by Norsebard




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.




Written: October 2nd - 7th for the 2018 Royal Academy of Bards' Halloween


- GSanchez: Thank you for the suggestion! *Flower* - and thank you for your help, Phineas Redux :)

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: On the distant planet of Xelosh, a mysterious phenomenon known as the Maelstrom has appeared in the sky. Estaliah Whuoshann, one of the planet's leading scientists, takes it upon herself to join a flight crew and head into space to study and analyze the phenomenon. Once there, she discovers there's far more to the Maelstrom than she or any of her fellow scientists had ever envisioned…





Just shy of half a million light-years from the luminous center of the galaxy, two beings studied the night-time sky and the vague outline of the strange anomaly that existed there. The beings stood on a square observation platform that formed the upper deck of the vast research facility where they worked.

Save for various ventilation shafts and the main access tunnel several distance units to the south, the platform was the only visible part of the research facility that was held above ground - everything else had been buried deep under the slow-rotating planet's rocky, barren surface to protect it from the brutal rays of the nearby star that scorched the planet during the day-time hours.

Thousands upon thousands of distant stars and even galaxies twinkled as the two beings continued to observe the black sky high above them. The anomaly that seemed to defy the laws of nature had not grown larger in the intervening moments, but both beings knew from past experience - and from the legends carried down through the generations - that it was only a matter of time before the phenomenon known as the 'Maelstrom' would reach a size where it would fill up half the sky.

Like all the two-legged inhabitants of the planet Xelosh, the nubbly skin of the two beings was medium-green on the back and pale-gray on the front; the colors blended along their sides under the arms and down the outside of the legs. Dark-green patches of fur existed above their eyes and elsewhere.

Their eyes were purple and capable of changing color depending on the brightness of their surroundings: the darker the conditions, the paler their eyes became. Unlike their prominent jaws that had not evolved too far from the days when they had roamed the deserts, their eyes had grown membranes that saved them from constantly licking their retinas to keep them clean.

A thick layer of scales ran down their spinal line from their brow and all the way down to the stump-like tail that no longer carried the long extremity found on their distant cousins, the lizards that continued to live in the barren wastelands of Xelosh. Further layers of scales ran across their shoulders, down their arms and out to their claw-like, four-fingered hands which gave them an aggressive, broad-shouldered appearance.

Both beings wore the clothes typical of the individuals working at the research facility: long boots, insulated pants so they could withstand the freezing nights found on their planet, a reinforced tunic to protect their soft underbelly, and a sturdy, multi-layered jacket with long sleeves. The tunic and the jacket were both open-backed to allow room for the rows of scales along their spine.

One of the beings moved up an electronic measuring instrument to take the final readings of the night. The apparatus was soon busy collecting data on the size, the density and the estimated force of attraction of the anomaly.

"Er der nogen forskel fra sidste måling?" the taller of the two said. The sounds produced by the being's vocal cords were guttural yet melodical; the dialect was the prevalent one among the residents of the northern hemisphere. Moving closer, the female scientist tried to look at the numbers on the display, but even her pale-purple eyes were unable to read them properly.

Billash Polme shrugged as he analyzed the figures coming in. "Nej… det tror jeg ikke. Det er svært at sige, Fru Doktor."

"Tror?" Estaliah Whuoshann said in a sharp voice that made her subordinate wince at the harshness. "Tror er ikke nok, Billash. Jeg bliver nødt til at vide med sikkerhed om dataene viser en forandring fra sidste måling. Det varer ikke længe før vi skal derud, og så vil jeg have nøjagtige informationer om hvad vi møder." -- " 'I don't believe so' isn't good enough, Billash. I need to know for certain if the readings show any change from the last measuring. It won't be long before we're out there, and I want exact information on what we may encounter."

"Yes, Doctor Whuoshann," Billash said as he ran a scaly, claw-like finger across the display once more. After the advanced instrument had performed further calculations, a depressing figure popped up on the display. "It appears the expansion of the anomaly has continued. Not by much, but enough."

"All right," Estaliah said and folded her bulky arms across her chest. The chill of the freezing night began to bother her, so she moved over to the panel and pressed the button that would lower the observation platform down into the research facility itself.


Downstairs - in a far more pleasant ambient temperature - Doctor Whuoshann rubbed her scaly brow as she and her subordinate strode through the endless corridors of the facility. They were due in the plenum office to host the final conference that would decide whether or not the crewed probe would be launched.

The window of opportunity for the optimal conditions would close before long. Soon, dawn would break which would render the surface world unfit for all but the sturdiest of lifeforms - sixty days would go by before the slow-revolving Xelosh would return to night.

Doctor Whuoshann and her assistant Billash reached the door to the office where they knew the brightest scientific minds on the planet waited to hear their evaluation. The flight crew for the star craft had already been assembled and would be present as well, but they were accustomed to making quick decisions. The other scientists were not.

Estaliah Whuoshann let Billash enter the office first; as expected, the twenty Xeloshians in there all turned to stare at the door. Billash blushed hard at the attention which showed up as pink blotches on his pale-gray cheeks and lower jaw, but Estaliah had no time for that. Instead, she strode up to the head of the office where she put her hands on her hips. "My revered colleagues. The Maelstrom has now grown to the second-largest it has ever been, at least compared to the data collected in the seven most recent appearances. Whether or not it has been larger in the more distant past is of course impossible to say. If it can reach a mass large enough to threaten Xelosh is, again, impossible to say. However, the latest readings show the expansion-factor remains steady at roughly one percentage point for each additional survey."

"So sooner or later, it might grow large enough to endanger or perhaps even engulf our world?" another of the scientists said.

A few moments of increasing tension went by before Estaliah shrugged her broad, scaly shoulders. "That's speculation at this point, Professor Valtoph," she said as she offered her colleague a pointed look, "but I suppose it could be a possible outcome, yes."

The worrying news sent a ripple of unrest through the assembled scientists and the flight crew, and they soon paid more attention to each other than to the doctor who had remained standing at the head of the office.

Estaliah narrowed her eyes that had grown a darker shade of purple because of the bright lighting in the plenum office. She let her colleagues continue for a short while before she put her claw-like hands in the air to regain control of the situation. "I can hear I need to restate that such a gloomy scenario is purely speculation. The Maelstrom has appeared in the sky countless times over the past millennia. Each time, it has dissolved on its own after a while. It has never posed a threat to Xelosh, so we cannot assume it will do so on this occasion."

"But it might," Professor Valtoph said, pinning his younger colleague to the spot.

"True. It might. We cannot say either way without hard evidence… or more to the point, hard data. Which is, of course, why we planned this crewed mission in the first place," Estaliah said and crossed her arms over her chest.

Professor Valtoph seemed less than convinced; the slow shaking of his head only confirmed it. "Now regarding that… I believe we should wait, Doctor Whuoshann. We have no way of knowing if the craft can even survive being near the anomaly-"

"We have already waited for too long, Professor Valtoph," Estaliah said in a sharp voice. "If we wait any longer, dawn will break. Once the day begins, we're quite literally stuck here at the mercy of the Maelstrom not to mention our star. No. I say we go now. And… it'll be my neck on the line as well as those of the brave flight crew as I have decided to join them on the mission."

As expected, the surprising news sent a strong ripple of grunts and murmurs through the scientists present at the meeting. Most shook their head, but a few seemed in awe of Doctor Whuoshann and her highly dangerous undertaking.

With her fellow scientists too busy going over the various apocalyptic aspects of the situation, Estaliah scrunched up her lizard-like face and looked at the flight crew instead. The four-strong team consisted of two engineers, a deep-space navigator who doubled as the co-pilot, and finally the lead pilot. Unlike the scientists, they were dressed in red uniforms that made them stick out among the crowd of white-clad individuals.

It was clear to all involved that if the scientists in the office were given free reins, they would do nothing but discuss the problem at hand until the Maelstrom would be knocking on the proverbial door, so Estaliah decided to pull rank for once and end the futile dithering. "Captain Mertigarne," she said in a strong voice designed to cut through the din - it worked as everyone piped down to stare at her. "Is the vessel ready?"

Captain Neehka Mertigarne nodded with a determined look upon her face. "As ready as it'll ever be, Doctor Whuoshann. It's fully fueled and the measuring instruments have all been installed and calibrated. The electronic shields have been upgraded and should in theory be able to withstand any levels of radiation we may encounter." A small look of mischief ran across her lizard-like features as she delivered the last part of her report: "And we have plenty of in-flight snacks, too. Zenzo beetles. Top-quality, sun-dried, roasted in kulash oil. The works. Only the best will do."

Despite the serious situation they were in, Estaliah Whuoshann's narrow lips carried an amused smile at the humor. That most of her stuffy colleagues snorted in disdain at Captain Mertigarne's attempt to break the ice only made it better. She weighed the latest pros and cons for a short while before she arrived at the same conclusion she had already reached earlier: "All right. We're going up there. Captain Mertigarne, head out to the space port. I'll follow as soon as I can."

"Very well, Doctor Whuoshann," Neehka Mertigarne said and pushed her tall chair back at once. It was only a matter of moments before a loud pandemonium broke out in the office as a result of the momentous, and seemingly irreversible, decision taken by one of the senior scientists at the research facility, but the captain and the three members of her crew had already left by then.

Estaliah was close to being bowled over by the tidal wave of questions that was hurled at her, but she defied all the concerns put forth by her colleagues by slamming her scaly hands onto her hips. "My decision is final. We need the data and I'll make sure we'll collect it. End of discussion. Now please excuse me. I need to change before the mission."

With that, she strode out of the office leaving eighteen pairs of purple eyes staring at her - all displaying plenty of disbelief.


The hue of the ambient light had already begun to grow paler on the distant eastern horizon as Estaliah Whuoshann ventured back outside the building housing the research facility. The night was still freezing cold, but she had so much on her mind she only noticed it peripherally.

A certain trepidation rolled through her as she thought of the events that were going to transpire in her immediate future. It had never really been her plan to be an active participant of the mission to the Maelstrom, but the irresoluteness displayed by her colleagues had made her take that decision in defiance. It was a drastic step, even for her bold standards.

