had made of equal measures scrap parts and elbow grease. This time, it was followed by a broken voice speaking in Xeloshian:
'PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three, repeat, PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. This is GSF ident code Rescue niner-Q-four-S-two-two. Respond if you can. PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three, PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. This is GSF ident code Rescue niner-Q-four-S-two-two. Are you on this frequency?'
"Yes we are, dammit!" Doctor Whuoshann roared at the little black box. Although she gave it a good shot, her voice was not quite strong enough to travel through the airwaves and up into space on its own - she had yet to key the makeshift microphone, and in fact had no idea where to look for it.
'PSP ident-' - static - 'Six-W-five-L-' - static, static - 'repeat, PSP ident code six-W-' - static - 'This is-' - static, static - 'code-' - static - '-cue niner-Q-four-S-two-two. Respond-' - static, static - '-can.' As the second transmission of the message only grew more broken and garbled as it went along, all Estaliah could do was to smack her scaly hands over her purple eyes and let out a long groan.
"Where did Neehka put the damn microph- where… where is it?!" she croaked, staring everywhere but at the correct spot on the open box. For several long moments, she could find nothing that even remotely resembled anything useful until her frantic eyes fell on a toggle-switch that she realized was out of place. Toggling it, she leaned down toward the box. "We're here! Hello? Hello, we're here! Can you hear me? I am speaking to you!"
Nothing happened at first apart from howls of static and a few broken words, but then the same message concerning the PSP and GSF ident codes was replayed after a delay of a few short time units.
"Oh, for Phirax' sake!" Estaliah cried while she threw her hands into the air all over again.
"Doc! Will you keep your voice down!" Captain Mertigarne suddenly said from the doorway. Leaning against the doorjamb, the pilot panted like she had sprinted up the grand staircase. To underline the fact that she had indeed raced up there, she used the back of a hand to wipe several beads of dampness off her heavy brow. "I heard you clear across the- the red light is solid! We've established contact!" she suddenly roared, bursting into the room and over to the distress beacon.
"That's what I was yelling abou- Ooof!" Estaliah said, just barely managing to get out of the way before she was bowled over by the Xeloshian express courier who flew over to the desk.
Endless reams of static filled the former bedroom as Neehka Mertigarne adjusted a few knobs, pressed a few buttons and toggled a few switches on her makeshift communication device. When nothing further happened, she leaned down toward it and flipped the same toggle that Doctor Whuoshann had used only moments earlier. "Ah, this is… uh… dammit, we're only receiving static now. Doc, did they say anything?"
"Yes! Yes, they were trying to hail, uh… uh… PSP ident code six-W-five… something-something-something," Estaliah said as she moved over to the table to once more look at the pile of random parts that had magically come alive. "Their own call sign was… something odd. GTP Rescue niner-Q-four… something. Yes, it was definitely GTP Rescue niner-Q-four-something."
A few short time units went by before the doctor broke out in a shrug. "Actually, now that we're on that subject… I have no clue whatsoever what a PSP or a GTP ident code is…"
"Not GTP… GSF, Doc," Neehka said without breaking eye-contact with her home-made two-way communication system.
Several more short time units went by before the captain continued: "They're the respective acronyms for the Planetary Space Patrol and the Galactic Space Force." When all she got from the doctor was a puzzled grunt, she looked up and shot her a brief glance. "You know, the Xeloshian navy?"
"Oh… I see," Estaliah said in a tone that offered a hint that she did not actually see anything at all. "Well, I've never had anything to do with the navy or the military in general, so…"
"Anyway," Neehka said as she turned back to the box. She gave it a hard stare in the hope she could convince it to play along, but more static was all she got out of her efforts. "They were most likely using our original flight identification code. All flights out of Xelosh are given one. Shoot, what was it? Hmmm. Can't remember."
"I wasn't aware of that… that's quite clever. I've been part of countless near-space probes as well as a few deep-space ones, but I've always minded my own science console during the missions so I don't have any… experience… with- oh, that doesn't matter now," Estaliah said, stopping herself when she realized she was rambling out of an acute nervousness that blasted through her system.
Just when the moment seemed lost, the communication device burst back to life with a crystal clear transmission: 'PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. This is GSF ident code Rescue niner-Q-four-S-two-two. Respond if you can. PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three, PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. This is GSF ident code Rescue niner-Q-four-S-two-two. Are you on this frequency?'
This time, Captain Mertigarne was ready for it, and she threw the correct toggle at once. "GSF ident code Rescue niner-Q-four-S-two-two, GSF ident code Rescue niner-Q-four-S-two-two… this is PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. We read you loud and clear. This is Flight Captain Neehka Mertigarne. With me is Senior Science Officer Doctor Estaliah Whuoshann. Come back."
'This is GSF ident code Rescue niner-Q-four-S-two-two, we read you at five bars, Captain Mertigarne. Please report the status of your craft and the rest of your crew.'
Neehka's voice grew more somber as she replied to the request: "The craft was destroyed not long after our point of entry into the planet's atmosphere. There were no further survivors."
'Acknowledged, Captain. Handing over to Flight Commander Weldrinn. Stand by.'
"Standing by," Neehka said, easing off the pressure on the toggle so it would not break off and leave them in even worse trouble. She turned to the doctor whose face had also assumed a somber look - it was evident they were both thinking about their shipmates who had lost their lives in the crash.
'Captain Mertigarne, this is Flight Commander Leehkor Weldrinn. Please accept my sincere condolences with regards to your crew,' a different male Xeloshian voice said from the device.
Sighing, Neehka focused her attention on it so she could react swiftly in case the connection would break up again. "Thank you, Commander. I have an urgent warning for your flight that concerns a critical danger. If you or any other craft in your flight detect a vapor-trail approaching at high speed, you must engage level seven propulsion and perform evasive maneuvers at once. The vapor is the exhaust of a remotely fired, autonomous weapon that has the capability to fully destroy an S-class vessel."
'Surely not, Captain? Our databases say-'
"They're hopelessly out of date, Commander. Disregard all information they give you. This planet is inhabited by a highly aggressive species who prefers to kill before asking questions. It was only by pure chance that Doctor Whuoshann and I were able to escape with our lives following our crash."
'Acknowledged, Captain Mertigarne. Thank you.'
"You're welcome. Where are you, and how long will it take you to perform an extraction? We're in dire straits here."
'We're having some difficulties triangulating the correct vector approach to your homing beacon, Captain. According to the NAVICOM, we're at present flying on an easterly course somewhere over a dark-green continent.'
Neehka and Estaliah looked at each other - they both let out similar grunts at the same time. "All continents we saw were dark-green, Commander," she said into the microphone. "At the point of being shot out of the sky, we had traveled north along a jagged coastline for some time. I cannot recall every detail, but I believe it was a continent toward the magnetic north. We were able to see the northern ice cap in the far distance."
"Standing by, Commander," Neehka Mertigarne said before she released the toggle.
A tense silence filled the smallish room. The prospect of an imminent rescue from the hostile world they had become marooned on was so real it was almost tangible; the two Xeloshians responded by growing increasingly worried that something unexpected - like human interference - would crop up and wreak havoc on their plans at the worst moment.
Now and then, a few scattered bursts of static, howls and whistles broke through the connection, but the captain adjusted a few knobs to restore the reception to the clarity it had been at earlier.
'Captain Mertigarne,' the commander of the rescue mission said a short while later, 'it appears we're even further apart than initially calculated. We're headed east over a southern continent with a clear view of two vast oceans ahead and the planet's southern ice cap to our right.'
"Dammit," Neehka growled without keying the toggle-switch; after grinding her large jaw several times, she leaned down toward the microphone. "I'm afraid that's nowhere near our present location, Commander," she said as a concerned expression spread across her reptilian features. Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed that Doctor Whuoshann looked even more anxious than before.
A lengthy pause followed like the commander was busy giving new orders to his crew. 'Very well, Captain. This rescue flight consists of one M-class cruiser, six C-class heavies and three H-class star craft. As I speak, I am diverting all three rescue wings to the north-west, due north, and north-east from our present location. One of them will head your way, but I cannot say how fast it'll be able to home in on your distress beacon.'
Neehka Mertigarne grunted before she worked the toggle once more: "Commander, if I may offer another suggestion… your mother ship and the rescue wings need to remain over open water, or at extreme altitude, for as long as possible. Any sighting of our vessels, especially a wing of two heavy cargo craft and a nimble hunter, is bound to lead to public hysteria among the humans and thus activation of the aforementioned autonomous weapons. In short, stay away from areas that appear heavily populated."
'I appreciate your suggestions, Captain Mertigarne. However, I fear we have already crossed over populated areas at low level a short while after our point of entry into the atmosphere. We'll need to deal with the fall-out if or when it occurs. In any case, all hunter-pilots have been given direct orders to engage any or all enemy craft or autonomous weapons launched to intercept the rescue wings. They'll deal with any threats to our, and your, safety.'
"Understood, Commander. PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three standing by for direct communication with the rescue wing once it arrives. Captain Mertigarne over and out."
As Neehka released the toggle-switch for the final time during the present conversation, the red light on the modified distress beacon changed from a solid state to its regular blinking pattern indicating the connection had been lost. "Well… they're coming. Whether or not it'll go smoothly is another thing altogether," she said, rubbing her scaly brow with a strong hand.
"Goodness me, they're sending in a hunter craft. I've only ever been in an S-class… a science-class… star craft," Estaliah mumbled - then she shook her head. "No, that's not true. I presume the heavy cargo vessels are the same as the ferries, only… without… room… for… oh, I'm rambling again. I apologize."
"Ah, never mind, Doc. I'm worried too," the captain said as she glanced out of the small window above the desk. The night was as dark, chilly and uninviting as it had been throughout the conversation with their potential rescuers, but somewhere out there, a wing of three flying saucers was about to make an appearance. How that would go down would be anyone's guess, but Neehka hoped the rescue mission could be carried out with a minimum of drama.
"Captain," Estaliah said after a short delay, "the commander said he had ordered the hunter craft to engage the enemy if attacked. Now, out of, uh… morbid curiosity, if you will… what kind of armament do those things have? I mean, it needs to be quite extraordinary to combat one of those flying weapons that got us."
"Well, for starters," Captain Mertigarne said and leaned against the edge of the desk. She crossed her arms over her chest in a casual stance that made it appear she was discussing any old topic and not someone's sudden death, "they're all equipped with multi-spectral, directional pulse emitters-"
"Uh… what in the name of-"
"Scrambling devices that fry all electronics in the vessels they've been aimed at."
"Oh… I see. Thank you…"
"Mmmm. That alone will bring down most everything," Neehka continued with a shrug. "If the enemy manages to get past that, the ultra-high-density plasma cannons will be the next line of defense… or offense, depending. They're a medium-range weapon. Some even have the capability of carrying thermobaric bombs, but I-"
"Thermobaric? That's closer to my field of expertise… but weather bombs? What in the name of Phirax the Unholy would you do with those?" Estaliah said and shook her head.
The captain let out a grunt. She chewed on her cheek for a moment before she went on: "When they detonate, they create a tremendous spike in the air pressure. It's really nothing but a burst of hot air, but it'll level everything in its path. Kill everyone within the blast zone. And once the blast front has fizzled out and the air pressure has restored itself, it leaves no radiation. It's the perfect weapon."
Estaliah Whuoshann's lips grew into a narrow, gray line in her face. Her mounting anxiety over the promised rescue suddenly blossomed into grave concern instead - she had already experienced the aggressiveness of the humans; she had no doubt they would go to extreme lengths in responding to the use of such a horrific weapon.
The night dragged on without further attempts of communication from either the main rescue flight or any of the wings sent north by Commander Weldrinn. No news could be considered good news under certain circumstances, but the two Xeloshians did not count their present situation to be one of them. Captain Mertigarne's frustrations had grown exponentially when nothing had happened, and she tried to work off her surplus energy by pacing ceaselessly in the mansion's smallish former bedroom.
A reptilian-shaped lump on the floor in the stately room downstairs proved that Doctor Whuoshann had finally surrendered to her fatigue and had gone to sleep. Lying on her left side in the sleeping position preferred by most Xeloshians - with her head tucked down between her wide shoulders, her claw-like hands wrapped around her upper body and her powerful legs pulled up into a fetal position - she dreamt of all the good things back home that she hoped to revisit in a very short while.
An especially pleasant dream was interrupted by a tender hand on her shoulder. When the first touch was not enough to pull the scientist from her sleep, a second followed that was no less caring. "Mmmm…" Estaliah mumbled as she came to. Opening her purple eyes that only slowly adjusted to her surroundings, she noticed the captain leaning in above her - she also noticed it was still so dark wherever she was that all details were gray and fuzzy.
A brief yawn followed before her head was moved up into its regular position to make her ready for the countless problems and frustrations the new day would undoubtedly produce - then she remembered where they were and what they had been waiting for when she had tried to find rest. "Oh! Are they here?" she said and sat up as fast as the last traces of her sleepy state would allow.
"No, but dawn is. And that's bad news for us because now we're stuck here until nightfall," Captain Mertigarne said as she pulled back. "I didn't want to leave the communication-device unattended, but none of the three rescue wings have even attempted to make contact with us. I know that for a fact because I've been staring at the damn light on the distress beacon all night."
"Yeah. To tell you the truth… I have a feeling they have no idea where to look for us. Well, either that or the rescue wings have all been shot down by those silvery weapons that got us."
"Don't even say that," Estaliah mumbled as she rubbed her eyes to get the last sleepies out. When she noticed she was half-covered in a blanket-like piece of cloth, she furrowed her brow and looked at the captain.
"It's one of the curtains," Neehka said with a tired grin as she pointed a claw-like finger at the nearest window that was now looking a little bare and underdressed. "You were shivering in your sleep so I ripped it off the hinges to make you just a little warmer."
"Oh… thank you very much."
Estaliah pushed the old curtain aside and clambered to her clawed feet. After stretching her body and limbs - making several of her joints pop and crackle - she smacked her lips a couple of times. "You're right, I was cold. And hungry. I still am… hungry, that is."
"Can't help you with that one, I'm afraid," Neehka said with a shrug.
Early, faint daylight shone in from the window that was no longer covered by the curtain. The tone of the light suggested the day would be a bright one, but the lateness of the season made it a certainty the morning hours would be cold and damp - abhorrent conditions to any cold-blooded creatures like the reptilian Xeloshians.
From one moment to the next, the peace and quiet inside the dusty, old mansion was disturbed by the crisp sounds of a bell ringing somewhere nearby. Although the chimes did not produce a melody as such, it clearly followed a set pattern that seemed to work as some kind of summoning.