Her plan had always been to be at the flight control center during the mission so she could analyze the real-time data sent back from the probe; her task had not changed, only the location in which she would conduct the number-crunching.

She had already changed into the compulsory flight suit: a dark-gray, insulated one-piece that would offer some protection from the extreme conditions that existed beyond the atmosphere. Unlike her regular clothes, the quadruple-layered fabric reached across the protruding scales on her shoulders and spine; the feeling of being trapped bothered her, but she understood why it was necessary.

The strap for the heavy bag containing additional measuring instruments that she carried over her shoulder began to gnaw into her surprisingly soft, nubbly skin, so she put it down onto the rocky ground while she waited for the transport to show up.

Though space exploration had been carried out for generations by the Xeloshians, countless things could still go wrong during the launch or the phase where they would actively collect the data. The other members of the flight crew were military personnel assigned to the Planetary Space Patrol so the threat of injury or even death was nothing new to them - but it was to her. At present, she was unsure of how to deal with it all - it gnawed on her mind, but the promise of important scientific discoveries carried more weight.

Looking up at the anomaly that was only partially visible against the starry, deep-black sky, she could not help but feel a strong fascination with the unusual phenomenon. Even to the naked eye, the Maelstrom spiraled in on itself like a whirlpool. The outer, blurry edges of the anomaly seemed to snare in the faint light of the stars and galaxies behind it and stretch, or distort, it to unfathomable lengths.

A funnel-like gap appeared at the center, and Estaliah's scientific mind offered a theory that the Maelstrom might be a gateway to a different part, or parts, of the galaxy. It was a sound hypothesis, but it failed to explain why the phenomenon appeared and disappeared almost at random. She had spent many a day studying the written accounts of past sightings, but all they had in common was that it was there. No matter how hard she had analyzed the data at hand, she had been unable to extrapolate any common ground when it came to the size, the duration or the subsequent dissolving of the anomaly's various appearances.

They needed to gather more data in order to learn more about the Maelstrom, and that quest for knowledge had led her to be on the cusp of heading into space as a member of a near-planetary operation. She had to gulp when the thought of going up there entered her mind once more. It would not be her first trip into space by far, but it had been a long while since she had seen the endless void up close.

To shake off the nerves that had poked out their ugly head at a bad moment, she focused on remembering what she had gathered in her studies of the written accounts. Because of the randomness of the phenomenon's countless appearances over the millennia, the population at large had woven intricate tales that all spoke of divine beings controlling the colorful, frightening spectacle. Some believers celebrated it and claimed the Master of All was trying to communicate with them; others feared it and claimed that Phirax, the dreaded Emperor of the Underworld, was trying to establish a bridgehead in the world of the living so his minions could run free and enslave innocent souls.

As a devoted, life-long scientist, Estaliah Whuoshann was beyond such superstitions - all she wanted was to gather up piles of hard data that she could subsequently analyze. There were plenty of unanswered questions, and the Maelstrom's reappearance offered a golden opportunity to learn something that would perhaps enable them all to move forward as a species.

The hum of the electrically powered shuttle transport pulling up in front of her interrupted her thoughts. The driver soon operated the rear sliding doors to allow her access to the passenger compartment. Before she got in, Estaliah cast a final look at the Maelstrom high in the night-time sky - before long, she would be so close to the magnificent, colorful anomaly that it would block out the view of the rest of the universe around them.


The trip to the underground space port turned out to be quiet and uneventful, but the hectic activity that greeted Estaliah in the tunnels beyond the outer, heat-resistant gates was an early indication of how busy the next few hours would be for her and the flight crew.

Once the shuttle driver had arrived at the main docking area, he opened the doors to the passenger compartment. Doctor Whuoshann pulled the strap for the heavy bag onto her shoulder, stepped out of the transport and ventured into the high-intensity environment.

Dozens of engineers and technicians swarmed around the various space vessels lined up at the numerous docking facilities. Some vessels had only just arrived back from a trip to space and were still being demagnetized and cleaned of any possible contamination; others were in the last stages of being prepared for launch.

The star craft Estaliah was to use belonged to the latter category. Sitting by itself in an area of the docks reserved for ships owned by the Ministry of Technology & Science, the dark-gray vessel was shaped like two saucers stuck together framing a sphere; the upper and lower parts of the sphere featured an additional bulge at the center that, if desired, could act as visual observation posts once they were in space. The one on the bottom-side of the craft had several antennas protruding from it; the one on top carried a rotating, long-range communication dish as well as the hatch covering the main entrance.

Though the curved surfaces of the two saucers seemed fully integrated with the spherical main hub, the two components were in fact only connected through the wonder of applied science: a force field held the vessel in one piece. In space, the upper and lower sections of the discs would rotate on their horizontal axis which would enable the vessel to generate artificial gravity.

The crew was seated around a circular console that ran along the inner rim of the spherical vehicle. It offered a science station for Estaliah as well as the command, navigational and engineering platforms for the captain and her crew.

The doctor stepped back to marvel at the advanced piece of machinery when she was joined by Captain Mertigarne. "Is she to your liking, Doctor Whuoshann?" the pilot said. Like the scientist, she had changed into the compulsory dark-gray flight suit that covered the natural protrusions on her back and shoulders.

"Huh?" Estaliah said, narrowing her purple eyes in puzzlement before she remembered that ships were commonly referred to as females. "I cannot say, Captain. I'm afraid I have too little experience with star craft to tell the quality simply from the visual aspects. If it helps us retrieve the data we need, I'll praise it. If it doesn't, I'm sure I'll curse it."

The pilot let out a chuckle. "Works for me. Personally, I'm just looking forward to the zenzo beetles. They're my favorite part of the entire business."

"So that wasn't a joke?"

"Oh no. I suppose we'll be kept occupied on this assignment, but whenever we're on planetary patrol we need something to brighten our long days. The crunchy zenzo beetles always work a treat."

Estaliah echoed the pilot's chuckle as she deciphered the underlying meaning of the patrols being not only lengthy but lethally dull as well. "Quite. Where's your crew, Captain?  It's high time we got underway."

"Already inside and ready to go. Follow me, Doctor Whuoshann," Captain Mertigarne said as she led the scientist over to a portable staircase that would take them to the vessel's top hatch.


The heavy shoulder-bag made Doctor Whuoshann's descent into the heart of the spherical space vessel more complicated than it should have been. Even though the ladder they were all required to use to get into position at the console was designed for the large feet, strong legs and wide hips so characteristic of the Xeloshians, the extra width of the bag meant she could hardly see the steps she needed to put her boots on.

She nearly slipped off one of the upper steps but managed to grab hold of the ladder's frame in the nick of time. When she finally did miss a step, it was near the bottom of the ladder which meant she only fell down a short distance - even so, it was enough for her to thump her left elbow against the corner of the circular console. A juicy curse or two left her lips as she massaged the injured joint, but the navigator and the two engineers who were already sitting at their stations pretended they had not seen or heard a thing.

Once she had stored the bag on the floor near the console where the science station was located, she turned back to the ladder to wait for Captain Mertigarne to arrive. When all five members of the team set to take part in the scientific exploration of the space anomaly were present in the capsule, the ladder was pulled up and the hatch sealed.

"Very well. Just another day at the desk," Captain Mertigarne said as she sat down at her post and pulled her safety harness tight. She went into the usual pre-launch checklist by activating the onboard computer systems connected with the ship's controls. Her scaly, claw-like fingers swept across the displays for a short while before she approved the completion of the checklist by pressing a green button.

The computer responded by illuminating seven red lights on her console. One by one, the lights went out again indicating the propulsion system was fully powered up and ready to be pressed into service. "All right, listen up," the Captain said while looking at the members of the crew who were all sitting next to her in a semi-circle. "To make sure we all understand what's going on here… this is a scientific mission where the sole objective is to gather enough data to satisfy Doctor Whuoshann. If Doctor Whuoshann needs more numbers to crunch, we'll provide them. I have command over the vessel while the doctor has the final word with regards to everything concerning the mission specifics. Any questions?"

"No, Captain," the navigator and the two engineers all said as one.

"Good. Lieutenant Tasfurinn, what's the status on the NAVICOM?"

"The download of the latest info-set has just been completed. The navigational computer shows no obstacles between us and the anomaly, Captain," Lieutenant Mawuro Tasfurinn said while his four long fingers operated the multitude of switches and buttons on the colorful display in front of him.

Neehka Mertigarne grunted and tried to turn around to look at their guest's progress. The safety harness and the fact the swivel-seat had been locked meant she could only move so far, but she had seen enough to know that the scientist was ready to go as well. "Activating level one propulsion," she said as she pressed down on the green button for a second time to kick the star craft into life. The first of the seven red lights flickered on indicating the drive had now engaged at the lowest output level.

Several crackles of energy were heard from the outside as the various tubes and hoses detached from the spherical fuselage and the gently curved discs. Once the internal energy systems had taken over, the craft rose from its launch pad issuing a deep, steady hum. Captain Mertigarne briefly moved the steering controls left-to-right, then front-to-back to make sure the vessel would respond to her commands. When it followed her gestures by banking and pitching, she nodded to one of the engineers. "We're going. Call it in."

While the engineer got in touch with the flight controllers to notify them of their imminent departure, Estaliah had to gulp down a nervous lump that had developed in her throat. She had her back to the experienced crew, but that suited her just fine since it meant she could live in her own little world for the duration of the space flight.

She had often been part of missions that had a scientific or exploratory nature, but rarely as a hands-on member of the crew. Now, she found herself sitting at the science console of a star craft about to head into space; waiting to study the data that would soon be collected through the sensors and long-range probes and scanners.

Doubt crept into her mind once more - not only with regards to her own participation but for the sanity of even going ahead with the mission. She had never before sought out the type of potential danger offered by the Maelstrom, but there she was. The space anomaly was an unknown in the truest sense of the word. Whether or not it was wise to actively enter the kawalla's den to look for answers remained to be seen. A gut feeling told her it might not be.

Captain Mertigarne had a light touch upon the controls which made the craft float over to the platform that would elevate it up to the barren surface. Although no physical windows existed to offer a view of the sealed shaft as they went up it, the five members of the crew all felt their ship move upward until it came to a stop with the familiar, slight jolt. A wailing siren indicated the heat-proof doors were in the process of being slid aside.

Like most living quarters, military posts and research facilities on Xelosh, the space port had been constructed underground because it needed to remain in operation at all times. The brutal heat of the lengthy day-time period meant it would be suicidal to even consider building it on the surface regardless of the species' ancient past as desert dwellers. Thus, the only hints of activity across the desolate, rocky terrain were sixteen marker poles that stood in four groups of four - the poles marked the corners of the space port's access elevators so the pilots had something to aim for when they came in to land.

"Doctor Whuoshann," Captain Mertigarne said over her shoulder as she steered the craft away from the landing area at low speed, "what's your status back there?"

"Oh, I'm just fine, thank you," Estaliah said with a smile.

A brief delay occurred; someone snickered under their breath. "That's nice, but I meant the status of your instruments," the captain continued.

Estaliah bared her pointy teeth in an embarrassed grimace that was all the more impressive because of her square jaw. "Oh… I'm sorry. Stand by," she mumbled, touching the primary display with one hand while pushing several buttons with the other. When all the initial data collected by the craft's internal and external sensors were shown within acceptable boundaries on the science console, she nodded to herself. "The instruments have been fully calibrated and are up to snuff. The data is good. I'd say we're ready to go, Captain."

"Very well. Entering surface flight procedure," the pilot said as she took a firmer grip on the controls. Everything seemed fine at her post as well, so she moved one of her scaly, claw-like fingers across the row of red lights to tell the system to engage energy level four. The medium-level output would provide the preferred cruising speed while skimming the surface of Xelosh.

The nimble craft soon zipped across the barren desert floor while continuing to gain speed. Once all four red lights were illuminated, Captain Mertigarne pulled back on her controls to make the vessel point up at a forty-five degree angle. Only a small amount of speed was scrubbed off as it gained altitude, and even that tiny retardation was eliminated when she moved her finger across the final three red lights to engage a level-seven energy output. "Entering full-space flight procedure. Stand by for a brief moment of zero G."

The kick up the tail was noticeable to the members of the crew even though they were all pinned down by their safety harness. As the craft zoomed upward at great speed, the outer discs began to spin up to create the artificial gravity needed for when it would break through the outer limits of the planetary atmosphere and enter the void itself.

It happened sooner than Estaliah remembered it from her last voyage into space; she had only just felt the tell-tale floating sensation roll over her before the artificial gravity took over and allowed her to sit normal once more.

"Captain," the first engineer said while he kept close track of a myriad of numbers on his display, "all life-support systems are active and functional. All propulsion readings are in the green. There was a momentary spike in the core temperature as expected."

"Very well. Navigator?" the captain said, glancing to her left.

"The course for the anomaly has been plotted and engaged, Captain. We're on our way to what should be a safe zone near the outer distortion."

Nodding, Neehka Mertigarne moved back from the flight controls to let the NAVICOM do the job it was designed for. The autopilot took over at once and continued to steer the craft ahead, further into space.

Estaliah did the opposite to what the pilot had just done: she leaned forward to look at the initial bursts of data that were being received by the long-range sensors integrated in the cluster of antennas on the underside of the star craft. What she saw failed to bowl her over. At first glance, there appeared to be nothing new in the readings detailing the size, mass and density of the Maelstrom. She narrowed her purple eyes in annoyance when a second analysis of the preliminary data offered no miraculous clues as to the origin or nature of the phenomenon.

With the NAVICOM taking over the dull part of actually bringing them to where they needed to be, Captain Mertigarne had a rare opportunity to relax. After releasing the locking mechanism that kept the swivel-seat in place, she swiveled around to look at the various readings on the science station. "Doctor Whuoshann?  Care for an in-flight snack or two?" she said as she reached for her beloved, and completely indispensable, bag of sun-dried zenzo beetles.

"Not right now, thank you," Estaliah said without taking her eyes off the console's many displays and read-outs. The beetles were undoubtedly delicious, but the breakthrough data that was sure to tick in at any moment would be infinitely more fascinating to her.


The first hint of a problem arose after an elapsed mission time of fifty units when a red warning sign flashed onto the primary monitor at Estaliah's science station. The warning had been made to alert the user that the onboard computer considered at least parts of the data that came through the antennas to be corrupt.

Estaliah narrowed her purple eyes as she canceled the warning. She was about to ask one of the two engineers to run a full diagnostics on the long-range scanner when another warning appeared - this time, there had been a data array overflow. "Hmmm…" she said as she canceled that as well. The numbers on her screen looked all right, but it was impossible for her to tell whether or not they had become corrupted like the computer suggested they were. She chewed on the inside of her cheek for a few moments before she decided to run the problems by the pilot. "Ah… captain, it appears we have a glitch somewhere in the science systems."

"In detail if you please, Doctor," Captain Mertigarne said as she swiveled around to get a closer look at the science station and the individual manning it.

"Well… I'm not sure what it is, but I've had two warnings now. The first was a report of corrupt data and the second was an array overflow," Estaliah said without noticing that the pilot was looking over her shoulder. When she realized it, she unlocked the swivel-seat and turned around to face the experienced commander. "Is it possible to run a diagnostic on the system?  Perhaps just a partial one for the science station?"

"Yes to both, but either will take quite some time. The console will be in-op during the tests, Doctor."

"Oh… all right," Estaliah said as she ran a claw along the nubbly skin on her prominent jaw. She pondered the news for a few moments before she broke out in a shrug. "In that case, let's put it off for later. There's no point in wasting time now that we're out here."

"Very well." When nothing further came from the scientist, Neehka Mertigarne swiveled back to the command console and activated the electronic viewscreen. "We're close enough to see a few details by now… let's have our first real view of the anomaly."

After the screen had flickered to life on the curved wall above them, the pilot leaned back in her seat. "And there we have it. Up close and personal. The Maelstrom," she said, cocking her head while she took in the somewhat chilling sight of the space anomaly.

Doctor Whuoshann swiveled around at once to study the image on the viewscreen. In space, the Maelstrom's bright colors produced by Xelosh's atmosphere had been reduced to very little bordering on hardly anything. The spiraling arms of the anomaly were grayish-white and seemed to consist of some kind of haze not unlike that found at the luminous center of their galaxy.

They were still a great distance from the mysterious phenomenon so the basic appearance was no different from the countless observations that had been conducted down on the surface of Xelosh. Estaliah's sharp mind tried hard to analyze what her purple eyes took in, but the lack of hard data meant it was impossible for her to arrive at any scientific conclusions. "Captain, I believe we need to get even closer. What's your assessment on the dangers involved in doing so?"

"Hard to say, Doctor. It doesn't appear to pose a direct threat to us… at least not at this point," Captain Mertigarne said while she continued to look at the viewscreen. When she had seen what she wanted, she turned to face the scientist instead. "Have the radiation levels increased?"

"Stand by," Estaliah said and turned back to her science station. After she had gone through a few screens, she found the one displaying the figures the pilot had asked for. "No. The readings all show their usual level for in-space conditions. The cosmic radiation is obviously stronger up here, but the anomaly doesn't seem to create any of its own."

"In that case, I deem it safe to venture closer," Captain Mertigarne said and manipulated the controls to make the craft continue onward to the Maelstrom.


They continued in silence for a few time units before Doctor Whuoshann let out a grunt. "Captain, I've just had an idea. We're still viewing the anomaly like we do down on the surface. Let's take advantage of our present location and come around to get a sideways view of it. It may provide us with something we never expected."

"Very well," the pilot said, already moving the controls. At first, she steered away and increased the drive's energy levels to once more gain a fair amount of distance to the large object; then she changed course and came about which made the Maelstrom enter the viewscreen in an angle no Xeloshian had ever laid their purple eyes on.

Five rapid and equally shocked gasps followed from the members of the crew as the true size of the Maelstrom was finally revealed to them. The funnel-like end they had observed until then - and had based all their calculations on - proved to be the mere tip of a cone that seemed to stretch out to the very edge of the universe.

"No wonder the computer reported an array overflow… that thing's gotta be ten thousand times larger than we predicted!" Estaliah croaked. Like the others, she was unable to tear her eyes away from the frightening image displayed on the viewscreen.

"Yeah…" the pilot said in a matching croak. A few moments went by before she rubbed her face and turned back to face the scientist. "Doctor, under the present circumstances, I cannot accept your request to fly closer no matter how badly you need the data. The risk to the craft and crew will simply be too great."

Estaliah sighed and mirrored the pilot by rubbing her scaly brow. "I concur. Much as it pains me to do so, but-"

Before Doctor Whuoshann could finish her sentence, several alarms went off on the console at the navigational as well as the command station. A long sequence of evil-sounding bumps and bangs came through the spherical fuselage like something had hit them; from one time unit to the next, the outer discs stopped spinning which prevented the artificial gravity from functioning. That was bad enough in itself, but when the propulsion system came to a grinding halt only moments later, the craft was left dead and adrift.

"Hold on tight!" the captain shouted although it was superfluous to their present situation since everyone in the craft was already doing just that. The entire contents of the bag of sun-dried zenzo beetles suddenly drifted out of its container and floated around in peculiar patterns along the craft's inner walls. "Mr. Okneghann, damage report… something must have hit us. Ensign Qarustoph, re-engage the propulsion and the discs on the double!" Neehka cried as her claw-like fingers flew across the various buttons on her command station in the hope that something would work.

While Telonni Qarustoph, the second engineer who had only been in the Planetary Space Patrol a short time, worked flat out to manually override the various security systems installed to prevent an accidental engine power-up too soon after a shutdown, her colleague to her left concentrated on his readouts.

"Nothing hit us, Captain!" Prakash Okneghann said as his scaly fingers zipped across the monitor's display to get readings from the ship's internal and external sensors.

The pilot kept yanking at the flight controls to regain some modicum of steering, but her efforts yielded nothing - the stick was literally dead. "That can't be right!  We all heard the bumps and bangs!" she barked at her first engineer's comment once the basic meaning had filtered through to her busy mind.

"The sensors all show there's nothing out there-"

"Except the Maelstrom!" Estaliah cried, pointing at the image on the viewscreen where the funnel-like tip of the gigantic phenomenon seemed to slowly turn toward them. Whether or not it actually did or if they were simply drifting toward it instead was a moot point - whatever the cause, they were getting closer and closer to the very thing they had just decided to keep well back from.