Captain Mertigarne hurried over to the nearest window to look outside. She made sure to stay well out of sight while she cast her experienced eye out into a small garden on the side of the mansion that faced south. Overgrown with weeds and in a derelict state in general, it was obvious no-one had tended to it since the original owner had been admitted to the sanatorium.
Though she craned her neck in all directions, the view offered no clue as to the nature of the chiming. "That's the… hmmm… third time we've heard that bell while we've been in this area. Would you say they've been a week apart, Doc?" she said over her shoulder. When she got no answer, she glanced back at an empty room.
"Captain! Please come! Oh, this is so fascinating!" Estaliah cried from the den in a voice that carried plenty of excitement despite her famished state.
"Oh, for Phirax' sake!" Neehka growled as she hurried out of the stately room, across the connecting hallway and into the den. Just as she had expected - and feared, really - the doctor stood at one of the windows in plain sight of everything and everybody who happened to look in that direction. "Doc, will you get away from that damned window! How many times do I have to tell you to stay out of sight?!"
"What? Oh… you're right. I apologize," Estaliah said and took a step aside to hide behind the section of the wall between the windows. The new angle was poorer since it limited her field of view, and she had to rearrange several of the glass jars and jugs containing the dead insects and the disgusting, murky yellowish-brown liquid to see better.
"But look!" she continued with plenty of barely contained excitement in her voice. "Look out there… isn't that fascinating? All the inhabitants of the settlement are gathering near the white building with the cross on the front. That's where the bell is too, see? Everybody's dressed in darker, more ceremonial-looking clothing compared to what we've seen them wear so far."
"Oh, wow… that's definitely fascinating. I can barely keep my lid on," Neehka said flatly.
The inch-thick irony did not even register with the doctor who kept her purple eyes locked onto the events unfolding outside. "Mmmm! I'll hazard a guess and say they're going to a religious ceremony of some kind. Oh, look… there's the stern-looking male I saw yesterday morning when the tiny explorer was nearly crushed by the vessel occupied by the two hunters. He looks even sterner now." While she spoke, her wide, excited eyes tried to absorb every last detail of everything that went on right in front of her, and in front of Crystal Springs' church.
"A religious ceremony?" Captain Mertigarne said with a certain degree of skepticism in her voice. She was in no mood to watch a lot of humans doing something she could not care less about, so she remained at the far wall and let the doctor handle the anthropological studies. "You know, I'm not convinced that such an aggressive, violent species even has religious beliefs."
"Well, we do, and we have star craft fitted with weapons of mass destruction… hardly any better, is it?" - The doctor's comments only earned her a grunt in return.
The Reverend Gordon Fairbanks shook hands with everybody as they filed past him to get to the church, including the middle-aged mechanic hired by Edgar Clifford to run the gas station, James 'Jim' Maxwell, and the only other employee, the early-twenty-something night attendant Russ Clayton, jr.
Aubrey Hayworth and her young son Will were next in line, followed by the elderly, white-haired Henry Mortimer whose dark-blue outfit resembled an old-fashioned police uniform right down to the cap that he stuck under his left arm when he reached Father Gordon. Edgar Clifford himself came last because he had needed to lock up at the diner before he could go to church.
Father Gordon was ably supported by the similarly-dressed, similarly-minded Talbott siblings, Vincent and Virginia, who worked as general caretakers of the buildings housing the church as well as Edgar's eight-bedroom motel. After issuing a psalmbook to those among the congregation who had forgotten theirs - Russ Clayton's ears grew red as he realized he was the only one - the Talbotts ushered everyone inside and closed the doors so the Sunday sermon could begin on time.
"Ohhhh… money couldn't buy that experience!" Estaliah Whuoshann breathed as she finally drew back from the spectacle. She leaned against the wall and stared wide-eyed at the captain whose face continued to display her skeptical mindset about the supposedly wondrous nature of the whole thing. "Neehka, when we get home, I'll be able to write an entire dissertation based on what we've seen here… or a compendium!"
Neehka Mertigarne let out a dry chuckle at the prospects of the mountainous heaps of text that would undoubtedly spew out of the enthusiastic scientist at the first given opportunity. "Hmmm-yeah… it'll earn you another doctorate, I'll bet."
"Well, I already have a… oh, that's less important right now," Estaliah said with an uncharacteristic shyness in her voice.
"How about updating those damned erroneous databases first?"
"Oh, I could do that as well!"
"Yeah," Captain Mertigarne said and pushed herself off the opposite wall where she had been throughout the anthropological observation. She let out another dry chuckle. "While you compose the foreword to your dissertation, I'll be upstairs staring daggers at the distress beacon. Who knows, we may hear from our rescuers sometime this century…"
The day dragged on even worse than the night had done. Over the course of the daylight hours, the captain had worked herself into such a high-strung state over the lack of communication that she had been the one who had needed to grab forty winks on the floor of the stately room.
While Neehka tried to get her mind to relax enough to let sleep catch up with her, Estaliah Whuoshann spent her time upstairs monitoring the modified distress beacon and the small red light that continued to flash on-and-off in a steady rhythm. Now and then, she peeked out of the bedroom's two-pane window to get a feel for their Earthly surroundings and the sky above the mansion.
The sunny morning had carried over into a sunny day where only a few scattered clouds had swept over the abandoned Bug-O-Rama and the rest of the settlement. Most of those had been white or pale-gray, but one or two had been in the dark-gray tone that she had come to loathe - the sensation of wet, cold precipitation on her nubbly skin was one she could not get used to no matter how often it had happened over the course of the four seasons she and the captain had spent in the deep woods.
Their worst enemy was not the interminable wait or even the risk of being spotted by a snooping human before help could arrive. The raw hunger gnawing on their bones had become the greater evil, and the debilitating condition threatened to make them both so weak there was a risk they would be unable to make a hasty escape if one was needed.
The humble beginnings of the Xeloshian species as simple lizards living in the arid, barren wastelands of their heat-tormented home planet had made them capable of going for weeks without getting any liquid nourishment, but solid food was a necessity for sustaining life.
They had both eaten far too little for far too long. General sluggishness and mounting fatigue that no amount of sleep could cure had claimed them both, and those symptoms could be traced directly to the lack of food. The four seasons spent outside hiding in the cold, damp forest had not helped - all their niggling little aches and pains had been exacerbated by the inclement conditions, but at least Captain Mertigarne's shoulder injury that she had received in the crash had healed itself over time.
Sitting awkwardly on a chair designed for human rear ends, Estaliah Whuoshann had stared at the reluctant distress beacon for so long the membranes protecting her purple eyes began to close on their own. With her breathing evening out, she imagined she dropped off the face of the hostile world they were stuck in and began to float through space. The Maelstrom was still there, as was the pale-gray moon that orbited the planet. The other planets of the local star system looked intriguing, but they were still too far away for her to make out any details. Drifting away from her starting spot like she was swimming in a vast ocean, she eventually got closer to a brightly-colored gas giant and several rocky planets that were monochrome in appearance.
Just as she had decided to touch down on one of the rocky worlds to go on a mission of exploration, a howl, a squeal and a screech brought her back from dreamland. The first thing she noticed was that the tone of light that shone onto the desk through the two-pane window had darkened considerably; the second thing was that the red light on the distress beacon had turned solid like it had when they had established contact with the commander of the rescue flight. "Oh!" she cried, leaning forward in a hurry.
She reached for the toggle-switch to hail whomever was at the other end of the line, but as she opened her mouth to try, she realized she could not remember the confusing Planetary Space Patrol or Galactic Space Force identification codes. Going for Plan B at once, she jumped up from the uncomfortable chair intending to hurry downstairs and stir the sleeping captain, but before she could move as much as the length of a claw away from the desk, the little light flickered a couple of times - then it changed back to its regular on-and-off rhythm.
"Ohhhhhh!" she cried, clapping a claw-like hand across her purple eyes. "For Phirax' sake, I slept through it! Oh, the Captain is going to kill me… and then she's gonna roast my hide!"
Nothing further happened despite the doctor staring wide-eyed at the box containing the modified distress beacon for ten time units straight. When it became obvious the important moment had passed her by, she shuffled over to the rectangular window to get some fresh air.
The metal latch and the wooden frame resisted her efforts at first, but they soon surrendered with a drawn-out squeak! The air that streamed into the bedroom and pooled around her muscular legs was crisp and chilly, but it served her right for messing up her important assignment. Mortified, she stared at the distress beacon once more, then out at the darkening sky in the hope the rescue wing would be so close she could make visual contact.
She continued to stand there for another couple of time units wishing the apparatus would eventually change its mind about establishing contact, but it was as stubborn about remaining silent as it had been for most - but not all - of the day.
Sighing, Estaliah closed the window and shuffled down the grand staircase. As she did so, she briefly considered lying to Neehka about her bad mistake but soon decided against it. They had already experienced too much together for her to lie, but even if they had been complete strangers, it would only have taken the captain a few moments to work out that something was amiss with regards to the state of Estaliah's behavior - in short, she just had to steel her scaly spine and face the bitter words that were guaranteed to follow.
Captain Mertigarne's words had been less severe than Estaliah had feared, but the icy silence that followed was almost worse. As darkness fell over yet another day spent - and wasted - on the hostile planet, the captain had withdrawn to the former bedroom on the upper floor to be close to the communication device in case of another attempt at establishing contact.
The thin layer of patience curbing the captain's temper from a massive eruption could hardly be worn any thinner. She continued to tinker and fiddle with the modified distress beacon, and whenever a small niggle arose, she would respond to it by growling for several time units at a time, or smacking her clenched fists hard onto the desk, or shoving the uncomfortable chair back until it fell over - and whenever a major niggle occurred, she would do all those things in rapid succession.
After a period of much guttural growling from upstairs and a rumbling stomach from down below - borne of her ever-present, and ever-increasing hunger - Estaliah gulped down her trepidation and ventured back up the grand staircase. Peeking around the doorjamb and into the moderately-sized bedroom, she grimaced when she noted that the captain was engaged in a severe bout of pacing. The pilot's claws clicked on the floorboards as she strode back and forth between the rear of the room and the desk with all the electronic equipment.
Although it was difficult to make out in the mounting darkness, Estaliah also noted that the captain's grayish-green skin tone had grown more gray over the course of the frustrating day. Despite the temper that no doubt burned brightly within her, her motions had become slower and could even be described as lazy.
Estaliah expected her own appearance to mirror that of her companion's - the need to get some solid nourishment into their systems had just moved up the final notch from being merely critical to being an absolute necessity for living through the next handful of days. "Captain," she tried as she shuffled into the small room. "Once more I apologize for my terrible blunder… but please listen to me. We need to eat something. Now, before we fall ill. Couldn't we try to sneak down to the human eatery? It's been closed the entire day after the ceremony this morning. They're bound to have a storage room somewhere. I know the human food won't do us any good, but there could be a few treats hidden in the far corners. Please, Captain."
Neehka stopped pacing and came to a halt in the middle of the floor. All the dust had been swept aside in a perfectly-shaped oval that showed where she had spent most of her time. Letting out a deep sigh, she cast a resigned glance at the distress beacon and then out of the rectangular window where the first few twinkling stars had become visible. She sighed again and finished her brief tour of the local sights by settling on the taller Xeloshian with a gloomy look upon her marked face. "Yeah… you're right, Doc. We'll die if we don't eat soon. Or at least wither away into nothing. It's high time we did something proactive, so…"
"Yeah. But I'm taking the damn thing with me… just in case," Neehka said as she picked up the shoulder-bag and opened the large flap. With a great deal of hassle, she began to shove her makeshift communication device down into the bag. It took her fatigued mind a while to get her hands co-ordinated enough to stop the device from snagging on anything as it went down the deep bag, and it nearly set off her raging temper all over again. Once she had accomplished the task that had grown far more bothersome than it should have been, she closed her purple eyes and let out a long, slow sigh.
Estaliah just bared her teeth in a concerned grimace - she knew that a quip or some other kind of snappy comment would not be the right reply at that point in time.
Soon, the two Xeloshians hurried across the Bug-O-Rama's open, gravelly courtyard and past all the empty cages and terrariums. Save for an owl that hooted from somewhere within the nearby forest, everything was dark and quiet; even the two-lane road that ran past the settlement was devoid of human transport vessels. Their light-sensitive eyes provided enough illumination for them to see where they were going without risking taking a nasty spill over an unseen rock, so they were able to keep up the pace until they reached the rear of the square building housing the eatery.
The lights were still on in the gas station, but none of the odd rhythms were playing from the inside. A young, human male - that Estaliah recognized as the one who had needed to be given a special book at the ceremony earlier in the day - whistled what seemed to be a random selection of notes as he walked around the forecourt wiping down this and that with a rag. The human wore black boots, a dark-gray coverall that carried the oil company's logo on the back, and a cap where the shade had been flicked up. A narrow, white cylinder had been pushed into the nook between the male's left ear and the skull, but its purpose was not evident.
Estaliah had never been this close to the subjects before, and she could barely contain her scientific fascination about the whole thing. They needed to move on, so she tore her purple eyes away from the young male and focused on the eatery instead. Her excitement only grew when she discovered the exterior of the building was made of some kind of artificial material rather than wood. She let her claw-like hand slide over the ribbed texture to get a feel for it, but she was unable to recognize it.
The rear-side of the eatery consisted of a metallic door that had been secured with a sturdy chain and an even sturdier padlock. A bright lamp had been installed above the door, and the cone of light shone directly onto the flagstones that led to the rear entrance. It would be far too dangerous to spend too much time under the light, so the two Xeloshians chose to remain in the shadows until they could come up with a plan on how to get in.
"Well, Doc… got any ideas? The door's obviously locked," the captain whispered into Estaliah's ear so her guttural voice would not carry far.
During Estaliah's anthropological observations of the various incidents and dramas that had unfolded over the time they had been near humans, she had gained the first inklings of an understanding of how the human mind worked - they rarely gave up when faced with a challenge. If something could not be accomplished the regular way, they would try alternative methods until the goal was achieved.
Transposed into the situation at hand, it meant that while the key for the padlock was not present, the Xeloshians had strong hands which was the next-best thing. "We need to break the chain," she whispered back in a determined voice.
"I knew you were going to say that," Neehka whispered before she let out a tired chuckle. Moving as swiftly as she could, she jumped into the cone of light and grabbed hold of the sturdy chain. Though she tried with all her might, her waning strength meant she could not snap it on her own. A moment later, she waved the doctor over to her so they could yank, twist and turn it at both ends at the same time.