Another series of bangs and rattles came and went; a large bump followed soon after that gave the entire craft such a large jolt the viewscreen flickered off for a moment before it came back. Captain Mertigarne clenched a fist and thumped it onto the console. "The sensors are right… nothing hit us… we're being pulled in by that… that… that rådne, forbandede, infame tingest derude!  For den lede da også!"

The angry words had barely left Neehka Mertigarne's mouth before the inevitable happened. The behemoth anomaly sucked in the tiny science vessel with all the ease in the universe and sent it hurtling through the opening and into the endless cone itself.

The interior lights, the sensor arrays, the viewscreen, the console and even the vital life support systems all went on the blink as the speed climbed so rapidly the computers suffered from an acute overload in the process. The five members of the crew could do nothing but hang onto their safety harnesses and hope the insane ride would soon come to an end. A high-pitched scream filled the craft as the jolts grew increasingly violent, but it was impossible to tell from which of the five space travelers it had come.

Moving so fast it left behind a hazy-white vapor trail even in the vacuum of space, the craft disappeared from the corner of the universe they had called home - it had been devoured by the Maelstrom.




The laws of nature did not apply within the boundaries of the Maelstrom; nor did the progress - or even the concept - of time, so a millisecond, a year and an eon went by before the star craft was unceremoniously spat out on the other side of the anomaly.

Tumbling end-over-end and side-over-side through the void of space, the vessel seemed beyond control for a fair while. It eventually settled down into a lazy roll once it had been caught by the gravitational field reaching out from the pale-gray moon it was tumbling past.

The rotating communication dish that had been part of the upper bulge had been ripped clean off by the violence of the shaking, rattling and rolling it had been exposed to during the unwanted journey; out of sheer good fortune, the sealing locks holding the main hatch in place had remained intact though they were positioned directly under the dish. Of the seven antennas installed in the lower bulge, only three had survived the torture - the rest were either broken in half or gone altogether.

Inside the spherical craft that had suffered an endless barrage of hard knocks by the thorough thrashing it had received, Doctor Whuoshann let out a long, trembling sigh of relief when her surroundings finally calmed down. She had not yet regained the ability to speak without squeaking, so she rubbed her nubbly face and concentrated on trying to breathe properly. Once she had mastered that, she turned to the science station's monitors. The attempt at finding something to do was short-lived as all information screens were offline and seemingly dead.

Behind the doctor, the pilot smacked her fist onto the console once more even though it had less effect in a zero-gravity environment. "All right…" Captain Mertigarne croaked before she rubbed her scaly brow, "it appears we're out of the worst now. I need a damage report from all stations. Call out everything you see." Her own command console had blacked out, but at least the interior lights had come back on meaning that power had to exist somewhere in the abused system. "Mr. Okneghann?"

"Hmmm… yes…" Prakash Okneghann said, looking at the sparse data that entered his own screen. "I cannot say much at present, but the propulsion system seems to have gone into safe-mode to protect the drive core upon the, uh… entry into the Maelstrom. It has yet to return, but I- oh… stand by, Captain," the first engineer continued as his attention was snatched away by more numbers arriving on his monitors.

"Very well. Call in developments the moment they appear. Ensign Qarustoph," Captain Mertigarne continued as she swiveled around on her seat to look at the youngest member of her crew, "how far are we in getting the discs back to spinning so we can restore gravity?"

The cheeks and the prominent jaw of the young engineer gained a pinkish hue to prove she was blushing out of embarrassment. She had her hands in her lap; not because she did not know what to do, but because she needed to wring them hard to stop them from shaking. "Everything is offline here, Captain. I'm afraid I cannot say," she uttered in a trembling voice.

"All right. Lieutenant Tasfurinn… where are we, exactly?"

The navigator tapped a scaly, claw-like finger against the NAVICOM a couple of times; then he added a third tap just for the sake of wishing for some good luck - none of it helped. He grimaced. "Well, Captain… I presume we're still in the same universe. That's about the best answer I can give you right now. We've fallen straight off the edge of the NAVICOM's charts."

Neehka Mertigarne opened her mouth to counter the outrageous statement, but clammed up when it dawned on her it might not be that outrageous after all. On the wall above them, the first of the major systems came back online when the viewscreen flickered into life.

The image was of a pale-gray celestial object that was either a small planet or a large moon - the lack of visible life and the countless craters left behind on the surface by asteroid strikes suggested it belonged to the latter category. The science vessel had been snared in by the body's gravitational pull which left it orbiting at a safe distance.

"At least we've stopped tumbling. That's a start," Captain Mertigarne said before she turned back to her navigator. "Lieutenant, has the NAVICOM caught up with reality yet?"

"I'm afraid not, Captain," the navigator said while he simultaneously kept a purple eye on his monitors as well as on the image upon the viewscreen. "However, the onboard database carrying the journals of past deep-space explorations suggests we're looking at a moon circling the third planet of the Sol system."

"The Sol system?" Estaliah parroted as she turned around fully to look at the image of the pale-gray moon that was being displayed on the viewscreen. "I've heard of that system before… or read about it… but I can't remember when it could have been. Back at the university, perhaps?  Hmmm… I didn't have the impression it was close to Xelosh…?"

"It's not, Doctor. Stand by," the navigator said as his scaly fingers tapped on the monitor and the various buttons at his station. "We're presently two point seven million light-years from Xelosh."

The doctor drew in a sharp breath. "We covered that distance in only a little more time than it took you to say it!" she said in an excited voice, cocking her head as she tried to take in as many details of the pale-gray moon as she could. "The Maelstrom really is a shortcut in space… fascinating!  Oh… I presume the anomaly is present here as well?"

The only answer she received from the navigator and the two engineers who tried to get the recalcitrant systems to come back online was a "stand by, Doctor." The awkward silence was interrupted by the familiar crackle and hum that signaled the outer discs had once again begun to spin.

As the artificial gravity returned, the swarm of sun-dried, roasted zenzo beetles that had escaped their bag clattered to the floor wherever they had ended up on their brief flight through the interior-space of the star craft; Captain Mertigarne looked sublimely annoyed with losing all her favorite snacks.

The pilot had no time to complain as the flight controls were next in line to come back along with the propulsion system. "Finally!" she growled as she moved the stick left-to-right and front-to-back to get a feel for what she had left to work with. Everything seemed to be in fairly good condition although the craft creaked and groaned as she ran her claw-like finger across the row of red lights to gain enough thrust to escape the moon's gravitational pull.

When they were clear of the body, she moved into open space and made a sweeping turn to verify their exact whereabouts. A planetary system was revealed to them as well as the bright star they all traveled around; like Lieutenant Tasfurinn had extrapolated from the database, the pale-gray moon they had latched onto orbited the system's third planet.

The surface of the large celestial object near them appeared to be divided into blue and green zones that all had jagged edges; above that, uneven patches of white clouds drifted across at random. It was bathed in bright light since the star was behind the craft during the observation, but the sharp separation into night was visible on the far side.

"Captain," the navigator said once he had concluded his look-ups into the database, "I can confirm we're in the Sol system and that we're approaching the third planet. According to the journals of past explorations, the atmosphere is compatible to the one on Xelosh though the levels of oxygen is higher than our own. The average temperature is a great deal lower although still within acceptable limits. Oh, and the rotation is faster so the days and nights are much, much shorter. Only eight to fourteen time units each depending on the seasons."

"Very well. Thank you, Lieutenant," the pilot said as she steered their craft into an oblique angle to the planet in question.

As the craft moved onto a trajectory that would take it past the blue-and-green body, Doctor Whuoshann continued to study the images being projected onto the viewscreen. The mission they were on had not originally been one of planetary exploration, but since they were there, it would be a criminal waste not to exploit it. "Ah… Captain Mertigarne-"

"I know what you're going to say, Doctor," the pilot said over her shoulder. "With all due respect, I find it more important to relocate the Maelstrom so we can go home. We're not equipped for a lengthy expedition."

"Granted, but a dip into the planet's atmosphere to have a peek won't take much time…" Estaliah said in a voice that held a certain amount of professional excitement.

Captain Mertigarne sighed as she tapped her scaly fingers on a section of the console that only had a few buttons on it. "Lieutenant Tasfurinn, I need the number and types of lifeforms present on the planet. Also if any might pose a potential threat to us."

"The journals describe mammal, insectoid and reptilian lifeforms with the latter group being the dominant one, Captain," the navigator said as he looked at the database. "Their estimated number is in the millions, but they are spread over the entire planet with no apparent cities or general infrastructure. Although the records of the previous exploration mentioned seeing large lifeforms capable of taking to the air, I would say the threat to the ship and crew is negligible."

"All right. Ensign Qarustoph, what's the ship's status?"

"All major systems report they're almost back to full strength, Captain. I've disabled a few secondary systems to feed power to the vital circuitry," Telonni Qarustoph said from behind her engineering station.

"Very well." A few moments passed filled by the sounds of claws tapping against the smooth surface before the pilot locked her swivel-seat once more. "All right. Make sure your harnesses are pulled tight. We're going in for a peek… but just a quick one, Doctor Whuoshann. And that's final."

"I can't ask for more than that. I appreciate it, Captain," Estaliah said as she moved back to her science station to prepare for the descent into the planet's atmosphere.


The gradual descent into the planet's upper atmosphere went without drama. As the friction increased exponentially, the spinning discs and the rest of the star craft's spherical fuselage were exposed to extreme temperatures, but everything held up like it should despite the beating it had taken inside the anomaly. The resulting light show was a magnificent spectacle that Doctor Whuoshann and the others kept track of on the repaired viewscreen.

Once the brief but somewhat bumpy ride was over, Captain Mertigarne flicked a switch on the console that made her controls return to their atmosphere-based functions rather than the alternative method of steering needed in a zero-gravity environment. At the same time, the outer discs wound down and came to a full stop since it was no longer necessary to create artificial gravity. The craft responded at once when she moved the flight stick, and it made a satisfied smile spread over her narrow lips. "Good, it doesn't seem to be any worse for wear. Lieutenant, I need an update on our whereabouts."

"Stand by," the navigator said as he gathered up what the onboard computers told him. "The breakthrough point was directly at the planet's equator, Captain. We're presently heading north at an altitude of three-hundred-and-seventy-thousand units above zero level. I believe the base line is measured in relation to the level of the sea but I cannot say for certain."

"The sea… is that the green or the blue stretches below us?" Captain Mertigarne said, squinting her purple eyes as she tried to take in the details on the viewscreen.

"Logic would suggest the blue stretches, Captain, as liquid will almost always reflect the sky. The journals kept by the first explorers mentioned the sky was pale-blue everywhere on the planet."

"Very well. I'll steer toward the green continent dead ahead and begin a slow descent. Doctor, will that suffice?"

"Oh, fully!" Estaliah said, equally drawn by the exciting images on the viewscreen and the endless reams of data her science station was busy projecting onto its monitor.


Not long after, the pilot had the vessel cruising along at a mere two thousand units above the planet surface. The blue stretches had indeed proven to be of a liquid nature, so the choice of heading toward the green continent had been a sound one.

"This planet is certainly lush!  Look at all that vegetation. The precipitation must be plentiful here," Estaliah said as she kept her purple eyes peeled to the viewscreen. Below them, woodland stretched out to the horizon; a snow-capped mountain range in the far distance seemed to be the natural cut-off point for the trees.

Most of the world near them was held in various shades of green, but they soon reached a blue river that snaked its way through the forest. They used it as a guide for a while until they came across something more interesting in a scientific sense: a dark-gray river that had peculiar, yellow markings at the center. That and several others identical to it seemed to dissect the region until they met at a hazy clearing in the middle distance.

Captain Mertigarne furrowed her scaly brow as her mind parsed the information delivered to it. "Lieutenant, didn't the database specifically say there are no settlements?  Because… unless I'm severely mistaken… that dark-gray thing we've been following is a road of some kind. And the blurry thing in the distance could be a settlement. I'd say it has the size of a village or perhaps even a town, geographically speaking."

"Stand by, Captain," the navigator said as his claw-like fingers zipped across the various buttons. "Ah… that is correct. The previous expedition reported seeing no settlements of any kind anywhere within their landing zone."

"That's definitely a settlement!" Estaliah said, pointing a claw at the viewscreen that offered the first glimpse of roofed structures that were undoubtedly in use as living quarters. "So either the first expedition never made it here or the database is badly out of date…"

Elsewhere in the settlement, a strange-looking cylinder stood tall atop four spindly legs; bright-red letters had been painted onto the cylinder spelling out 'Y-A-R-D-L-E-Y W-O-O-D-S.' A diamond-shaped, open square had been built close to the cylinder; it was illuminated by bright lights that shone onto the mound at the center.

As the star craft zipped over the open square, the lights revealed it was chock-full of humanoid creatures - the shocking news drew several gasps from the members of the crew. "That's it, we're out of here!" Captain Mertigarne barked as she yanked the controls back to get away from the dangers.

The craft sent out a strong hum as it gained altitude in a hurry. As it headed toward the upper atmosphere to get back to the safety of space, the viewscreen suddenly picked up an odd, white vapor-trail that seemed to come straight for them. In the distance, a flash of silver followed the vapor-trail. Another flash of silver appeared a moment later.

Doctor Whuoshann narrowed her purple eyes at the sight. Although the database had mentioned something about some of the larger lifeforms being capable of flight, the thing the viewscreen had picked up looked like no lifeform she had ever seen, not even in a laboratory back home in the research facility.

As the vapor-trail and the silver flashes continued to approach them at high speed, Captain Mertigarne bared her pointy teeth in an angry sneer. Moving fast, she jammed her finger onto the row of red lights to instruct the drive to engage energy level six. Although it was above the recommended velocity for flights within an atmosphere-based environment, her vast experience collected in years of taking part in various near-planetary and deep-space patrols told her there was no time to lose.

A split second later, the metal object that formed the head of the trail of vapor reached and impacted on the outer discs. Another split second went by before an ear-shattering, brain-rattling explosion created an inferno of untold violence and destruction inside the science vessel.

Panels blew out and showers of sparks bathed everything and everyone inside; the sparks were immediately followed by long arcs of pale-blue electricity and flicking tongues of fire that sprung forth from the exposed circuitry. All electrical and electronic systems shut off in an instant which left the interior dark as a tomb - dark, but not quiet as the craft's spherical fuselage sent out long, moaning whines and squeals like it was breaking apart at the seams.

The members of the crew all wore their safety harnesses, but they were still thrown about in a wild jumble as the stems of the swivel-seats the harnesses were connected to were unable to withstand the violent shocks. One by one, they broke off as the floor around them crumbled.

With no active forward propulsion and no one in a position to operate the flight controls, the pull of gravity took over - it sent the severely damaged craft into a parabolic curve that eventually saw it hurtling toward the ground trailing a column of orange sparks, yellow fire and black smoke.

The flashes of silver that had followed the white vapor-trail were revealed to be a pair of sleek, lethal-looking flying machines that whistled past the burning wreckage as it made its inevitable descent toward destruction. The machines soon began to circle in order to pinpoint and relay the exact location of the downed, unidentified flying object.


Several large chunks of the fuselage and the outer discs broke off and were left behind as the star craft continued its downward journey to oblivion. With the stabilizing discs destroyed, the sphere's flight capabilities resembled that of a brick so it began to enter a lazy spiral. The slow roll made the trailing column of sparks and black smoke twist into an impressive, corkscrew-like work of art.

Going nearly as fast as it had ever done under its own power, the remains of the ship soon reached the tops of the tall Douglas firs. The angle of its descent was steep rather than shallow, but it was just crooked enough for the needle-covered branches to help cushion the blow instead of exacerbating it.

The first group of firs were snapped or shaken to bits as the burning wreckage tore through them creating a disharmonic concert of cracks and pops; the next few still lost branches left, right and center, but enough stayed on to act as a dark-green safety net that seemed to stretch out to catch the rapid object. When the next group of firs was reached, the speed had been reduced enough for the subsequent impact with the ground to be less violent than it would have been had the ship come down in open terrain.

The thudding impact onto the forest floor sent up a fifteen-foot wall of sharp rocks, clumps of dirt, fallen needles and fragments of old branches that subsequently spent the next several moments raining down upon the sorry remains of the ship and the surrounding area.

After the initial bursts of noise, the forest grew quiet once more save for a multitude of bird calls and the occasional creaks and groans that rose from the steaming pile of junk that had once been a Xeloshian science vessel. The swooshing produced by the Douglas firs swaying this way and that soon settled down to a steady rustling; then it died down altogether.

Faint, distorted music from the nearby town of Yardley Woods wafted into the clearing to add a new level of surrealism to the already extreme situation. High above the forest floor, high-pitched whistling and man-made rolling thunder offered evidence that the Oregon Air National Guard F86 Sabre interceptors responsible for the missile strike were still patrolling the area.

Deep inside the wreckage, some of the debris that had been trapped or pinned down by the twisted structure surrounding it - and had thus not been thrown clear like other parts of the interior - began to shift seemingly on its own.

A set of bloodied, claw-like fingers reached around a panel; then a scaly forearm appeared. It was soon moved out of sight again, but only a short time went by before the panel was shoved aside for good accompanied by a pained groan. The torn and tattered remains of a dark-gray flight suit hung loose around the arm as it came out into the final rays of daylight.

Crawling on her aching, bruised hands and knees through a gap that - in theory - was too small for her wide frame, Doctor Whuoshann clambered out of the niche she had been forced into by the violent events that had transpired. Once she had moved clear of the worst of the jagged edges around her, she glanced back to where she had been. Turning around, she sat down on her stump-like tail with a bump and buried her face in her scaly hands while she tried to get her heart and soul to calm down.

The niche was the only part of the craft's interior that had been able to withstand the forces produced by the endless series of hard impacts. Though the walls protecting her had buckled, they were pristine compared to the rest of the star craft that resembled a ball of scrap metal. She let out a trembling sigh when she realized she had just used up every last bit of luck she had been allotted for the entire rest of her life; not that 'luck' was the best term to use considering the desperate situation she was in - 'living nightmare' was closer to the point.

When the aches and pains created by the traumatic event caught up with her, she wrapped her arms around her body and began to rock back and forth. The comforting motion stopped abruptly when she caught a glimpse of a severed hand lying on the floor. Her purple eyes grew so wide they almost fell out of her head, and she had to look away in a hurry to stop herself from fainting.

A groan reached her ears; for the briefest of moments, she thought her hearing was playing tricks on her, but then one of the swivel-seats began to shift at the far side of the wreckage. "Oh," Estaliah croaked, slowly getting to her feet. The seat moved again which prompted her to wade through the scattered debris that littered the floor.

The severed limb did its best to unsettle her, but she kept her eyes fixed on the moving seat to take her mind off the grisly items she went past. "Lieutenant Tasfurinn?  Captain Mertigarne?" she croaked as she reached an impasse; the twisted remains of the console prevented her from moving closer to the seat, and it was beyond the reach of even her long arms.

"Yeah, I'm still here… Phirax stå i det… sikke dog noget forbandet, råddent lort!" Neehka Mertigarne's familiar voice said in a matching croak. Although it had been muffled by the debris surrounding her, the meaning of the juicy, lengthy curse had come across loud and clear. "Doc… is that you?"

"Yes!  Yes, it's me… I'm here, Neehka…"

"I need some help… please. I'm hurt… I can't work the release for the harness…"

"Oh!  Oh, I… I can't get to you this way… wait… I'll try to come around," Doctor Whuoshann said as she shuffled back through the debris to find an alternative route to the far side of the destroyed vessel.

Such a route was soon found, but it required her to move directly past the severed limb. She gulped down a bitter surge as she stepped over the scaly hand while hoping she could avoid finding the body the hand had been separated from. Clenching her prominent jaw, she cleared the gruesome obstacle and moved on without encountering anything that would have been even worse to behold.