It took plenty of effort, but the metal chain was eventually unable to resist the onslaught of the claw-like hands. Once Neehka had pulled the chain free, Estaliah grabbed the door handle and opened it with all the caution she could muster.
The storage room beyond the door was dark, but that presented no problem for the Xeloshians and their purple eyes. Pale-brown boxes of varying shapes and sizes had been stacked up to the ceiling on both sides of a narrow pathway that led further into the square building. The boxes all carried labels describing their contents, but the human words and warnings provided little help to the two otherworldly explorers.
Estaliah used a claw to slice through the side of one of the boxes. Once the soft material had been split wide open, it revealed a row of silvery cans. Taking one, she narrowed her eyes as she stumbled her way through what it said on the label: "S-p-i-c-e-d… s-p-a-m. Spissed spum? Spammeh? Spaa-hm? What a funny word. What do you suppose that is, Neehka?"
"Why don't you crack it open and find out? While you do that, I'll look for something a little more delicious like beetles or bugs. Or cockarachies! What I wouldn't give for a bite of cockarachy…" the captain said as she ventured further into the storage room.
Nodding, Estaliah followed the captain's suggestion and buried a claw into the lid of the silvery can to break it open. The smell that rose from the pink-and-white contents was perhaps not unpleasant as such, but it was definitely something her nostrils had never experienced before - at least it had a better scent than the murky contents of the glass jars over in the mansion.
Once an intrepid explorer always an intrepid explorer, so she extended her purple tongue to touch the mysterious substance. Not even half a short time unit later, she spat out the tiny amount she had scooped up and let out a resounding: "Fy-da-føj helt langt ind i den hedeste-huleste! Fu-ha-bvadr for en omgang afskyelighed! Yuck-yuck-yuckety-yuck!"
The rest of the cans had lost their lure on the slightly wary intrepid explorer, so she wiped off her tongue the best she could before she followed in the captain's tracks.
Silence broken by the occasional creak, grunt and groan dominated the next period as the two Xeloshians roamed through the storage room on the prowl for anything edible. To their great misfortune, Edgar Clifford was a stickler for keeping his diner and the storage space in spick-and-span condition, so there was nary a grain of dust to be found anywhere, much less occupied cobwebs, juicy creepy-crawlies down on the floor or up on the shelves, or even flying insects in any of the upper corners.
The stony expression upon Captain Mertigarne's face when she and Estaliah met up once more inside the eatery itself told the entire, depressing tale. "Nothing," she said in a downcast voice, and that was all that needed to be conveyed.
Estaliah shook her head and let out a long sigh fueled by desperation. Before she could come up with a new suggestion about the course of action they could try next, several audio signals like the ones created by the human transport vessels were heard from the direction of the gas station.
Flashes from a pair of headlights flickered across the dark ceiling of the eatery; the transport vessel they were connected to soon drove onto the well-lit forecourt of the gas station. Doctor Whuoshann and the captain ducked out of sight at once, but inched over to the windows to see what was going on in case it concerned them.
A vast, salmon-colored Cadillac Eldorado Convertible with three people in it had driven up to the gas pumps. The driver honked once more to make the night attendant come out to work on it.
Russ Clayton, jr. soon shuffled out of the store wiping his hands on the same rag he had used for the pumps. He had only had time to smoke half the king-sized Rockaway cigarette he had stuffed behind his ear earlier on, but he had saved the other half in the ashtray so he had something to look forward to later on.
"Good evenin', Mister. Ma'am," he said as he approached the impressive vehicle. His dialect revealed his Texan past, but the local Oregonian way of speaking had started to creep in as well.
"Good evening, son," the distinguished driver, Walter Milton McCarthy, said in a strong, authoritative voice - it offered a clue he was unaccustomed to being contradicted by anyone. "I want you to fill it up, clean the windshield, check the oil and water and have a look at the mechanism for the folding top. There's something wrong with it. It makes plenty of noise but it won't fold back up. It's far too cold to drive with the top down, and it prevents me from smoking my pipe. It needs to be fixed."
"Yes, Sir," Russ said before he stuffed the rag into a pocket of his coverall so he could take the hose off the gas pump for the first part of the long list of jobs.
Walter McCarthy wore square, nut-brown spectacles, a white shirt, a black tie and a steel-gray business suit. His elegant fedora hat and high-quality overcoat were both held in a darker shade of gray. His wife Millicent sat next to him wearing a flowery scarf that she had pulled tight around her hair, and a burgundy coat that she had buttoned up to her nose to combat the chill. The back seat of the luxurious convertible was occupied by their daughter Nancy: a tender seventeen-year-old who wore a winter jacket over a prim and proper dress. The young woman only needed a single, shy glance at the hunky early-twenty-something Russ to make her cheeks blossom cherry-red.
Inside the diner, Neehka looked at her companion. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Taking the car?"
"Mmmm," Estaliah said, nodding.
After Russ had put the hose back on the gas pump, Walter McCarthy turned the ignition key so he and his family could continue to listen to the radio broadcast they had been following for several hours on their lengthy evening drive to Crystal Springs. Soon, the excited voice of a reporter crackled to life in the middle of a seemingly lengthy running commentary:
'-Continue with our special report of the numerous, even countless, sightings of flying saucers that have been coming to our news desk from all over the nation over the course of the day. Ladies and gentlemen, we have first-hand eye-witness statements from citizens living as far apart as Roswell, New Mexico… Salem, Oregon… Montgomery, Alabama… Rapid City, South Dakota… Lubbock, Texas… Jacksonville, Florida… and even Washington, D.C. who have all seen an extraordinary amount of unidentified flying objects.'
"All this flyin' saucer business is kinda excitin', ain't it?" Russ said as he turned to the windshield of the large Cadillac and began to wipe it down using his indispensable rag.
"I think it's terrifying," Millicent McCarthy said, ducking even further down into her burgundy coat. She could not stop her eyes from taking a fast tour of the dark sky near the gas station; when she found nothing unusual up there, she let out a sigh of relief.
The noise Walter let out was an optimistic grunt rather than a sigh. "And I sense a good opportunity to make a solid profit. I'm a movie producer, you see. I co-own the Milton-Shapiro Picture Company," he said to Russ' benefit. "You seem like a clean-cut young fellow. I'm sure you've watched some of the movies we've produced for the drive-in market."
"Well, I may have, Sir…" Russ said, clearly not recognizing the name.
"How about… oh, The Mesa Of Prehistoric Cavewomen, Attack Of The Killer Robots, The Creeper Sees You, The Fifty-Foot Spider Beast, The Zombies Walk Among Us, Surfer Girls versus The Hot Rodders, and our biggest money-maker yet, Alien Invaders From Planet X?" Walter McCarthy said with a wide, cocksure grin playing on his lips.
"Oh, I definitely been to all of those! Great popcorn movies each an' every one of 'em, Sir!"
"Why thank you, son. We know our audience."
Considering the sternness of the man behind the wheel and the blushing cheeks of the young woman in the back, Russ thought it most prudent to keep it to himself that ninety-five percent of the time he spent at the drive-in was conducted on the back seat getting frisky with some of the pretty girls from the nearby towns of Diamond Point and Crescent Ridge.
Over the radio, the reporter continued: 'Some claim to have seen illuminated triangles in the sky, others have witnessed glowing fireballs seemingly engaged in formation flying, or cigar-shaped craft moving silently across the heavens… some have even seen traditional saucer-shaped objects like those encountered by Kenneth Arnold a few years back. An unconfirmed report from Levelland, Texas involves a beef farmer who allegedly encountered reptilian creatures that had come out of an alien craft that had landed in the middle of his cattle range. According to the farmer, the reptilians were either taking soil samples or looking for directions… but I stress that this is an unconfirmed report.'
"Lookin' for directions!" Russ said and broke out in a juvenile snicker that made him appear younger. "I'll betcha two dollars they've gotten lost and can't find their way back home. That's easy done down yonder in Texas. My Dad was from Texas so I know what'm talkin' about."
Walter McCarthy could find no suitable reply to that, so he settled for grunting.
'A statement from Air Force General Harvey B. Sturges has cleared up an erroneous report from earlier in the day,' the reporter continued from the radio. 'The debris that was found just after noon suspected to be from an F-89 Scorpion jet interceptor that had gone missing after being scrambled from the 119th Fighter Wing, North Dakota Air National Guard post at Hector Field has in fact turned out to be a downed weather balloon. According to an official communiqué released by General Sturges, the jet interceptor had to make an emergency landing at a different air field following an unfortunate bird strike. In other news, it has been rumored that Vice President Nixon might conduct a televised press conference tonight regarding the recent spate of sightings and the subsequent public unease, but that has yet to be confirmed by the White House.'
Once Russ had closed the Cadillac's hood after checking and replenishing the oil and water, he moved to the rear of the salmon-colored convertible to begin working on the mechanism for the retractable cloth roof - it also gave him a good opportunity to take a closer look at the shy Nancy in the back seat of the large vehicle.
Inside the eatery, Estaliah strained her hearing to pick up any familiar words, but the strange human language continued to elude her. "Hmmm… no…" she said as she rubbed her prominent jaw. "No, I wouldn't want to go off in a wrong direction by simply guessing or even speculating. But they were definitely listening to something that I presume was some kind of transmission. At least, their mouths didn't move when someone spoke, so…"
Captain Mertigarne chuckled and stepped back from the window. "Yeah well, I don't think the humans have gained that skill yet. It was probably some kind of news update."
"Could be. Now what?"
"I don't know…" Sighing, Neehka opened the flap on the shoulder-bag to peek at the red light on the distress beacon. It was still flashing on-and-off in its regular, steady pattern which meant - despite the presence of Commander Weldrinn's rescue flight - there was nothing out there it could lock onto.
"Neehka, they're moving their vessel over here!" Estaliah suddenly said, grabbing hold of the pilot's shoulder.
A brief glance outside proved that the driver of the huge, salmon-colored vehicle had driven it onto the parking lot in front of the eatery and was presently getting out. "Oh, for Phirax' sake!" Captain Mertigarne growled as her purple eyes took it all in. Not long after, one of the tall, male humans walked down from one of the settlement's houses holding a jingling set of keys in his hand. "Why can't we ever catch a break? Doc, we need to get out of here before it's too late… and that means right now!" she continued and grabbed hold of Doctor Whuoshann's arm.
The two Xeloshians stormed through the eatery and back into the storage room. Once there, they hopped over the can of spiced spam - that Estaliah had simply thrown onto the floor in disgust after sampling it - ran down the narrow path and exited through the rear door.
Outside, they came to a hard stop as they found themselves face to face with an elderly male human. Estaliah recognized him and his dark-blue, uniform-like outfit at once - she had seen him that same morning when he had been over at the place of worship. Captain Mertigarne, meanwhile, recognized the gunmetal-gray tool the elderly human pointed at them. It could only be a weapon of some kind, perhaps even a fire pipe like the one they had seen used by the hunters although it was smaller and the barrel far shorter.
"Dear God above!" the elderly man said in a shaking voice as he clapped eyes on the Xeloshians. "What kind of devilish creatures are you?! Get your hands up! Get 'em up where I can see 'em! Reach for the sky! Now!"
Estaliah's purple eyes grew wide as she stared at the jittering weapon in the human's hand; Neehka's similar orbs narrowed down into pale-purple slits as she tightened her muscles to be prepared for anything - it was a problem, maybe even an insurmountable one, but she would be damned if she did nothing to at least try to get on top of it. She wished she had her lethal rock ax with her, but she had left it at their night shelter in the forest.
"Neehka, please don't hurt him…" Estaliah said in a voice that trembled just as much as the weapon held by the elderly man.
"It's him or us, Doc."
"Don't worry. He'll never feel a thing," Neehka said calmly as she appeared to wind herself up like a spring that was on the brink of being uncoiled.
Shocked at the implications of the captain's words, Doctor Whuoshann let out an "Ohhhh," and began to wring her claw-like hands.
To Henry Mortimer - a retired police officer from Portland who had moved to Crystal Springs following his retirement - the guttural growls and groans that were produced by the throats of the two creatures might as well have been spoken in a rare dialect of Gibberish. He understood nothing except the fact they did not put their claws in the air like he had ordered them to. During his years patrolling the mean streets of Portland, he had faced many criminals who had not always wanted to follow the letter of the law, but never anything quite like the grayish-green beasts he was aiming at.
It seemed to dawn on him that if he could not understand their language, they would not be able to understand him either - then it dawned on him that their appearance might be connected to the countless UFO sightings that had taken place over most of the day. "Well, Good God-almighty. I'll be darned…" he mumbled. "I knew there'd be crooks sneakin' around after the radio shed was broken into… and dear Martha's Bug-O-Rama, but… I caught myself a couple of space aliens… real, live space aliens. Now what do I do with 'em?"
When the seemingly mindless creatures failed to follow his commands with regards to putting their claw-like hands in the air, he gestured with his jittering revolver to make them understand the finer points of being arrested by an officer of the law - even a retired one. "Put 'em up! Do you understand me? Put your hands… paws… things in the air! Up! Up, like this… up! Put 'em-"
Without warning, Neehka rushed forward and jumped the elderly human. Though weakened by the gnawing hunger and the lack of proper sleep, she overpowered him with ease. As the first thing she did, she knocked the fire pipe out of his weak hand so it would no longer pose a threat to her or the doctor - then she wrestled him back toward a hedge and thus out of the cone of light that shone down from above the rear door.
The struggle turned out to be brief: as they grappled with each other, the elderly human grew weaker. He began to let out a series of increasingly pained moans and seemed to clutch his chest as much as he tried to fend off his attacker. From one moment to the next, he grew limp and fell into Neehka's strong arms.
Estaliah turned away, unwilling to watch any longer.
"What in the name of Phirax the Unholy is this now?" Neehka croaked as she stared wide-eyed at the limp human in her arms. His mass had turned into dead weight so she had a hard time holding him up. Crouching down, she began to lower the body onto the ground near the hedge. "Doc… hey, Doc… Doc! Will ya get over here!" she continued, whispering over her shoulder while she kept a close eye on the elderly human in case it was a clever ploy designed to make her break off her attack.
Estaliah let out a sigh and shuffled over to the horrific scene. "Oh, Neehka, why did you have to kill him? That'll only worsen our situation if they find us," she whispered in a despondent voice as she knelt next to the human.