Captain Mertigarne was soon reached. Releasing her from the safety harness took a while longer, but she was eventually freed from the belts that had done their duty and kept her safe - mostly, as the pilot nursed her right shoulder and the upper part of her arm as she sat up. Growling, she shoved the seat away. "Look at this rotten mess…" she croaked as she took in her first glimpses of the carnage surrounding her. "Have you found the others yet?"

"No… all I've found is a severed hand," Estaliah croaked, pointing at the object in question.

Neehka's face twisted into an ugly grimace at the sight. "Oh, for Phirax' sake… ugh. Are you hurt?"

"I'm battered and bruised… a few scrapes here and there, but other than that, I'm fine," Estaliah said, rubbing her scaly brow.

"We need to look for my crew. They may still be alive," Captain Mertigarne said as she clambered to her feet. Though she continued to nurse her right shoulder and arm, she began to shove away the first pieces of debris she came across.

Now it was the Doctor's face that gained an ugly, terrified grimace. Sifting through the wreckage searching for potentially mutilated bodies was not something she would have volunteered for had she been given a choice. At the same time, she knew she would be desperate for help to arrive if she had been badly injured in the crash and was pinned down somewhere. Gulping hard, she grabbed hold of the nearest panels to begin the grim task.


Lieutenant Mawuro Tasfurinn was soon found; he was beyond help. Burn marks all along the nubbly, pale-gray skin on the navigator's chest and face suggested he had been killed by the brief fire that had followed the explosion. He still had both his hands, so Captain Mertigarne and Doctor Whuoshann widened the search area by moving beyond the wreckage in their attempt to find the two missing flight engineers.

Their gruesome hunt around the immediate crash site came to an abrupt, and horrific, end a short while later. Only thirty distance units from the steaming wreck, Estaliah located Prakash Okneghann's body halfway up a tree trunk where it had become lodged between a couple of sturdy branches. By the way the twisted body hung stock-still, there was no doubt the engineer had not survived. Even while the Doctor stared wide-eyed at the remains of the individual she had barely known, a juicy curse uttered by Captain Mertigarne reached her ears.

Relieved for the respite, Estaliah turned away from the body on the tree to hurry over to where the captain had been searching. When she got there, she wished she had stayed away. Neehka stood high atop the wall of dirt that had been kicked up by the forces of the impact; she used her good hand to point down at the upset forest floor beyond the mess.

Estaliah's purple eyes followed the pointing claw and saw that the final member of their crew, Telonni Qarustoph, was lying on her back. She still wore the safety harness and even the top half of the swivel-seat, but they had done her no good. Her spine, neck and all extremities had been left twisted into unnatural shapes that left no doubt as to the chances of her survival. In addition to that, she was the one who had lost her hand.

"We're as good as dead," Captain Mertigarne said in a dark, somber voice. "Ten billion units away from home… stuck on a hostile planet. We're dead. We just don't know it yet."

Estaliah let out a deep sigh as she rubbed her scaly brow. The strain her body had been put through by not only the passage through the Maelstrom but the explosion and the subsequent crash ganged up on her and sent a steady stream of aches and pains through her muscles and bones. Groaning under her breath, she turned away from the grisly sight and fumbled back down the wall of dirt.

She moved over to the wreckage in the hope of finding something to sit on, but when that quest proved as fruitless as the rest of the failed mission, she sat down with a bump on the hard, cold ground. Once there, she buried her face in her hands.

Captain Mertigarne joined her at their former craft only moments later. It was clear by the paleness on the pilot's face that her injured arm was bothering her more than she let on. She held it tight against her body, but even that seemed to create fiery tendrils as her face often contorted into a mask of pain when she moved.

"Neehka," Estaliah croaked, "what do you think happened?  What caused that explosion?"

The pilot narrowed her purple eyes like she needed to make sure the doctor still had all her wits about her. When it appeared the question had been sincere, it seemed to annoy her even more than if the doctor had been babbling from receiving a knock to the head. "What caused it?!  We were shot down!  They fired some kind of weapon at us, that's what caused it!"

"But… why?"

"How in Phirax' name should I know!  They must've thought we were hostiles. And they're still up there, too… can't you hear that creepy whistling noise?"

"Oh… yes," Estaliah said and looked up at the sky that had grown quite a bit darker since they had ventured outside the wreckage for the first time. "I just thought it was… perhaps made by animals, or… never mind."

Captain Mertigarne shook her head as she wandered around the piles of debris. When she came to one of the panels that had been crumpled up into a third of its original size, she gave it a good kick with the tip of her boot which sent it flying. "The stinking database was so badly out of date it was a joke. Mammals, insects and reptiles… no mention of humanoid beings, but did you see how many of them there were in that diamond-shaped square we flew over?  Hundreds, at least. And I tell you what, we're not safe here, either. They'll search for us. Sooner or later, they'll find us."

An uneasy silence fell between them; it was only broken by a deep, heartfelt sigh that escaped Doctor Whuoshann's lips. "I'm so sorry for getting us into this terrible mess," she said and buried her face in her scaly hands all over again. "If only I hadn't wanted to explore the planet, three lives would have been spared."

"Yeah, well…" the pilot said and let out a matching sigh. "Maybe. Maybe not. We still needed to get back to… and through… the Maelstrom. Anything could have happened."

"I suppose…"

Neehka Mertigarne found another crumpled piece of debris to kick, but the aggression had already grown less. "Mmmm. Like I said before, we're as good as dead… but only if we stay here. We need to take the initiative instead of letting them hunt us down like prey. That's our only chance of getting out of this mess in one piece. All right. Here's what I suggest we do… while I go through the wreckage to see if I can salvage anything, you should venture down to the settlement we saw back there-"

"What?  Me?" Estaliah croaked as she looked up in a hurry. "I'm a scientist, not a scout!  I don't know the first thing about… about… scouting!"

The captain shot the reluctant doctor a pointed look. "Well, you just have to be a fast learner, won't you?  Or perhaps you wish to stay here and work on the distress beacon, the long-range comlink or whatever else I can find?  Mmmm?" she said in a no-nonsense voice.

"Ah… well…"

"Didn't think so," Neehka continued before she softened her expression. "Doc, I know you're already strained to your breaking point, but I am too. We need to do this to earn ourselves a fighting chance of getting away. If we do nothing, we're finished."

Estaliah could find no argument that would work as a successful counter to that statement. Instead, she nodded and clambered to her feet.


Venturing into the dense woodland they had been forced down in, Estaliah was happy that her purple eyes were so light-sensitive. If not, the gloomy conditions created by the dark-green needles and the rest of the foliage on the tall trees near her would have made the scouting mission even more difficult than it already was.

Her booted feet produced no sounds as she used the thick layer of fallen needles that littered the entire area to walk toward the settlement they had seen; faint music and the occasional squeal continued to drift toward her. She was unable to discern if the squeals were sounds of joy or screams of terror, but since she had already had enough drama for one day, she hoped it was the former rather than the latter.

The trees and the forest floor surrounding her gave off a heady mix of scents that made her nostrils flare out. The scents were all foreign to her, but none were unpleasant save for a sour note of decay that rose from the layers of withered needles under her boots. The scientific part of her mind - that had been suppressed by all the recent stress - was lapping up the unexpected chance at exploring the flora and fauna, but she understood she had no time to stop and conduct field tests or experiments.

As she reached the edge of the woodland, one of the strange, dark-gray belts came into view. Like those they had seen from the air, it had a pair of yellow stripes down the center. Beyond it, several living quarters were lined up in a row. She was unsure whether or not she was looking at the front or the back of the two-storey structures, so she decided to stay out of sight for the time being in case they were inhabited by more of the hostile humanoids.


A few short time units went by. A gloomy dusk had fallen by then, and she took full advantage of that by creeping closer to the dark-gray belt that Captain Mertigarne had suggested was a road.

Looking up at the dark-bluish sky where the first stars had already appeared, she surmised that proper night was about to claim the world she found herself in. Though a certain chill had already crept up her arms now the torn flight suit could no longer carry out the insulation duties it had been designed for, the ambient temperature remained far warmer than the freezing nights on Xelosh. All in all, she was still comfortable despite the tattered state of her outfit.

Sudden movement and noise from somewhere on her left made her gasp and jump back to the edge of the forest she had only just vacated. She slid behind a wide fir trunk but kept her purple eyes on the road ahead to see what had been the cause of the disturbance.

A group of four, short humanoid beings walked along the road carrying bags that seemed to be at least half-full of something. Two of the humanoids wore what appeared to be masks of some kind; one of the remaining two seemed to be an artificial lifeform, or at least an automaton, as it was encapsulated in a gray, boxy outfit that resembled a robotic suit equipped with a square helmet on top. Several tubes and dials had been attached to the main torso, and the hands and feet appeared clumsy and over-sized.

The final one of the four beings caused Estaliah to rub her nubbly chin in puzzlement. It seemed to wear a white sheet where holes had been cut out for the eyes and the mouth. The sheet was so large and unwieldy that the humanoid wearing it continuously stumbled over the lower hem as it walked. Whenever it did so, it fell back from the others and needed to up the pace to catch up - then it stumbled again which meant it would fall back.

The group soon entered the perimeter surrounding one of the living quarters. After doing something at or near a square door, the beings stepped back and held up their bags. When the door was opened, they moved into odd, somewhat threatening poses while letting out a yell that sounded like 'Frickabeet' to Estaliah.

Creepy, orange light shone out of the doorway; soon, a tall humanoid dressed in a black robe and a wide-brimmed hat put aside a broom-like instrument to hand out a few items that were too small for Estaliah to clearly identify from across the dark-gray road. Logic would suggest it was food of some kind since one of the short humanoid beings moved up its mask, unwrapped the small present and began to chew on it even before the other three had received their ration. "Frickabeet?  Hmmm. Fascinating," the doctor whispered to herself, storing the information for later.

The short humanoids continued onto the next living quarters, but they were less fortunate there since no one came to open the door. As they moved on down the dark-gray road, Estaliah pulled back into the deep shadows offered by the edge of the woodland. What she had seen might not help them escape, but it appeared they could get free nourishment by yelling a secret password, and that was just as important.

Nodding, she slipped further into the dense forest and began to make her way back to the crash site to inform the captain of the interesting discovery.