"Well, excuse me, Doc… but I haven't killed anyone! He just flopped over-"
"He's certainly dead now," Estaliah said, pointing a claw at the elderly man's pale, relaxed features and closed eyes. She tried to touch his forehead with the back of a hand - purely from a scientific point of view - but since she had no frame of reference when it came to members of the human species, she could not tell if the heat she felt was normal or not.
"No, but… oh, dammit, he can't be dead! I hardly touched him!" Neehka croaked, staring at the man on the ground.
Estaliah opened her mouth to reply but found that she had none that would be appropriate in the moment. Instead, she broke out in a shrug that only made Captain Mertigarne let out a frustrated groan and slap a hand over her purple eyes.
Several long time units later.
Upon returning to the Bug-O-Rama mansion following the dramatic turn of events, Captain Mertigarne had withdrawn to the smallish bedroom on the upper floor to continue to monitor the modified distress beacon.
Estaliah was in the den-like sitting room on the ground floor. She felt sick to the stomach and could not find rest anywhere. She had a hard time reconciling what had happened behind the eatery with what, and who, she perceived herself to be. She was a scientist, an astronomer, an observer; a career professional who had worked tirelessly throughout her entire adult life to gain knowledge of the universe around her home planet so they could evolve as a species.
She liked to consider herself a friendly soul who would never wittingly cause anyone pain. She had always empathized with Xeloshians in need, she had always offered plenty of support and compassion to those nearest her, she had always had a strong sense of right and wrong, and she had always had an open mind when it came to learning new things or discovering wonderfully strange customs while conducting field studies - and yet, a human had died. Not through any direct action on her part, but nevertheless through simply meeting her. That thought made her nubbly skin crawl and caused a strong pain to swell within her.
The dead human presented a very large problem, but the fact that the gnawing hunger had seemed to evolve into a full-bodied, persistent aching was perhaps even worse. Estaliah knew it was the next step in the process that would eventually see her and the captain grow so weak they would enter a state of full, unintended hibernation and thus be unable to carry on without help. If they fell down, they would no longer have the strength to get up on their own.
All thoughts of taking the unwieldy, salmon-colored vessel had been abandoned after a host of humans had shown up at the eatery. One of them - the young one from the gas station - had brought a small electronic device with a foot-long antenna on top into the establishment, and the residents had continued to listen to what Estaliah had presumed were news updates. It would have been far too dangerous to carry out their original plan with that many humans around, and she had insisted that they returned to their makeshift base instead to wait for the rescue flight to reach them. The captain had reluctantly agreed.
As the gloomy, depressing thoughts rolled over her, Estaliah pushed herself away from the windows in the sitting room and shuffled across the connecting hallway. Putting her hand on the lower part of the door with the frosted-glass pane, she gulped down a bitter surge before she swung the door open to stare at the dark-blue lump lying in the middle of the floor. Not only did she fail to understand why they had needed to drag the body back with them, but why Neehka had left it in a spot where they had both slept was completely and utterly beyond her sphere of comprehension. Despite her mounting fatigue, she would never be able to find rest until the terrible situation had been resolved.
Shivering, she backed out of the stately room and shuffled up the grand staircase to find something positive she could do that would take her mind off the unwanted fatality. When she reached the door to the small bedroom just beyond the landing, she was surprised to hear a few instances of howls and static coming from the communication device.
She upped her pace and soon arrived in the doorway. Captain Mertigarne was leaning over the table with her claw-like fingers ready to depress the toggle-switch the moment a connection had been established. The light on the front of the box could not make up its mind on how it should proceed: at first, it went through its regular flashing, then it remained constant, then it flashed again.
For each time it changed, Estaliah felt her breath hitch and her heart rate pick up. The situation was getting closer to crunch-time, and she knew it. Just when it appeared it had been another false dawn, a Xeloshian voice was heard loud and clear from the integrated loudspeaker:
'PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three, PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. This is GSF ident code Rescue Wing seven-F-one-P-zero-six. Respond if you can. PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three, PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. This is GSF ident code Resc-'
Captain Mertigarne let out a guttural groan in relief and dove down to activate the microphone at once. "GSF ident code Rescue Wing seven-F-one-P-zero-six, GSF ident code Rescue Wing seven-F-one-P-zero-six… this is PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. Captain Neehka Mertigarne and Senior Science Officer Doctor Estaliah Whuoshann present. We read you at five bars. Urgent, I repeat, urgent extraction required. Requesting ETA, come back."
'PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. This is GSF ident code Rescue Wing seven-F-one-P-zero-six. Lieutenant Ghaldan Manastoph piloting Hunter-Three speaking. Captain Mertigarne, although we have found the northern continent, I'm afraid we're still having some difficulties in locating yourself and Doctor Whuoshann.'
"Ohhhhh-no," Estaliah croaked, slapping a claw-like hand over her purple eyes.
'We have encountered heavy opposition. I eliminated an enemy interceptor, but Hunter-One was destroyed by an autonomous weapon somewhere over a mountainous region. Cargo-One-A was damaged by a similar weapon and needed to return home for repairs. Cargo-One-B rejoined the main Rescue Flight. I have no news on Hunter-Two and its rescue wing.'
"Very well, Lieutenant. Let's hope they're safe. Do you have visual contact with the ground where you are? Perhaps we could guide you the rest of the way if you pass a landmark that we saw also," Neehka said in a voice that held a clear tremble brought on by the mounting tension.
'That's a negatory, Captain Mertigarne. I have ordered Cargo-Three-A and B to cruise at one-hundred-and-eighteen-thousand units above sea level to stay out of range of the autonomous weapons. I have Hunter-Three giving close-air support. However, I can tell you we're following a jagged coastline north like you mentioned to Commander Weldrinn.'
"That's something at least… you're getting closer," Neehka said while looking at Estaliah who had grown so pale because of the recent, upsetting events that the green shades on her body had almost vanished. The captain offered her taller companion a supportive smile before she turned back to the communication device: "Lieutenant, I know it'll be far more dangerous than continuing at your present altitude, but you need to descend to no more than a few thousand units above sea level or else you'll never be able to see any details. You cannot rely on the information provided to you by the central databases… they're several eons out of date. Perhaps you could instruct your cargo craft to touch down somewhere remote while you utilize your hunter's superior speed to widen the search area?"
A few howls, squeaks and bursts of static followed. Neehka narrowed her eyes and twiddled with one of the knobs to make the connection solid once more. "Lieutenant Manastoph, did you receive my message?" she said into the microphone.
'Yes, Captain. I was informing Cargo-Three-A and B of your suggestion. We'll descend to two-thousand units above sea level and find a safe place for the heavies to set down. I'll contact you again once Hunter-Three can roam freely. Lieutenant Manastoph out.'
Neehka nodded though the flight officer from the Galactic Space Force would not be able to see it. Once the red light on the front of the box had resumed its regular on-and-off pattern, she turned to her companion. "Things are looking up, Doc. Finally. At least they're on the right continent now," the captain said as she rubbed her heavy brow. "Yeah… things are looking up," she continued in a mumble like she needed to persuade herself that it really was so.
"They're not here yet. Let's hope they will be before we have to kill more humans," Estaliah said in a tired, listless voice.
A few short time units went by before the captain let out a slow sigh and put her claw-like hands on her wide hips. "Doc… we haven't killed anyone. Yes, that old fellow died, but I'll bet he was already ill. I hardly touched him. How many times do I have to tell you?"
"Is that supposed to make it better? He died because of us, Neehka."
"Perhaps so, but look… it happened. We can't change it. All we can do is to get our hides out of here. Don't waste your precious energy being upset-"
"Well, I am upset! Don't tell me I shouldn't be!"
"I don't want to get into an argument about it, Captain," Estaliah said and put her hands in the air to cut Neehka off before she could get started. "We don't see eye to eye on this subject, and no matter how much we butt heads, we never will."
Like the thunderstorms that had given the two Xeloshians a big fright during the humid season, the unusual exchange of words hung heavily in the air between them. A long beat went by before Estaliah said: "I need to do something useful. I'll look through the rooms one more time for something to eat." Then she spun around on her heel and left the former bedroom - and the captain - behind.
Tension continued to mount inside the old, abandoned mansion that had once been Crystal Springs' number one attraction for the scattered tourists who had happened to swing by the hitherto quiet settlement.
Captain Mertigarne had resumed her relentless pacing after the small argument with the doctor and the latest conversation with the pilot of the hunter craft. Even her seemingly limitless stamina had taken a severe knock from the lack of nourishment so the pacing was performed with less fervor than usual. Though it hurt her stumpy tail, she eventually needed to drag over one of the chairs designed for humans so she could rest her weary bones while she waited for the next transmission.
Doctor Whuoshann had balled herself up into her favored fetal position on the floor of the former bedroom, but the captain's constant pacing and then her various pained utterances from sitting on the poor chair had prevented sleep from catching up with her. She had searched every last square inch of the old mansion in her quest to find anything edible. The only thing she had found that had even remotely resembled food had been a collection of little, white furry balls that had rested on a shelf close to a dusty overcoat inside an old closet. Her initial assessment had been that they were insectoid cocoons of some kind, but a quick test with her purple tongue had proved her wrong - and she had spent the next several moments spitting out the disgusting contents.
All that futile exploring had left her in desperate need of a rest, but she could not make herself go back downstairs as long as the dead human was in the stately room. She had considered trying to sleep in the den-like sitting room across the hallway instead, but it was still far too close to the dead body for her to relax. Thus, a return to the upstairs room had been her best option.
Sighing, she gave up the unequal struggle with the tension that rolled around inside her. After moving her head back up from its resting position down low between her broad shoulders, she swung around intending to get up. Just as she wanted to get on her clawed feet, she was struck by a dizzy spell that made her bump back down on her stumpy tail. "Ouch… damn," she mumbled, rubbing her face and then the opposite end.
The captain swiveled around to look at her companion. "Are you all right, Doc?"
"Yes. Thank you. I'm just so famished now I can hardly function."
"I know the feeling. Do you need a hand?"
"No, thank you," Estaliah said as she shuffled around on the floor to get into a position where she could try again. "I just need to work up some energy first."
Neehka offered the doctor a supportive smile before she moved back to observe the distress beacon on the desk.
Apart from heavy breathing, silence fell between them while the doctor did better in her second attempt at getting up. Before she could ask about the latest state of affairs regarding Hunter-Three, her attention was taken by a rising murmur that came from the outside. Human voices could be heard speaking in excited, agitated and even angry tones; worse, the voices were close by.
"Now what?" Neehka Mertigarne said and rose from the uncomfortable chair. Moving over to the rectangular, two-pane window, she quickly established that her field of view did not include the ground.
Estaliah moved over to the window to try as well, but even with her superior height compared to the captain, she was unable to get into an angle that would enable her to look down. "I'm guessing they have discovered the door we broke into. I haven't heard that kind of agitation among the humans before. I'll bet that all we've caused in the settlement has unsettled them. Which is only natural."
"Perhaps so," the captain said as she scooped up the distress beacon and moved over to the doorway at a pace that belied her malnourished state, "but it makes them even more unpredictable… and more dangerous. Doc, we need to get downstairs. I need your scientific brain to observe and deduce what's going on out there."
A grimace spread over the doctor's face - "Downstairs… oh, can't we try to-"
A few heartbeats went by before Estaliah let out a deep sigh. "Oh… all right. I don't know how much help I'll be, but… all right. Lead the way."
Downstairs in the den-like sitting room, the two Xeloshians peeked through the windows overlooking the mansion's gravelly courtyard. In order not to get in each other's way in case a hasty escape was needed, they had each claimed a window that offered them a good vantage point. The modified distress beacon had been placed on a large desk next to an old picture frame and a few trinkets that had been covered in dust.
"Well," Estaliah said after a few moments of observing the crowd of humans outside, "agitated is still the best word I can use to describe them. Some point at the sky, some point at the ground. To reassess my initial theory, I feel they're searching for the elderly human we encountered rather than any mysterious burglars… of course, the incidents are connected but they won't know that. Yet. Oh! And now another human is hurrying out to the others!"
Neehka let out a tired chuckle at the doctor's unbridled enthusiasm for conducting anthropological studies even in the face of such drama. "I know, Doc… I still have eyes."
"Oh… yes. Of course…" Estaliah said without taking her own eyes off the events unfolding not too far from where she stood.
With the cone of light from his flashlight bobbing up and down, Edgar Clifford ran over to the group of men that included the caretaker Vincent Talbott, the Reverend Gordon Fairbanks, Jim Maxwell and Russ Clayton from the gas station and finally Walter McCarthy. The movie producer's white shirt, black tie, steel-gray tailored suit, fedora hat and elegant overcoat was perhaps not the most well-suited outfit for someone about to be involved in a search for a missing person, but regardless of the clothing, he would not let such an opportunity pass him by for anything in the world.
"I got in touch with Sheriff Coleman," Edgar Clifford said in between bouts of huffing and puffing. Since he had already equipped everyone present with flashlights of the same brand as his own - he kept a box full of them just in case - he clicked his one off and attached it to his belt to save the batteries. "He and a deputy left at once so they'll be here in twelve, fifteen minutes or so. Father Gordon, what do you suggest we do in the meantime?"
"Well," the bearded elder said. As always when he spoke, his charismatic presence and natural authority made everyone else pipe down and look to him for guidance. "Perhaps Henry Mortimer surprised and pursued the burglar, or burglars upon discovering the break-in. That would explain why we found his uniform cap and his revolver over by the diner. It's certainly unlike him to just vanish like this. Granted, he isn't as fit and spry as he once was… and his eyesight isn't the greatest any longer. It's possible he's suffered a fall and cannot get up on his own. I suggest we do a second sweep of Crystal Springs while we wait for the sheriff to arrive."
Russ Clayton thrust his hand in the air at once. " 'Scuse me fer a moment, Father, but someone else gonna hafta search the old mansion… that place makes my skin crawl even in broad daylight. No way I'm gonna go in there at night… not with all them bugs and things!" As he spoke, the Rockaway cigarette that he was puffing hard on bobbed up and down in his mouth.
"Bugs and things?" Walter McCarthy said, looking to the others for an explanation.
Jim Maxwell, the man hired by Edgar Clifford to run the gas station, let out a knowing chuckle. When he had been called up to participate in the search for the missing man, he had been at home watching television - President Eisenhower or Vice-President Nixon had not held a televised press conference after all, but several po-faced, sweating Air Force generals from the Pentagon had spoken at length about the spate of UFO sightings - so he wore loafers, a plaid shirt and a pair of old, well-worn pants rather than his regular coverall. The greasy cap with the upturned shade was still covering his thinning locks since he felt naked without it.
"Over in the Bug-O-Rama, Mister McCarthy. The old mansion over there," he said with a grin. "Martha van Buren used to have hundreds if not thousands of insects on display before some son of a bit- uh… pardon me, Father." - He tipped his greasy cap at the Man of the Cloth who let out a disapproving grunt in return - "Before some crook burgled it and stole all her bugs."
"Why, that's… odd. Very odd indeed," Walter said while the early outline of a movie script was already forming in his mind. The natural choice would be a sequel to the award-winning creature-feature Fifty-Foot Spider Beast - it had won a Robert P. Shingleton Award for outstanding technical accomplishment in cinematography. 'Lair Of The Fifty-Foot Spider Beast' or even 'Revenge Of The Fifty-Foot Spider Beast' would be good, attention-grabbing titles. The beast in the first movie had been destroyed when the US Air Force had dropped an experimental atomic bomb on it, but there could always be another fifty-foot spider lurking somewhere in the desert. Nodding to himself, Walter adjusted his nut-brown spectacles as he looked at the dark, foreboding mansion in the near distance. The exterior would even be perfect for a few establishing shots. The rest would obviously be shot on a sound stage, but even a tiny amount of real-world realism went a long way.
Vincent Talbott, the caretaker from the church, moved over to the smoking Russ Clayton and patted the young man's shoulder in a fatherly fashion. "That's quite all right, son. I'll search the Bug-O-Rama. You can stick to the streets and yards."
"Thank you, Sir. 'preciate it," Russ said with a sincere look on his face.
"Mr. Clifford," Father Gordon continued, "the two hunters who stayed in your motel… are they still your guests?"
Edgar Clifford shook his head. "I'm afraid not, Father. They said they were headed further north where there was better chance of finding game."
"Ah, that's too bad. We could have used their tracking skills," the clergyman said before he fell quiet.
All the men in the group looked up when the first indication of the promised reinforcements from the law became audible in the far distance. It was still faint, but it was undeniably the motor-driven siren installed on the fender of Sheriff Coleman's patrol car. The crude, rasping sound rose and fell as the vehicle raced through the many curves along the two-lane road.
"Here's the Sheriff now!" Russ said excitedly as he ran out to the side of the road. The police vehicle was still too far away for the reflections of the rotating red light on the roof to be visible, but it did not stop the young man from squinting hard into the darkness. "Jeepers, the ol' fella sure got that cherry Studebaker goin' mighty fast tonight… you can almost hear them tires squealin'!" he said with a big grin that threatened to upset his Rockaway cigarette. Taking it out, he knocked off the ash before he stuffed the half-smoked cig back between his lips.
"Quite," Father Gordon said dryly before he turned back to the other men. "All right. We still have time to conduct another search for Henry. Let's get to it so we can inform Sheriff Coleman of the latest when he arrives. Mr. Clifford, come with me, please."
As the two oldest among the men present strode off to search the area behind the church and the adjacent meeting house, the others remained on the open, gravelly courtyard of the Bug-O-Rama. Vincent Talbott looked like he had changed his mind about volunteering to search the old mansion. "Well… I suppose I better, uh… you know, I wonder if it couldn't wait? I mean, what would old Henry Mortimer be doing in there anyway?" he said as he scratched his neck.
Walter McCarthy, Jim Maxwell and Russ Clayton all nodded and grunted at the undeniable logic of the caretaker's statement - especially Russ who would not enter the mansion if he was offered a hundred-dollar bill and an entire carton of Rockaway Premium Blend cigarettes.
The young man ran back to the road to await the arrival of the police car; a moment later, a thought seemed to come to him that he had not even considered until that point. "What if… what if Mr. Mortimer was abducted by… by space aliens? Scary critters from outer space? All them sightin's of them there flyin' saucers… they came in from all over the country an' even South America. We all heard that on the ray-dee-oh. Why not here in Oreg'n?"
Jim Maxwell nodded at his employee's words. "You have a point, kid. Hey… didn't that reporter fella mention a sighting in Salem earlier tonight? That's not too far from here," he said, taking off his greasy cap to rub the top of his balding head. As he plonked the cap back on, he started looking at the sky for any unusual lights or shapes that could be lurking up there.
"I believe he did, yes," Walter said pensively. Like the man from the gas station, the movie producer looked up at the great number of stars that were on display in the heavens above. Everything seemed the same as always, but his spectacles made it difficult for him to pick out any details so he could not be sure. "It's a far-fetched theory that we've been visited by extraterrestrials… but on the other hand, the skeptics called the ideas of the Wright brothers far-fetched. A mere fifty years later, we produce aircraft capable of going three times the speed of sound!"
"Extra-terraineous- what?" Russ said with a puzzled look upon his face.
Walter gave up searching for UFOs and offered the young man a spooky look instead. "Aliens, son. Alien invaders. Vicious creatures from distant worlds here to drink our blood and feast on our flesh. Among other things. Maybe even abduct our women if we're not careful."
"Oh! Like Destination Venus! That was a great movie… wasn't that one of yours?" Russ said as he finally crushed the butt of the Rockaway cigarette under his heel.
"It was indeed, son. I'm glad our films have made such a good impression on you," Walter said and adjusted his nut-brown spectacles while a broad smile played on his lips. "My dear daughter Nancy had a bit part in that, actually. She was a Venusian who-"
The motor-driven siren had come closer all through the conversation, and the movie producer's words were cut off mid-stream by the noisy arrival of the black-and-white patrol car from the Freemont County Sheriff's Office. Soon, Sheriff Coleman came to a dust-flying stop on the gravel in front of the mansion.
As Walter McCarthy and the residents of Crystal Springs hurried over to the patrol car, the somewhat portly sheriff clambered from the Studebaker Champion. As always, he wore his regulatory dark-blue uniform that had been a better fit five years and twenty-five pounds ago. Once he was on his booted feet, he put on his hat and adjusted his gun belt so he could quick-draw his service revolver if needed. The younger - and far nimbler - Deputy Sheriff Mitchell Firestone, jr. got out as well and mirrored his superior's actions.
"Oh, for Phirax' sake… look at all those damned humans out there! Who… or what… in the name of all things unholy are those two now?" Neehka Mertigarne said from her hiding place inside the Bug-O-Rama's sitting room. She shook her head as she took in the crowded scene that unfolded in front of the mansion - it seemed the break they were so desperately hoping to catch had just grown even less likely to happen.
"I can't say for sure, but I suspect the two new humans are representatives of the law. Whether or not that's a good or a bad thing, I can't say," Estaliah said from her own window ten feet away from the captain.
"It's a bad thing, Doc. They also carry those fire pipes like the hunters and the old human did. See?"
Captain Mertigarne grunted and moved back for a brief moment so she could gather her thoughts. "Remember the maimed animal we found in the forest during the humid season? That wound was made by one of their fire pipes. Now imagine what it can do to our flesh and bones."
"I'd rather not…" Estaliah said in a mumble.
"Yeah, no kidding. For Phirax' sake," the captain continued as she sent a hard glare at the modified distress beacon on the desk behind her, "what's keeping Lieutenant Manastoph… he said he'd contact us again as soon as the heavies had landed. Why hasn't he?!"
Estaliah hoped the captain did not expect a reply to her question because she had none to give. After offering a brief look of support instead, she turned back to the window and concentrated on observing the group of men outside.
"Good evening, Gentlemen," Sheriff Coleman said after he and Deputy Firestone had shook hands with seemingly half the male population of Crystal Springs. "What's the story here? Edgar told me old Henry has gone missing…?"
With Father Gordon and Edgar Clifford still busy conducting their own search, Vincent Talbott was the Nestor among the residents present so he stepped forward while clearing his throat. "That's correct, Sheriff. We found Henry Mortimer's hat and his revolver over by the rear of the diner. The storage room had been broken into just like Mrs. van Buren's Bug-O-Rama and the shed for the radio tower."
"Jumpin' Jehoshaphat! What's the world coming to…" the sheriff said, reaching up to wipe a bead of moisture off his ruddy brow even though the temperatures were anything but sweat-inducing. "Deputy Firestone, take notes. What's been stolen in the break-ins?"
Hearing the command, 'Mitch' Firestone hurriedly reached into his uniform's breast pocket and whipped out a notebook and a pencil. After licking the tip, he put the pencil to the paper and waited for Vincent Talbott to go on.
"Well, that's the strange thing, Sheriff," Vincent continued. "Nothing of real value… all of Mrs. van Buren's insects and some random radio equipment from the antenna shed. And a can of spiced spam was vandalized in Mr. Clifford's storage room. It looked weird… like someone had taken a giant can opener to it."
"That's generally what you do with canned goods, Mister… ha-ha!" the sheriff said, breaking out in a rumbling laugh that didn't claim any of the other men there. Either he did not catch on to the embarrassing silence that greeted him or he did not care. In any case, he continued: "So you're saying that old Henry could have been attacked and perhaps even taken hostage by the criminals?"
Vincent nodded. "That's our theory at least, Sheriff."
"One of 'em, anyway," Russ Clayton said. As he spoke, he looked at Mitch Firestone in the hope of finding a little moral support. Not only were the two young men similar in age, they knew each other well from the Shake'n'Fizzy milkshake and soda pop parlor in Crescent Ridge - a popular hang-out spot for the local teenagers and those who had recently turned the sharp corner into their twenties.
Pushing his hat back from his forehead, the gangly deputy sheriff offered his friend the most no-nonsense, top-professional look he could muster - with Sheriff Coleman there as well, it was not the right moment to ease off on the protocol. "Go on, Mr. Clayton," he said while trying to get his fair voice to appear deeper and more police-like.
"Well," - To appear more sincere given the outrageous topic he was about to embark on, the young gas station attendant whipped off his greasy cap to reveal his crewcut - "with all them sightin's of flyin' saucers an' everythin' else that's apparently been goin' on all day, we were kinda thinkin' that-"
"Hardly, son!" Sheriff Coleman interjected; his voice could not be more police-like if he tried, and it made Russ and Deputy Firestone shut up at once. "This has nothing to do with that. The little green men would not be strong enough to overpower a human being. No. I think the answer is far more Earth-bound than that. I would not be in the least surprised if we discovered that old Henry Mortimer has been kidnapped by communist spies! Yessir."
Walter McCarthy narrowed his eyes; then he squinted at Jim Maxwell and Vincent Talbott who both looked distinctly unconvinced about the sheriff's new theory. Then he looked up at the late-evening sky. When no terrifying alien invasion force appeared on the dark horizon to counter the sheriff's claims, he let out a short grunt and adjusted his nut-brown spectacles a couple of times while he thought of how to proceed.
He had been about to mention that he was a movie producer, but since it had become obvious that such a flighty, even glamorous, job would leave the somewhat old-fashioned sheriff distinctly unimpressed - or perhaps even suspicious of him - he piped down just like the younger of the men there had done. Ultimately, he excused himself, handed over his flashlight to Jim Maxwell and returned to the diner where his wife and his daughter had been entertained by the waitress while the fruitless search had taken place.
'PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three, PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. This is GSF ident code Rescue Wing seven-F-one-P-zero-six. Respond if you can. PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three, PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three. This is GSF ident code Rescue Wing seven-F-one-P-zero-six. Captain Mertigarne, this is Lieutenant Manastoph piloting Hunter-Three. Are you receiving my transmission?'
"I am! We are!" Neehka said after she had depressed the toggle-switch so she could speak into the makeshift microphone. When the electronic device had come alive, she had stormed over to the sitting room's desk where she had put the distress beacon when they had entered the room. "This is PSP ident code six-W-five-L-eight-three, Captain Neehka Mertigarne and Doctor Estaliah Whuoshann present and accounted for. We read you at five bars, Hunter-Three."
'Hunter-Three approaching your location at propulsion level five. ETA three to five time units. Presently skimming the crowns of the tall vegetation.'
"All right! Are you alone, Lieutenant?"
'That's an affirmative, Captain. When I gained full lock on your beacon, I instructed Cargo-Three-A and B to return to Commander Weldrinn's main flight. Since you are only two, you'll be able to fit in the cockpit.'
Despite the dramatic situation they were trapped in until the help would finally arrive, Estaliah Whuoshann could not help but let out a semi-amused snortle at the prospects of sitting on the Lieutenant's lap all the way - or at least some of the way - home to Xelosh.
A new and even stronger wave of fatigue and dizziness rolled over her following the brief high, and she had to lean against the windowsill to recover. She closed her purple eyes while the fit receded, and thus failed to notice that she had accidentally pushed the curtain aside.
Outside, Vincent Talbott had been looking at the foreboding mansion at the exact same time - and not only that, but at the exact same window that Estaliah stood in. He let out an inarticulate croak and began to point at the old Bug-O-Rama. It took his throat several seconds to recover, but when it did, he let out a resounding: "There's someone in there! Look!" that made the remaining people on the gravelly courtyard jump in surprise, including Sheriff Coleman.
The portly law enforcement officer let out a barked "Where?!" as he spun around. Drawing his service revolver, he held it ready at the hip so he could blast anything or anyone to kingdom come if the confrontation would end in a gunfight - and he hoped it would.
"In the Bug-O-Rama! Uh… uh… ground floor… the second window from the left! Look, there he is again! Look!" Vincent cried, pointing at the old mansion for all he was worth.
"Goddammit, I see 'im! That's a Goddamned Russki, all right!" the sheriff said - then he waved his free hand at Mitch Firestone to inform the gangly youngster they were going in full force. "Deputy… it's time to earn your wages. Follow me!" With that, he took off going at an astounding speed that even kicked up small puffs of gravel dust in his wake.
Mitch gulped hard before he too drew his revolver and hurried after his portly chief - he could not recall ever seeing Everett Coleman moving that fast, not even at the traditional opening day of the Summer Fair when everyone wanted to get to the burger stands first.
Jim Maxwell and Russ Clayton, jr. had lost interest in the search and had gone back to the gas station after the sheriff's bombastic declaration that it had to be communist spies who were responsible for the spate of break-ins in Crystal Springs rather than space aliens, but the sudden spurt of action made them hurry back to the gravelly courtyard with their flashlights at the ready. Soon, the commotion caused Walter McCarthy to pop his head back out of the diner as well.
'Walter?' the movie producer's wife said somewhere behind him, but he only had time for a brief: "I'll be fine, darling. Don't worry. If communist spies really are behind all this, I need to be out there documenting everything!" before he took off at a pace that belied his elegant clothing.