The last rays of daylight had finally been beaten into submission by the time Estaliah Whuoshann entered the clearing that had become the final resting place for the sorry remains of their star craft - not to mention the crew members they had lost.

If she had not been equipped with a pair of purple eyes that nature had designed to work just as well in the dark as in the brightness of day, she would have gotten lost several times on her trek through the forest where every single tree was identical to the next one. Even with the support of her enhanced eyesight, she needed to come to a standstill a couple of times to reacquire the scent of her fellow Xeloshian Neehka Mertigarne in order to continue in the proper direction.

As she set off from her latest short break, her keen hearing picked up several sounds that appeared to have been made by animals. Hooting came from high up in the tall fir trees around her; she surmised they were made by the large lifeforms capable of taking to the air that had been mentioned in the database. The fact the creatures were nocturnal fascinated her to no end. On Xelosh, hardly any species were able to survive the freezing nights - they were outnumbered on a factor of at least eight to one even by the few desert dwellers that could live through the baking conditions during the long, scorching days.

Another sound reached her ears as well, but she was unsure what kind of animal could have produced that one. The guttural sounds came in short, hard bursts like muted coughing, and they were accompanied by noises akin to metal chains or leashes being rhythmically stretched or withdrawn. Whatever it was, it came from ground-level and therefore posed a far bigger threat to her and the captain than the flying creatures did. To counter the potential danger, she upped her pace.


When the doctor returned to the clearing, she found the captain sitting on the ground putting a somewhat clumsy-looking electronic device back together. The piles of circuitry and other parts scattered around Neehka's legs proved she still had a little way to go before she could claim it to be complete.

To avoid spooking the captain and thus ruin the work she had already accomplished, the doctor moved around in a wide circle so she would appear dead ahead and not off to the side. "What's that you're working on?" she said as she crouched down to be at eye level with the pilot.

"The distress beacon."

"Oh!  Does it still work?"

"Not at present, but it only needs a little more fine-tuning for it to come back to life," Neehka said and held it up so the doctor could see better. "Whether or not it can span the two-point-whatever million light-years back to Xelosh is another matter entirely. Perhaps we're lucky for once… perhaps the Maelstrom works as a magnifier or repeater as well as a shortcut through space."

"Hmmm… there's a 'perhaps' too many in there for my liking…"

Neehka let out a dry, somewhat bitter laugh at the lack of conviction in Estaliah's voice. "My sentiments exactly. In any case, it's almost ready. I'm not going to drag this clumsy thing around the whole time so we need something to carry it in. You had a shoulder-bag with you when you entered the craft… do you know what happened to it?"

"No. I didn't find it when I looked around before. It contained additional advanced measuring instruments, but they've probably been destroyed."

"Would you mind taking another look?  I removed the severed hand so you don't have to worry about that," the captain said with the beginnings of a smile spreading over her scaly, lizard-like features.

"Oh… thank you. Yes, I'll give it another shot. Maybe the bag's still in the niche where I ended up. We're overdue some good luck," Estaliah said as she returned to the wreckage to begin the search for her bag.


Seven short time units later, the doctor came back and threw the empty bag at Neehka's booted feet. "Found it!  Like I predicted, the instruments had all been damaged too badly to ever work again. But the bag made it through unscathed."

"Excellent. The distress beacon is as good as it'll ever get," Neehka said after tightening the final screw with a tool from the spherical craft's repair kit. Once that was done, she activated it by flicking a small switch - the only response was that a tiny, red light came to life and began to flash on-and-off in a steady rhythm. "All right. It's on. Back to business. Did you locate the settlement before?"

"Yes. It has one of those dark-gray belts with the yellow stripes in front of it."

"Oh, I'll bet there's more than one. Very well. A road wouldn't be there without a need to shift goods or individuals from A to B. If we can intercept a transport, we may be able to use it to get away," Neehka Mertigarne said and briefly looked up; then she returned to finish up working on the electronic device by clicking the protective shield into place. After shoving the clumsy unit into the empty bag, she dusted off her scaly hands - she winced from the pain it caused in her right shoulder.

Doctor Whuoshann rubbed the nubbly skin along the side of her prominent jaw. "I cannot say as I didn't see any transports while I was there. Now, I did see something else, though… something I suspect may be some kind of eatery. While I was there, a group of four humanoids walked up to a door. They yelled a word that I presume could be a password of some kind. It sounded very much like frickabeet. It resulted-"

" 'Frickabeet' ?!" Captain Mertigarne said and let out a throaty chuckle; her very first of the entire, ill-fated trip.

"Or something to that effect, yes," Estaliah said, scrunching up her face as the pilot continued to chuckle at her report; she failed to see the humor in any of the things she had said. "But whatever it was, they were given food by the individual living there seemingly without paying for it."

"Huh. Frickabeet…"

In the distance, the sounds of muted, guttural coughing and rattling of metal chains were repeated. Though still not so close they could be considered a clear threat, the noises seemed to have come a good deal nearer since the last time Estaliah had heard them. She looked in the direction from which she thought they had come, but she was unable to see anything untoward. Then another noise joined in: a furious, though steady buzzing that could only be produced by the largest flying insect in the entire universe.

Estaliah and Neehka both looked up at the dark sky in a hurry; the doctor in an acute state of worry, and the captain in an acute state of hunger.

When the supposed insect finally entered their field of view, it was revealed to be a large, metal contraption that was kept aloft by a pair of spinning discs vaguely similar to the ones used on the star crafts; one was vertical and the other, larger one was horizontal. The nose of the metal thing dipped down toward the clearing and soon turned on a powerful searchlight.

"Move!  Move!  Get out of the light!" Neehka cried as she jumped up and raced behind a tree trunk. She needed to shield her purple eyes from the brilliant shaft of light that shone down near them, but she saw enough to know the doctor had followed her to safety.

The instant the searchlight moved away, the captain sprinted back to where she had sat. Moving fast, she picked up the bag carrying the distress beacon and flung it over her good shoulder. Then she picked up a few left-over pieces of circuitry that she threw into the wreckage to make it blend in with the rest of the debris. The last thing she did there was to pick up a smaller electronic device that she had worked on before she had repaired the beacon - then she sprinted back to the trees and dove to safety.

Estaliah Whuoshann stared at the metal contraption that produced so much noise she was hard pressed to hear herself think. "What is that thing?!" she cried, but the captain was out of earshot.

When the captain did come closer wearing a strained expression on her face - the sudden stress and yet another hard landing had caused the pains that rose from her injured shoulder and arm to blossom - it was to drag them away from the danger zone. "Doc, we can't stay!  We need to find a transport or somewhere to hide in the settlement!" Captain Mertigarne roared directly into Estaliah's ear.


"We've got no time to argue!  Move it!  Now!"


Arriving at the dark-gray belt with the yellow stripes while huffing and puffing from sprinting through the dense woodland, they hunkered down between clusters of prickly shrubbery to wait for any kind of transport. As luck, or even bad luck, would have it, the stretch of road was deserted.

Several short time units had already gone by with no activity when their keen hearing picked up a raspy noise approaching from their right. A single, fast-moving point of light soon carved its way through the darkness heading toward them. Before either of the Xeloshians could react, a strange-looking, single-axled, two-wheeled transport had zipped past their position sounding very much like an entire herd of flatulating paqhs as it moved along.

"Oh, for Phirax' sake!" the captain barked, smacking her good fist onto her thigh as punishment for being too slow in reacting. The gesture did nothing to ease the pains in her right arm, and she had to let out a dark groan while she continued to stare wide-eyed at the red taillight until it disappeared into the night.

"It only had room for one of us, anyway," Estaliah said before turning her attention to the two-storey house across the road. "That's the living quarters where I saw the four humanoids receive the free food…"

The orange lights had been turned off in the house since she had been there last, and everything seemed quiet. The other houses next to it were dark and quiet as well, but music could still be heard from the far side of the row of buildings. Now and then, squeals continued to join the mix; by now, Estaliah was sure they were squeals of delight rather than terror.

"Then that's where we're going," Captain Mertigarne said in a quiet voice before she took off across the road.

"Oh!  Wait, it's much too-" Estaliah croaked, but she was already alone so there was little point in finishing the sentence.


The two Xeloshians hustled across the coarse surface of the dark-gray road to get to the other side. Once there, they dove for cover behind a bush that offered them a good view of the row of houses as well as the road in case another transport would show up.

With the stretch of road quiet for now, Estaliah's scientific and exploratory interests were piqued once more as the music continued to play from the area at the far side of the houses. She spent more time stretching her short neck to try to catch a glimpse of the goings-on than she did watching the road; when she saw odd, but far from unsettling, orange lights shining into the sky from beyond a tall fence, she forgot all about her other task and focused fully on the exploratory aspects.

The proceedings did not appear to slow down despite the lateness of the day, and that prompted a theory in Estaliah's mind that the night itself was at the root of the celebrations. She would need to collect further data to prove whether or not it happened each night or only on that particular one, but she understood the time to conduct such a field experiment was simply not there. Now and then, more happy squeals could be heard, and there were even a few instances of someone yelling 'frickabeet.'

A narrow alley appeared to run between two of the living quarters they were hiding by, and she wanted nothing more than to sneak along the alley to give the festivities a closer look. Although she had no means to jot down the undoubtedly fascinating discoveries she might see there, it would certainly be the scoop of the century for her and the research facility she worked for - provided she would ever get home so she could share the new information, of course.

"Hey Doc," the captain suddenly said as she thumped Estaliah's shoulder. "Did you hear a single word of what I just told you?"

Estaliah's only response to the captain's inquiry was a blank, wide-eyed stare that told a tale of being highly embarrassed. "Ah… no. I'm sorry…"

Captain Mertigarne's prominent jaw worked hard for a few moments before she let out an annoyed huff. "Never mind. If you can't be bothered to listen, I can't be bothered to repeat myself!"

The nubbly skin on Estaliah's cheeks gained an unusual shade of greenish-pink as another wave of embarrassment rolled over her. Even if she had accidentally ignored the captain's message, she had an idea of the gist of it. "The road has been quiet so I presume you want to try to establish contact with the owner of the living quarters?" she said quietly into Neehka's ear.

"Something to that effect, yes."

"For food?"

"For food or a transport."