In nothing flat, Walter had reached his Cadillac and had opened the trunk from where he took a semi-professional 16mm film camera that he knew was loaded with color film stock - he had intended to use it for location scouting on their road trip, but a spy hunt would present a far better use of the film. Once he had put the camera's leather strap around his neck to hold everything in place, he took out a double-reel tape recorder that had a pinnable microphone attached to it by a long cord. He had already used up part of the active reel to dictate a letter to his secretary, but there would be at least twenty-five minutes' worth of recording space which he hoped would be enough.
"Captain! The Earthlings are coming! The Earthlings are coming!" Estaliah cried not a moment after opening her purple eyes. Although the dizzy spell had been conquered, the sight of two armed humans running towards the mansion made it all come back with a vengeance. She needed to put her claw-like hands on the walls while she stumbled away from the window and over to the desk. "Captain… capt-"
"Get behind me, Doc! We're not dead yet!" Neehka cried back before she depressed the toggle-switch for what would be the penultimate time. "Lieutenant, you need to fly like Phirax was on your tail! Our location has been compromised and we don't know how long we can hold 'em off!"
'Affirmative, Captain. Increasing to propulsion level seven. Hunter-Three out,' Lieutenant Ghaldan Manastoph said at the other end of the connection.
"What should we do?!" Estaliah cried, wringing her hands.
"Get upstairs… upstairs now! Manastoph can drop his ladder or wench us up if need be… it's our only chance, Doc!"
Estaliah hurried into the connecting hallway but stopped when she looked up the grand staircase - it suddenly equaled a steep mountain that she was forced to climb with no equipment save for her claws. "I c- can't… I can't, Neehka… I'm so tired… so tired…"
"You'll be dead if you don't get your stumpy tail in motion, Doc!" Neehka said as she appeared in the hallway. "C'mon… gimme your arm… gimme your arm, Doc. We can do it. C'mon, one step at a time!"
At the exact same moment, Sheriff Coleman arrived at the front door with Deputy Firestone in tow. Although he did in fact notice it was already unlocked, he wanted to stamp his authority on the situation so he gave it an almighty kick right on the lock which sent the wooden frame slamming into the opposite wall - then he stormed into the connecting hallway with his revolver pointing ahead of him.
The veteran law enforcement officer focused all his attention on the door leading to the sitting room, and thus missed the tail-ends of the two Xeloshians completely. "Come outta there with your hands in the air, you no-good Russki sonovabitch!" he bellowed at the closed door.
When nothing happened, he proceeded to kick the second door open as well which shattered the frosted-glass pane installed in the top part. As the sharp fragments rained onto the carpet in the den-like sitting room, it soon became evident the room was empty save for a strange-looking electronic device on the desk top.
"Ha! I was right!" he said as he entered the room with his revolver still pointed ahead of him. Reaching the desk, he poked the device with the tip of his gun which moved it back an inch or two. "Space aliens, my ass. No little green man I ever heard of uses radio gear, but the reds sure do. What we have here is a genuine communist listening post. Hell, it's more than that… it's a Goddamned spy nest! Yessir!"
When he realized his deputy had yet to congratulate him on busting the Soviet threat wide open, he turned around to find out why. A dark grunt escaped him when all he saw was an empty room behind him. "Deputy? Deputy Firestone? Mitchell Firestone, where the hell did you go, son? I need you in here to collect the evidence!"
'Sheriff… I'm in the large living room. You need to come quick!' the gangly deputy said in a strangled voice from across the hallway.
Hurrying over to the second room, the portly sheriff came to a hard stop in the doorway when his eyes fell on the dark-blue, human-shaped lump on the floor. "Sonovabitch! That's Henry Mortimer… is he dead?"
"Yes, Sh- Sheriff… very d- dead and very c- cold," Mitch Firestone said; as he spoke, it was clear he was gulping hard several times in a row to keep his late-night supper down where it belonged.
Sheriff Coleman grimaced as he walked over to the dead body to see for himself. The grimace only grew uglier as his deputy's words were confirmed by what he saw. "Goddammit all to hell. Those commies are animals… Goddamned Russki bastards! Killing an old coot like Henry Mortimer… what the hell did he ever do to those sons-a-bitches?" he growled as he nudged the corpse with the tip of his boot. "This is a whole new ball game now, Mitchell… a whole new Goddamned ball game. Get on the horn and tell ol' Theodora to wake up the coroner. We need him out here. Then we'll need lights… more deputies… trackers… bloodhounds. The whole nine yards."
"Yes, Sheriff," Mitch said, looking like he was closer to fainting than carrying out the orders he had just been given.
An otherworldly whine finally heralded the arrival of the sleek, black star craft known as Hunter-Three. The ominous-looking, saucer-shaped vessel approached Crystal Springs at such mindboggling velocity it needed to perform a wild climb nearly a thousand feet into the air before it had scrubbed off enough speed. Coming about, it hovered in mid-air for a few seconds before it screamed down toward the ground seemingly on a strafing run.
"Told ya! Told ya! Didden I tell ya?!" Russ Clayton cried as he jumped up and down while waving his flashlight and his greasy cap at the alien craft. "Look at that whale of a thing up there! If that ain't the darnedest thing I ever saw, I don't know what is!" When he suddenly realized what he was in fact witnessing, he froze solid with one arm down and the other in the air like a coverall-clad facsimile of the Statue of Liberty.
"My God, ladies and gentlemen! Do you see that?!" Walter McCarthy cried into the double-reel tape recorder's microphone that had been pinned to his shirt's collar so he could have his hands free - the recorder itself was swinging back and forth on its strap over his left shoulder. At the same time, he pressed the 16mm camera to his nut-brown spectacles to keep everything in frame as the craft dove down toward him.
"That's a genuine flying saucer!" he continued in an agitated voice that nearly broke. "Uh… uh… it's… uh… it's roughly twenty-five to thirty feet in diameter with a height that's… uh… less than that. Maybe fifteen to eighteen feet. It has a spinning outer section… a spinning disc… and two… uh… bubble-shaped… uh… bulges on the fuselage… one on top, one below. There are multi-colored lights in several places on the fuselage… the lights go on and off in random patterns. Mostly reds but some greens and whites as well. Oh, and there's a blue light! Uh… antennas stick out of the lower bulge. There are panels… hatches in several places along the upper and lower sections of the saucer… I cannot tell what they might hold. Ladies and gentlemen, there's a tremendous sense of dread in the air as my fellow witnesses and I observe this frightening apparition just hovering there… a whine emanates from it as it continues to hover thirty, maybe forty feet above the ground. What will happen now, I cannot say…"
Over at the mansion, Sheriff Coleman and Deputy Firestone came storming out onto the gravelly courtyard to see what had been the cause of all the frantic shouting. When they clapped eyes on the sleek UFO in the sky above them, they drew their revolvers all over again and aimed at the strange ship.
"Sheriff! That sure don't look like a Russian-" Mitch tried, but he was cut off at once:
"Shut up and blast that thing outta the sky, Deputy!" Sheriff Coleman bellowed as he squeezed the trigger. Soon, his service revolver sent out slug after slug that escaped through the muzzle followed by plenty of orange sparks and gray gunsmoke. The deputy commenced firing as well, but their .32 firearms could do nothing whatsoever to the protective armor of the H-class star craft.
Upstairs in the small bedroom of the old Bug-O-Rama mansion, Captain Mertigarne threw caution to the wind and stuck her head and her entire right arm out of the small window so she could wave at Hunter-Three and Lieutenant Manastoph. "By Phirax, that's what I call excellent timing! The Galactic Space Force all the way!"
Doctor Whuoshann was less giddy on the whole, but the promise of finally being rescued had given her enough of a boost to climb the never-ending grand staircase. It had depleted her last ounces of strength, and all she could do was to sit crooked on the dusty floorboards so the hard surface would not hurt her stumpy tail too much. "But how will we get up to him, Neehka? I can't climb up onto the roof. I just can't…" she croaked in a frail voice.
"If we can't get to him, he'll have to come to us, won't he? Hang on, Doc… I'll run downstairs to get the comms device… just hang on!"
A handful of short time units went by before the captain reappeared in the doorway holding the modified distress beacon that had not been damaged by being nudged by the sheriff. Though she panted hard from racing down and then up the stairs, she activated the toggle-switch at once. "Lieutenant, this is… Captain Mertigarne again. I want you… to blow the roof… clean off this old barn… and then come down… and pick us up through… through your lower access ladder. Is Hunter-Three equipped with… with plasma cannons?"
'That's an affirmative, Captain. Pulse emitters, plasma cannons, ten canisters of grade-A Chem-Nine and a single THERBO.'
Estaliah Whuoshann looked up and pinned Neehka to the spot with a sharp glare. The two Xeloshians shared a very long look that proved that one of them would never accept the use of that terrible weapon of mass destruction under any circumstance, and that the other part would gladly accept the use of it if it meant getting out alive.
"A-firm, Lieutenant," Neehka said into the microphone. "Just the plasma for now. Doctor Whuoshann and I will take cover while you fire."
'Very well, Captain. Stand by… and stand back. I'll give you forty-five half-units to get into position. A word of advice… it's going to be violent.'
"Oh, I have no doubt about that," Neehka said with a chuckle as she took the distress beacon and hurried back to the doctor. "Doc, I know what you're thinking, but first things first. And the first and only thing on our agenda right now is to get out of here with our heads attached to our shoulders. Am I right or am I right?"
"Yes. But I will not-"
"Later, Doc. Later. First things first like I said," Neehka Mertigarne said and pulled a table and several boxes closer to them to offer some protection from the blast that would no doubt be spectacular.
When the two plasma streams made a ferocious impact with the roof of the old mansion a short while later, it made even the battle-hardened Neehka Mertigarne jerk up and let out a wild yelp. The sudden burst of noise was massive and made the two Xeloshians clap their claw-like hands over their sensitive ears. From one moment to the next, the roof disintegrated and was replaced by the night-time sky - and a huge cloud of dust in numerous shades of brown.
"Sweet mother of God!" Walter McCarthy howled into his microphone. The powerful explosion had barely finished before he ran over to the old mansion to capture all the destruction on his film camera and his double-reel tape recorder. Along the way, he flew past Sheriff Coleman and Deputy Firestone who continued to fire their revolvers at the craft in the sky though their best efforts had already proven so inefficient they might as well have been throwing peanuts at it.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" Walter continued in a voice that could barely contain his agitation, "the flying saucer has just fired some kind of energy weapon at a house here in Crystal Springs! Two orange-red beams that crackled with energy as they streamed out of the saucer… the muzzles appeared to be on the upper… uh… bulge… the upper part of the central sphere. The beams were accompanied by a terrible screeching noise akin to a hundred cats hissing all at once. The entire roof and most of the upper floor were destroyed upon impact. Even as I speak, the old walls continue to tumble inside the mansion and there is debris falling everywhere… my God, this is incredible!"
As the remains of the wooden structure continued to rain down into the garden beyond the mansion, Neehka got back on her feet and dragged the doctor up next to her. Looking into the sky, she waved frantically at Hunter-Three as it first approached them and then hovered directly above their position. Only a few moments later, the lower hatch was opened and a hugely long ladder was extended down into the ruins.
"Further! Lower it further!" Neehka cried at the top of her lungs as she tried to grapple for the ladder's lowest rung. Lieutenant Manastoph did one better by making Hunter-Three descend until its lower fuselage was nearly touching the smoking remains of the old mansion. "C'mon, Doc… get up! You can hibernate all of next season if you feel like it, but now's the time to get up!" the captain continued as she reached out for her companion.
Estaliah called on the last ounces of her remaining strength to climb to her feet. The green tones of her skin had been fully replaced by shades of gray caused by the lack of food within her, and her entire frame seemed haggard and frail. Grabbing hold of the ladder, she managed to put a foot on one of the lower rungs but failed to pull herself fully up onto it. A second attempt failed as well. She had no more to give, and she shook her head while a long, desperate sigh escaped her.
Captain Mertigarne growled out loud before she put a claw-like hand next to her mouth to make it act as an amplifier. "Ghaldan, pull up the ladder! Pull it up! Now! That's an order! The Doc's in bad shape!"
Once the ladder began to be retracted, Neehka jumped onto a rung on the opposite side from where the doctor was still holding on. Groaning out loud from the strain and stress that blasted through her own famished system, she reached through the ladder and wrapped her strong hands and arms around Estaliah - the doctor seemed weak as a newborn and could do nothing but be held.
Down on the ground, Walter McCarthy could barely believe his eyes as two silhouettes became visible above the ruins of the old Bug-O-Rama. When the shadowy figures were suddenly back-lit by the bright lights on the front of the saucer-shaped craft that tilted down toward them, the 16mm film camera jerked around several times before he put both hands on it to keep everything steady and in-frame. His fedora blew off in the excitement, but he had no time to pick it up. "Crea- creatures! Alien creatures! Look! Two creat- reptilians! They're reptilians!" the movie producer bellowed in a voice that finally broke at the frightening sight of other-worldly lifeforms at his proverbial doorstep. "Ladies and gentlemen… two horrifying creatures are escaping from the smoking remains of the building! They are being pulled up into the flying saucer! They… they're large… man-sized… they're grayish-green and res- resemble lizards… geckos or perhaps gila mons- or dinosaurs! Y- yes, like the ancient dinosaurs… I c- cannot believe this is happening!"
Up, up and up the two Xeloshians went, going so slowly the temperamental captain was releasing a constant stream of cursing and swearing by the time the ladder had been fully pulled back into the lower section of Hunter-Three's hull. "We're safe! Secure the hatch and let's get outta here!" she roared to the pilot who sat on an upper level.
'A-firm, Captain!' Lieutenant Manastoph shouted back before he activated his controls and steered the star craft high into the sky to get out of range of the two trigger-happy humans who had resumed blasting away at his craft.
Neehka let go of the death-grip she'd had on the doctor now they were safe. As she stepped off the ladder, she came around it to support her weak friend whose legs would no longer support her. "Doc… lean against the inner wall. Here… c'mon, lean against it," she said, helping Estaliah down onto the floor of the star craft.
Since the H-class vessels were not built to accommodate passengers, the lower section of the hull was cold, hard and fully utilitarian in nature. There were electronic panels everywhere that controlled the general life-support system as well as the long and short-range scanners for the NAVICOM, the communication arrays, the planetary maps and charts, the stabilizers for near-ground flight, the artificial gravity for space flight and finally the firing controls for Hunter-Three's various offensive and defensive weapons. Everything around Estaliah and Neehka was either flashing, bleeping, buzzing, whining, humming or all of the above at once, but at least they were safe.
"Please… Neehka… tell the pilot…" Estaliah croaked while she and Neehka were still nestled up so close their bodies were rubbing against each other; it was clear the doctor was on the brink of a full collapse. "That he can't use… the bomb. Please!"
"Please… tell him…"
Neehka let out a sigh. "All right. I will," she said as she reached out to put a tender hand on Estaliah's face. They exchanged weak smiles before the captain looked up at the cockpit once more. "Lieutenant?"
"Hold off any retaliatory measures until we've conferred!" Neehka shouted in a strong voice that surprised even herself.
A brief moment came and went before the pilot shouted back: 'Captain, that goes against the rules of engagement… we were fired upon-'
"I'll explain in a short while, Lieutenant. Do not retaliate at the present time!"
Another few moments went by before a message of 'Affirmative, Captain. Standing by,' filtered down into the lower section of the hull.
Neehka let out a grunt as she turned back to the weak Estaliah. "Sit tight, Doc. I'll climb up into the cockpit and tell him your concerns. Okay? Just sit tight until I get back."
The frail doctor could only nod, but it was enough. The two Xeloshians offered each other a brief, reassuring smile before Neehka used the upper section of the internal ladder to continue her climb.
Reaching the top end, she poked her head into the cockpit. She had piloted countless cargo and science vessels in her years with the Planetary Space Patrol, but she had only seen a few H-class star craft up close since they were solely operated by the Galactic Space Force.
Lieutenant Ghaldan Manastoph was strapped into a swiveling seat that had been placed centrally. A three-foot tall viewscreen ran along the entire inner dome giving the pilot a full 360-degree field of view of the exterior. The controls and other panels surrounding the pilot's seat were strictly utilitarian and seemingly of a more advanced level compared to those found in the larger vessels, but Neehka recognized all but a few things. The major difference seemed to be that there were two sticks to control the craft, one for each hand, rather than just one in the middle - she guessed it was to enable the pilot to pull faster maneuvers when caught in a tight squeeze.
"Greetings, Lieutenant, I'm Captain Mertigarne. Thank you for rescuing us," Neehka said as she climbed fully into the cockpit. The first thing she did was to swing her wide hips and legs around so she would fit without obstructing the operation of the hunter craft.
The cockpit was climate-controlled and thus a great deal warmer than the old, abandoned mansion she and the doctor had spent so much time in. A familiar smell of warm electronics that she knew well from the various vessels she had commanded emanated from the panels and the viewscreen, and it made her grin. The top-of-the-line propulsion system of the H-class craft - it was located in the spinning disc that circled the cockpit - produced a whine rather than the deeper hum heard on the larger vessels, but it had been reduced to very little by the effective sound-proofing.
Like most Xeloshians piloting the H-class vessels, Ghaldan Manastoph was young and fit. His physique may have been wiry and lean, but his gestures were precise and it was clear he was on top of his game. He wore the standard flight suit, thin gloves and an asymmetrical half-helmet that was designed to fit around the scales on his brow and on top of his head. The right-hand side of the helmet was lower than the left because it held a narrow, rectangular bar that reached from his ear to his prominent jaw - the bar contained the primary and secondary means of communication.
"Greetings, Captain," the pilot said without taking his hands off the controls. While he spoke, he steered Hunter-Three into a holding position four hundred units above the surface of the planet like he was still thinking of returning fire. "I have already informed Commander Weldrinn of your rescue. I'm pleased to see you alive and well… how is Doctor Whuoshann?"
"Not too good. We haven't eaten for far too long," Neehka said and shuffled around to be able to get eye contact with the young pilot. "Now, you told us Hunter-Three is equipped with the Chem-Nine chemical agent and a THERBO?"
"That's correct, Captain."
"Very well. Although I'm in the Planetary Space Patrol, I've never had a career in the Space Force itself. I only have a vague idea what your rules of engagement say, however, I would suggest you deploy a few canisters of Chem-Nine instead of the THERBO."
"Hear me out, Lieutenant. Please," Neehka said and put her claw-like hands in the air to cut the pilot off before he could complain too much. "I know the humans down there fired upon your craft, but they have no idea what it is. All they see is a grave threat to their safety. They're centuries if not millennia behind us in technology and even the development of their minds. They're also an aggressive, war-mongering species. If we use the THERBO here, their military will counter-retaliate with all they have, I guarantee it. Chem-Nine will just make those humans down there fall asleep and give them a pounding headache when they wake up. How about it?"
Lieutenant Manastoph let out a dry chuckle. "Captain, it was never my intention to drop the THERBO. I had planned to scorch them a little with my plasma cannons, but activating the pulse emitters and spraying a few canisters of Chem-Nine would also follow the rules of engagement."
"So we agree?"
"We do, Captain."
"The Doc will be pleased," Neehka said with a grin. "All right. Once the spraying is complete, we need to get out of here fast before other humans call in the same kind of autonomous weapons that shot down my craft four seasons ago. I gather you've already encountered them?"
"Not as such, Captain. Hunter-One was destroyed by such a weapon, but I managed to eliminate an airborne interceptor before it could open fire at me."
"Good. Proceed at will, Lieutenant," Neehka said and shuffled around to get back down to Estaliah. At the last moment, she happened to cast a purple gaze at a very familiar bag that had been sticky-taped to one of the control panels. "Ah! That wouldn't happen to be zenzo beetles, would it?" she continued, pointing a claw-like finger at the little bag.
"It would, Captain," Lieutenant Manastoph said with an embarrassed grin.
"I'm afraid I need to confiscate the contents… like I said, Doctor Whuoshann is in bad shape and she needs some food inside her at once. But don't worry, I won't report it to your commanding officer. In fact, I'll buy you a barrel of the damn things once we get back home!"
"Works for me, Captain," Lieutenant Manastoph said with another grin; reaching over, he tore the small bag off the sticky-tape and handed it to his guest.
Down on the ground, mass panic had broken out among the men and women of Crystal Springs at the appearance of the frightening reptilian creatures. Russ Clayton and Jim Maxwell raced over to the diner and jumped into the McCarthy family's Cadillac Eldorado Convertible in a desperate attempt to get away from the horrors, but the elegant vehicle suddenly refused to start. When that option proved to be a dead end, they raced back to the gas station where they jumped down into the grease pit to present as small a target as possible for the invaders from outer space.
Sheriff Coleman and Deputy Firestone had given up the unequal struggle with the UFO - they had simply run out of bullets - and had made an urgent tactical withdrawal to their black-and-white patrol car. Unfortunately for them, not only did the Studebaker Champion never go beyond a spluttering cough-cough-cough when the sheriff turned the ignition key, but their radio telephone would only produce static so they were cut off from the rest of the world and thus unable to call for reinforcements.
Edgar Clifford and Father Gordon had returned to the gravelly courtyard just in time to see the roof of the Bug-O-Rama get blown to smithereens by their sky-bound visitor, so the clergyman and the caretaker Vincent Talbott had gone down on their knees to pray for guidance and perhaps a little divine intervention.
Throughout the bout of mass hysteria, Walter McCarthy had continued to capture the events on his film camera while providing a running commentary on everything that transpired on the double-reel tape recorder. As the 16mm film ran out, he stuffed the camera inside his charcoal-gray overcoat to protect it and the precious minutes of world-shattering footage from the highly destructive radioactive radiation that was sure to follow in the wake of such an interstellar vehicle. As his wife Millicent and their daughter Nancy ran out to pull him inside the diner where Aubrey Hayworth was almost tearing her hair out in terror, the movie producer happened to look up at the sleek, black UFO.
At the exact same moment, the hovering craft emitted a thick cloud of blood-red particles that spewed out of several ejection ports at great velocity. Walter came to a dust-flying halt and continued to stare skyward. His jaw nearly slipped down below the loosened knot on his tie, and he raised his spectacles to rub his eyes just in case he was imagining the whole thing.
The billowing cloud continued to build in size and density before it fell onto the forecourt and everything else down on the ground like a heavy flurry of blood-red snow.
"Gas! Oh my God, they're… they're…" he cried before he turned to his wife and daughter who were both paler than sheets. "Get inside! We need to get inside before it's too late!"
The three McCarthys took off back to the diner, but they only made it halfway there before the levels of Chem-Nine in the air was so great it overpowered them and made them enter a level of sleep so deep it bordered on the comatose. Walter stumbled to a halt; then he fell onto his knees. As he keeled over and onto the hard gravel, the double-reel tape recorder turned itself on once more and picked up the eerie sounds of the alien craft that continued to spray out the gaseous substance.
One by one, the men and women watching the UFO were affected by the chemical agent: Father Gordon and the caretaker collapsed side by side. Edgar Clifford tried to reach the motel that carried his name but suffered a hard landing on the flagstones leading to the front door.
James 'Jim' Maxwell passed out down in the grease pit, and the last thought through Russ Clayton, jr's mind before he followed his boss into dreamland was that he would never, ever watch another science-fiction movie again if he lived to be ninety-nine.
Across from the gas station, the Studebaker patrol car was insufficiently air proof to stop the particles from entering despite the windows being rolled up, and Sheriff Coleman passed out right in the middle of a sulfuric blue streak that rivaled the blood-red one that came from Hunter-Three.
It took no more than eighteen seconds in total for everyone on the ground to lie stock-still where they had fallen.
Lieutenant Manastoph continued to keep his craft hovering at an altitude of four-hundred units until the viewscreen offered visual proof that all threats had been incapacitated. Grunting in satisfaction, he turned off the multi-spectral pulse emitters and terminated the spraying of Chem-Nine. Another check proved they were in the clear, so he activated propulsion level four and came about to begin the first part of the return leg.
Down in the lower compartment of Hunter-Three, Neehka jumped off the final rung of the ladder and inched over to the stricken doctor. "Hey, Doc… look what I got for you," she said as she rattled the bag of everyone's favorite in-flight snack.
"Oh!" Estaliah croaked, almost tearing the bag in two with her purple eyes alone. "Are… are those… zenzo beetles?"
"Yup!" Neehka said and gave her companion the entire bag. "Knock yourself out!" she said with a grin.
Reaching for it with hands that trembled from fatigue brought on by a critical state of undernourishment, Doctor Whuoshann soon poured half the bag's contents of sun-dried beetles into her mouth in one go. Her prominent jaw got a strenuous workout as she munched and crunched on the popular snack food, and the guttural moans of delight that bubbled up from her throat proved she enjoyed the experience.
Neehka chuckled as she shuffled around to sit next to the doctor. "Yeah… that's pretty much what I was expecting to hear. Anyway, I'm guessing the Lieutenant is going to rejoin Commander Weldrinn's main wing. Once we have, we'll probably be transferred to either the mother ship or one of the cargo vessels. Then we can all head for home."
"Finally. This isn't something I wish to repeat anytime soon, thank you very much."
"No. It really isn't," Estaliah said thoughtfully. She paused the constant munching to think of some of the countless fascinating things she had seen and been part of during the four seasons they had been marooned on the hostile planet. Not all of it had been smooth sailing, but there had been many highlights along the way.
"Hey Doc, could you spare a single beetle?" Neehka joked, reaching over to give her friend a soft punch on her shoulder - it earned her a tired laugh and a single beetle in return.
Twenty-six standard time units into the flight, what had been an easy ride home for the Xeloshians suddenly grew into a major drama for them and Hunter-Three. 'Captain! Hang on down there! We're under attack from airborne interceptors!' Lieutenant Manastoph cried. The request was immediately followed by a wild maneuver that made Estaliah and Neehka thump collectively against the bulkhead.
"For Phirax' sake! Those damn humans just can't leave well enough alone!" Neehka barked as she and the doctor grabbed hold of the lower rungs of the ladder to stop themselves from being thrown about too much. All around them, the fuselage of Hunter-Three moved and shook in seemingly all directions at once as the nimble craft engaged in a sequence of evasive actions that were performed at breakneck speeds.
The pilot displayed great skill as he dragged the H-class craft through all kinds of defensive maneuvers to get away from their persistent attackers. The nimble vehicle tilted, turned, pitched and yawed as it screamed around in wild patterns to remain clear of its opponents' targeting computers.
'Vapor-trail!' the pilot suddenly cried.
It caused Neehka Mertigarne to slap a claw-like hand over her purple eyes and let out a long, juicy curse. Though the vessel continued to buck and shimmy unpredictably, she inched around so she could climb the ladder. "Doc, I need to-"
"Go! Just go before we're shot down again!"
"That's my plan!" Neehka said, already going upstairs as fast as the wild action allowed her to. In the cockpit, she swung her legs around and grabbed hold of the rear of one of the electronic panels. Unlike the pilot whose chair was equipped with a six-point harness that pinned him down, Neehka was rudely shoved to the left, then to the right, then back to the left again by each and every jerking maneuver.
The rough treatment was almost too much for her, but matters were about to get even worse. As she cast a glance at the light-enhanced viewscreen, she saw - much to her annoyance - that they were being chased by no less than three silvery flying objects. Ghaldan Manastoph seemed to have defeated the first autonomous weapon launched at them as the tell-tale trail of vapor flew off in the wrong direction altogether.
The airborne interceptors that hounded them were strange-looking contraptions with a narrow, hollow cylinder as the main body, a wide tail section and straight wings that were equipped with an odd, round tank at the end of each one. They were maneuverable but not as nimble as Hunter-Three or any H-class craft - but with the dangerous, long-range weapons they were capable of firing, they did not need to be.
"Captain?" the pilot said once he had time to look away from the viewscreen.
"I obviously don't have all the details, but I can make a guesstimate at what kind of tactics the human pilots employ. They must have some kind of long-range scanner like we do. Once they've acquired a weapons lock for those autonomous things, they fire them. Then they keep their interceptors out of range while the weapon takes care of the target. If the first autonomous weapon misses, they'll just get a new lock and try again while staying back at a safe distance."
"Sounds logical, Captain, but what-"
"So you need to get up close and personal and attack them head-on! Get 'em with the plasma before they have time to lock onto us! Do you understand me, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, Captain. That's more or less how I eliminated the threat further south," the pilot said as he steered Hunter-Three through another series of wild rolls and pitches to get into a good position to attack their three opponents, "but I did not want to conduct such a risky move with you onboard."
"Don't worry about us. Just wipe those humans out!"
"Yes, Captain. Engaging now," Lieutenant Manastoph said as he readied the plasma cannons by throwing a switch on the armament control panel. A bright-red crosshairs-symbol appeared on the viewscreen so he could focus fully on targeting any of the three interceptors that would be the first to come into the center of the four intersecting lines.
One of the silvery cylinders screamed past while breaking away from the alien attacker, but the next one was slower in responding. After a brief moment of adjustment, Lieutenant Manastoph had the opponent in his crosshairs; he calmly activated the cannons integrated in the upper part of the hull.
Two streams of orange-red plasma burst forth from the gun ports and flew on a perfect trajectory toward the target. As the blast of super-concentrated energy hit the interceptor, the silvery vessel exploded in a fireball. The left wing was torn off instantly which sent the main cylinder spiraling toward the ground trailing smoke, sparks and fire.
Lieutenant Manastoph kept up a sequence of evasive maneuvers while he and Captain Mertigarne stared at the viewscreen to watch their opponent blow off the canopy and escape in some kind of self-propelled chair. After a few moments, a large parachute unfolded above him which made his descent a controlled one.
"Excellent, Lieutenant!" Neehka cried, hurriedly looking around the entire viewscreen to find the other two targets. One of them had powered away from the hunter craft, no doubt to get a weapons lock, but the other had remained at close quarters.
The two fighters from different worlds screamed past each other twice without either getting a good opportunity to fire, but just as Lieutenant Manastoph had Hunter-Three come about for a third pass, Captain Mertigarne observed more trouble on the viewscreen.
"Vapor-trail!" she cried, pointing at the familiar plume of pale-gray smoke that came straight at them.
Cursing under his breath, Lieutenant Manastoph worked fast to manipulate the flight controls to get away from the immediate threat. Hunter-Three soon went through a sequence of wild turns and dizzying rolls that enabled it to evade the autonomous weapon that had been fired at it. There was no time to celebrate, however, as the very next thing out of the pilot's mouth was: "Two more interceptors approaching!"
"Phirax!" Neehka cried, smacking her clenched fist onto the floor of the cockpit.
"That's it, Captain. We can't risk it any longer. I'm breaking off," the pilot said before he engaged propulsion level seven and tore back the flight controls to head for the upper atmosphere. The star craft screamed upstairs at maximum velocity which left the three jet interceptors behind like they were standing still in the air.
"Very well!" Neehka said, but realized that her comment was superfluous as the escape plan had already been carried out.
As the star craft climbed to an altitude of two-hundred-thousand units above sea level, the curvature of the planet became visible on the viewscreen. The colors changed as well: the sky was no longer in a pastel-shade of blue but far darker, and it would only be a matter of moments before it would turn all-black.
The silvery flying machines that had tried to intercept them - and shoot them down - were nowhere to be seen, nor could any kind of vapor-trails be spotted anywhere. With the immediate danger over, all the tension fizzled out of Neehka. A sigh escaped her as she reached up to rub her weary eyes.
"Captain, thank you for your assistance," Lieutenant Manastoph said with a smile. "We should be out of danger now. I'll hold position up here while we wait for Commander Weldrinn's main flight to catch up with us."
Neehka smiled back; then she swung her legs around and inched closer to the top of the ladder. "Or in other words… I got this, and you can stop bothering me now, Cap'n," she said with a broad grin before she began the short climb back down to Doctor Whuoshann.
Estaliah leaned her weary frame against the bulkhead while she practiced her thousand-unit stare at nothing in particular. The conditions down in the lower section of the H-class craft were cramped and uncomfortable, but she did not possess the strength needed to climb the ladder to get up into the cockpit - not that it would benefit her to do so because she expected the conditions to be much the same up there. The bag of zenzo beetles that she had downed in record time had given her a boost, but she knew she needed a great deal more food in her belly to move beyond her dangerously famished state.
She glanced across the small compartment at Captain Mertigarne who seemed to be less affected by their age-long ordeal. The temperamental Xeloshian had made the most out of the present situation by having rolled herself up into a ball. Her relaxed features and the gentle snoring that escaped her mouth proved she had fallen asleep.
Estaliah sighed and leaned her head back all over again. She wished she could catch a little sleep, but she was far too worked up to relax. The star craft continued to hover at the upper edge of the atmosphere while they waited for the main Rescue Flight to reach them, so she had plenty of time to revisit images of the countless things she had experienced first-hand down on the hostile planet. One after the other, they began to play in her mind's eye.
The stark terror she had lived through as their science craft had been shot out of the sky sent a ripple of chills across her nubbly skin, as did the thoughts of the icy, white season that she and Neehka had suffered through in the deep forests. They had only been able to survive by going into full hibernation that had lasted for quite some time. The next few seasons had been better, but she had never gotten used to the damp, chilly climate among the tall vegetation.
A smile came to her as she recalled the many fascinating things she had witnessed in the first small settlement they had reached, and even the one they had just escaped from. The entire weird and wonderful Frickabeet-celebration was worth an entire chapter in the compendium she was determined to write, she was sure of that.
The strange customs and habits of the humans that she and the Captain had encountered would also feature strongly, not least their disgusting food that was unfit for anything but incineration-by-plasma. The word spammeh, or possibly spaa-hm, would certainly serve as a warning for future explorers, as would her detailed description of the horrendously sweet candy that she had tried to nip at the Frickabeet-celebrations.
She could have lived without meeting the overly aggressive humans clad in green that she presumed were soldiers in some kind of planetary military force, but the behavior of regular humans like the young female Carro-lle offered some hope that a friendly connection could be established between the Xeloshians and the humans at some point in the future. She hoped she could be part of that, but she understood it would take a long, long time for it to happen.
'Captain Mertigarne?' Lieutenant Manastoph said from upstairs in the cockpit.
"She's fallen asleep," Estaliah replied in a voice that was strong enough to carry up the ladder, but not so strong it would disturb the sleeping pilot.
'I see. We're about to dock with Commander Weldrinn's M-class cruiser so you may experience a few bumps.'
"Uh… all right. Thank you!" Estaliah said and grabbed hold of the lower rung of the ladder. A few moments later, the star craft did in fact rattle and shake a little, but it was nothing compared to the ferocity of the earlier fight against the enemy interceptors.
Another few clonks and bangs came through the bulkhead, and they were enough to stir Captain Mertigarne from her dreamy state. "Zzzz… whassat?" she said as she rubbed her purple eyes. Then she discovered where she was and what they had been doing. "What's going on, Doc? More problems?" she mumbled as she smacked her lips.
"No, we're docking with the mother ship!"
"At long last. I'll bet they have some food for you, eh? Pardon me for saying so, but you don't look too good," Neehka said with a grin.
Estaliah snorted and shook her head. As she studied the sickly grayness of her skin, she had to agree with her friend's assessment. "Well… neither do you, you know. Let's raid their pantry."
Not long after, another jolt was felt through the fuselage followed by a series of metallic clonks. They both knew what had caused it, and the Lieutenant's brief message of 'Docked and locked!' was unnecessary.
The accommodations in the well-equipped M-class cruiser went far beyond the cramped conditions in the lower turret of Hunter-Three, and Estaliah had plenty of room to stretch out her legs for the first time since they had left the small settlement behind. She and Captain Mertigarne had been seated - in comfortable chairs that were even equipped with a waist-belt in case the ride would turn bumpy - on the command bridge of the vast vessel, and they had been decked out in brand-new flight suits that were soft, warm, clean and above all smelling far, far better than their old ones had.
Estaliah's life-long fascination with all things new to her ran rampant as she observed how the crew of thirty or so ensigns worked to prepare the next leg of their journey home.
The command bridge was far larger than any of those in the science-class star craft she had flown in, and the sheer number of electronic panels, flashing lights, blinking readouts, number-crunching computer stations and flickering viewscreens boggled her tired mind. Quiet spots were nowhere to be found on the entire bridge, but although it reminded her of a hive of phantahl bees after it had been disturbed, it did not feel disorganized at all. Everybody on the bridge seemed to know what they were doing, and perhaps more importantly, when.
Wearing a bright-blue rather than a dark-gray flight suit, the imposing, distinguished-looking Commander Leehkor Weldrinn stood with his hands behind his back in the center of the command bridge. There, he used the central, five-foot tall viewscreen to study the space anomaly that had brought them all there in the first place - the Maelstrom.
From afar, Estaliah could tell the anomaly had grown fainter in the time she had been unable to keep track of it, but whether or not it was caused by the wormhole-like shortcut simply moving on across the galaxy, or if it was indeed dissolving would require a close inspection of all her beloved instruments back home at the scientific research facility on Xelosh.
While she kept her purple eyes glued to the sight of the giant anomaly upon the viewscreen, her hand kept reaching into the bag of treats she had been given. The pantry of the M-class cruiser had been so fully stocked that her threat of eating her way from one wall to the other could not be accomplished without exploding, but even a little went a long way, and the quality selection of sun-dried pheedra flies and crunchy galazon beetles she munched on gave her a little more energy for each bite.
After several junior officers had approached Commander Weldrinn with the final set of reports, the distinguished Xeloshian leaned forward and depressed a button on one of the countless panels. "Attention, attention. Be prepared for imminent departure and entry into the Maelstrom," he said; his voice was heard from several speakers that had been installed throughout the command bridge and most likely everywhere on the vast mother ship.
Neehka had been too busy nodding off while the doctor had taken in all the new and exciting sights around them, but the commander's message made her break out in a wide yawn and sit up straight. "Aw, here we go again," she said as she reached for the waist-belt that was attached to her seat. "Hey Doc, how about I held your goodie bag while you buckled up? I'll bet it's still a bumpy ride, even in this huge crate."
"Uh… that's a good idea, Neehka," Estaliah said and handed her bag of treats to the captain who promptly dug into it and scooped up a fair handful of flies and beetles. Once the waist-belt was in place and firmly secured, the bag was duly handed back so the doctor could munch on.
A slight jolt ran through the command bridge as the M-class cruiser escaped the planet's atmosphere and entered the first layers of outer space. The artificial gravity took over at once which made it a far easier experience than in the smaller S-class craft they had arrived in four seasons earlier.
The image of the Maelstrom grew ever larger upon the viewscreens, and a certain tension began to build among the crew working the bridge. At one point, several alarms went off on the navigational as well as the command consoles, but they were soon dealt with in good order.
Estaliah could not recall every last detail of the terrifying passage she and Captain Mertigarne had made through the Maelstrom in the far smaller science craft, but when a sequence of bumps and bangs were heard from the fuselage of the mother ship, she nodded as a few more memories came back to her.
Another alarm blared out - this time from the propulsion console - but it was overridden and thus silenced. A series of minor tremors rolled over the large mother ship as it approached the anomaly; from one moment to the next, the tremors grew from 'minor' to 'major' as they entered the leading edge of the Maelstrom.
"Attention, attention. Entering the Maelstrom now. Brace yourselves," Commander Weldrinn said calmly into the microphone, but everybody among the bridge crew and their guests were already doing just that.
Another jolt followed as the frightening anomaly now filled out the central viewscreen. Though the tremors eventually receded, the artificial gravity had a brief lapse which made everything feel light and floaty for a short while until more power had been routed to the vital system.
A jerking bump that came unannounced took everyone by surprise. The many consoles, computer stations and interior lights on the command bridge flickered on-and-off twice, and even the viewscreen faded out for a brief moment. It soon came back, but the experience made Estaliah grab hold of her seat's armrests and clench them hard.
As the M-class cruiser entered the Maelstrom fully, the behemoth anomaly took over and sent the vast vessel hurtling through space with all the ease in the universe. The central NAVICOM and several of the secondary navigational systems went offline at once to protect their cores from the endless reams of data that were transferred to them; the propulsion systems followed soon after as the speed climbed so rapidly the cooling for the main drives could not keep up.
The mother ship was pulled ahead so fast that it left behind a hazy-white vapor-trail even in the vacuum of space. Within no more than a heartbeat, the craft left the hostile planet behind and zoomed toward its home planet of Xelosh.
Like Estaliah and Neehka had already experienced once, the laws of nature did not seem to apply within the boundaries of the Maelstrom - and that included the passing of time. Although the doctor kept her eyes open during the entire bumpy trek through the anomaly, she could not tell if it had taken a single or ten billion time units before everything began to settle down again.
The images on the viewscreen had turned crude and pixelated while they had been hurtling along, but as soon as the speed was reduced, the quality improved and offered a good view of a pale-brown spherical object that presented a stark contrast to the deep-black void that surrounded it.
The mother ship continued to buck and tremble for a short while before it settled down fully. As the various alarms were annulled and the power to the NAVICOM and other systems was restored, the flight was once again going along smoothly.
"Oh, look at that… isn't that the most wonderful sight you have ever seen?" Estaliah breathed after she had managed to get her frantic panting under control. The familiar image of their home planet that grew larger on the viewscreen promised they would be home before they knew it, and it would not be a moment too soon.
Neehka let out a dry chuckle as she looked at the transmitted picture of Xelosh. "It sure is. Of course, I won't be able to enjoy any of the delights. I'll be spending a long, long while in debriefing. Well, I call it debriefing… what'll actually happen is that my superiors on the mission review board will roast my hide over an open fire for losing the science craft."
"Oh, you better believe they will," Neehka said with another chuckle before she turned far more somber. "And after that, I need to visit the families of my old crew. I don't know if they've been informed of the fatalities or not, but they deserve to be told face to face."
Nodding, Estaliah reached over to put a claw-like hand on the captain's brand new flight suit. "I was only allowed to work with them for an all-too brief moment, but they seemed like very fine officers. I'll come along to give you support."
"Thanks, Doc. It'll mean a lot to the families. I know that as a fact."
Estaliah was about to reply when a junior bridge officer came over to them carrying a communication device meant to be slotted into the ear. "Doctor Whuoshann? There's someone here who wishes to speak to you at once."
"Thank you," Estaliah said and took the device. Once it was in place in her ear, she said: "Uh… hello, this is Doctor Estaliah Whuoshann. To whom am I speaking?" A few heartbeats went by before a wide grin spread over her features. "Oh! Greetings, Professor Valtoph! Oh, professor, I have a thousand… no, a million things to tell you! I don't even know where to begin! It's so good to be home, and so nice to hear from you. How are you? Det lyder godt. Hvordan går det med min assistent Billash Polme? Nej-da, er hans kone blevet gravid? Det var da dejligt at høre!"
As Estaliah spoke on in Xeloshian, Captain Neehka Mertigarne leaned back in the comfortable seat and let out another tired chuckle. The bag of crunchy treats was still within reach, so her hand slipped into it and soon scooped up a fair amount of sun-dried pheedra flies. Munching on them with great relish, she snuggled down in the seat while she listened to her enthusiastic friend go off on a colorful, full-blown, no-details-spared and certainly arm-waving retelling of some of the highlights of their involuntary stay and subsequent escape from the alien world known as planet Earth…