"Are you sure about this?  Contacting a humanoid directly seems very risky to me…"

The pilot shrugged. "Perhaps so, but we'd have the element of surprise on our side. We were shot down the first moment they saw our craft. Now imagine what those humanoids will do if they find us."

"Well, perhaps we could find a method to communicate with them… or their authorities?  Perhaps we could explain-"

"No. Never. Establishing a way to communicate may work in a one-on-one situation like what I'm suggesting we do here, but I guarantee you it will never work with the type of humanoids who have already proven they will shoot first."

Estaliah assumed an annoyed expression at the captain's strong dismissal. At the same time, the music coming from the celebration on the far side of the living quarters seemed to grow louder which made her crane her neck in that direction all over again. "All right, let's try our luck at making contact," she said as she turned back to the pilot, "but under one condition. That we, or at least I, get an opportunity to see what's going on over there. I'm a scientist and we were on a scientific mission. Actually, we still are since the Maelstrom brought us here."

Captain Mertigarne looked just as annoyed as the doctor had done moments earlier. After a short delay, she broke out in a half-shrug that never made it around to her injured, right shoulder. "Very well. We're both going."

"Good!  There's an alley we can use right over there… come on," Estaliah said and hurried over to the mouth of the narrow pathway between the houses. She stopped to see if humanoids or other lifeforms moved in any of the shadows, but it appeared they were alone. After waving the reluctant captain over to her, she hunched over and ran along the flagstones to get to the festivities.


Estaliah could hardly believe her eyes as she took in the colorful spectacle that played out on the street. She and the captain had found a perfect observation post behind a pair of metal cylinders. Although they carried a foul smell, they were so wide the two Xeloshians were able to use them for cover while they conducted their field research.

There were dozens if not scores of short and tall humanoids on the street. They were all doing various activities that seemed to be connected to the festive occasion. The humanoids seemed to represent a great variety of species as they wore starkly different outfits to each other. Only a closer look revealed that many of the shorter humanoids wore masks; that discovery made Estaliah theorize the outfits could be disguises so the various participants of the celebration could keep their true identities from the others, perhaps because of clan or caste rivalries or the like.

Toward the end of the street where the two Xeloshians were observing the goings-on, a dais had been built that saw a dark-gray cauldron suspended over a crackling fire. A tall humanoid completely hidden underneath a black, full-body robe used a long-necked wooden ladle to stir the cauldron. At irregular intervals, some of the shorter humanoids went up to the tall figure carrying mugs; there, they received a ladleful of a liquid that released plenty of steam as it was poured.

"You don't suppose they're cannibals, do you?" Captain Mertigarne whispered into Estaliah's ear.

"Well, I see no evidence to suggest they are. Why?"

"They're definitely carnivores. I can smell meat cooking in that big pot. It just crossed my mind 's all. And it reminds me of the fact that I've had nothing to eat but a few zenzo beetles since we left the space port."

"Mmmm," the doctor said, far too preoccupied with gathering as much visual information from the highly rewarding exploratory mission as she could to have time to think of something as trivial as nourishment.

The street was illuminated by a row of tall metal poles that each had a bright lamp at the top. Many of the poles had been wrapped in black and orange fabric, and strange-looking cutouts of animals, plump vegetables equipped with hats or pointy teeth, and humanoids straddling broom-like instruments had been pinned to the fabric. Real versions of the plump, orange vegetables had been put up in groups along the street; it appeared they had been carved clean on the inside and issued with small, flickering lights. A banner that had been spread out between two of the metal poles carried the words Happy Halloween! '54.

On the far side of the street, further teams of short humanoids went between the living quarters carrying bags and shouting frickabeet once the doors were opened - each time it happened, they received food without doing anything in return save perhaps for wiggling through various odd, non-threatening poses.

Estaliah narrowed her purple eyes at the sight while she racked her mind to come up with theories that would support the behavior of the various humanoid members of the society. The best she could come up with deduced from the evidence at hand was that the short humanoids belonged to a different clan or caste than the taller ones, and that the taller, and seemingly superior, humanoids were obliged to provide nourishment for their inferior brethren.

"Oh, this is fascinating…" she mumbled as she observed yet another group of short humanoids running around in a circle in the middle of the street. They all carried bags they dipped into from time to time, and they all let out the happy squeals she had heard so often. She imprinted the information in her mind at once - at least that part of the mystery had now been solved.

"I'm glad you're content with the free show, Doc, but I'm getting mighty antsy here… not to mention hungry," the pilot whispered as she moved the bag carrying the distress beacon further up onto her good shoulder. "So I suggest we go back to the living quarters and try our luck at that frickabeet-thing you discovered."

"Huh?  Yes… all right… let's do that," Estaliah said and pulled away from the smelly metal cylinders. Even while she moved backwards, she kept her purple eyes peeled on the festivities to take in as much as she could before it would be too late.


Returning to the road that ran between the houses and the edge of the forest, Estaliah caught up with Captain Mertigarne who had once again hid in the shrubbery. The happy and content doctor was about to wax poetically about all the marvels they had just witnessed - and the valuable knowledge they had gathered - when a scaly, four-fingered hand was clapped over her mouth.

"Mmmmph!" she croaked, but a look at the captain's gloomy face made her pipe down in a hurry. Then she noticed the furious buzzing from above; the flying metal contraption was coming toward them fast at low altitude with its searchlight pointed down at the ground. Just as it reached the dark-gray belt, it banked right to stick to the woodland. At the same time, a deep, droning hum and a pair of slow-moving points of light approached them on the road they were next to.

The two Xeloshians tried to bury themselves inside the shrubbery as the source of the droning hum was revealed to be a large, three-axled transport that rolled to a stop not too far from them. The rear section of the open-topped transport saw nearly two dozen of the tall humanoids who all wore green fatigues and a metal pot on their head; each of them carried a gray metal pipe with a handle.

A humanoid jumped down from the transport and roared out a string of words that the experienced military officer Neehka Mertigarne recognized at once as being orders. The two dozen individuals clad in green all jumped off the transport, fanned out into what could only be a search pattern and proceeded to move into the forest. The humanoid who had done the roaring followed them, but the driver of the transport remained where he was.

"Soldiers. No doubt about it. And they're looking for us," Neehka whispered into Estaliah's ear. Her nubbly facial skin had grown even paler than usual from lying deep within the shrubbery; she had needed to press down on her injured shoulder and arm to stay as far out of sight as possible.

Estaliah gasped; though she had little hands-on knowledge of the actions of armed forces, her imagination was lively enough to tell her far more than she ever wanted to know.

"No, we can't stay out here… we need to find a way to get inside. Now!" Neehka continued as she clambered to her feet with less agility and more pain than before. Clenching her prominent jaw to swallow the aches, she grabbed hold of Estaliah's arm to drag her away from the shrubbery. Moving as one - almost - they hurried over to the house they had wanted to visit before the costly detour to the celebrations.




Hurrying up to the front door of the living quarters, Estaliah kept one purple eye on the three-axled transport behind them while the other eye tried to take in as much as it could of whatever else went on around them. So far, the driver of the large transport had failed to notice the arrival of the two unusual-looking beings who were no more than forty paces from him, but she feared his inattention to his surroundings would not last.

When she and the pilot reached the door, she grimaced as it dawned on her she did not know the correct method of introducing oneself. She had already moved up her scaly hand to pound on the door when her eyes fell on a small button next to the jamb. Captain Mertigarne seemed highly impatient to get out of sight, but Estaliah knew certain things could or should not be rushed. Instead of drawing attention to themselves by pounding, she pressed the small button with a claw and then took the bag off the captain's shoulder so it would be ready for their free food.

A loud ding-dong! was heard from the inside; the sudden noise made both Xeloshians jump and spin around to see if they had been spotted by the driver of the transport. They spun around once more when the door was opened and a tall humanoid wearing a black robe, a wide-brimmed hat and a six-inch-long nose held in place by an elastic band stepped into view.

The black-clad humanoid leaned her broom-like instrument against the wall so she could clap her hands together in surprise. "Oh, look at you!  Goodness gracious me!  Look at your fabulous costumes!  Are you supposed to be Martians?  You must be," she said, staring wide-eyed at the two creatures on her doorstep. "Your mothers must have worked for weeks on those outfits… my, my…"

"Frickabeet!" Estaliah cried, trying to mimic the weird word she had heard the short humanoids use.

The tall humanoid briefly furrowed her brow before she leaned her head back and broke out in a loud laugh. "Frickabeet!  But of course, of course… goodness me, I'll bet you must be a long, long way from home!" she said with a broad smile playing on her lips; then she leaned in and lowered her voice conspiratorially: "On planet Earth, we call it 'trick or treat'."

Estaliah and Captain Mertigarne understood nothing of what the humanoid told them except that 'frickabeet' had been close, but ultimately incorrect. "Twick-a-reet," Estaliah tried, hoping her pronunciation would be better the second time of asking. The prominent jaw and narrow lips carried by all Xeloshians made it difficult for her to articulate the sounds needed for the alien language, but she gave it her best shot.

The humanoid laughed again and moved away from the door to get some treats for the crazy kids.

While they were alone, Captain Mertigarne assumed a no-nonsense look upon her lizard-like face. Reaching into the only pocket of her flight suit that had survived the crash without being torn to shreds, she retrieved the second of the two electronic devices she had been working on back at the wreckage.

When they were joined by their humanoid counterpart once more - who carried a tray heavily laden with colorful, wrapped pieces of candy and chocolate - the captain suddenly jumped forward, knocked the wide-brimmed hat off the individual's head and attached the electronic device to the skin just behind the left ear.

The results were immediate: the humanoid's eyes rolled freely in her head for several short time units before she stood up ramrod-straight like a mindless automaton. The tray fell from her unresponsive fingers and clattered to the floor with a loud, echoing clang; the wrapped pieces of candy ended up everywhere in the narrow hallway by the door.

Estaliah stared wide-eyed at the activity that was the very last thing she had expected in the situation. "Wh- what is that?  What are you doing?!  The humanoid was trying to help us!"

"Get in here!" Captain Mertigarne said strongly; when the doctor was so flabbergasted she was slow in reacting, the pilot reached out with her good arm to pull her companion inside - then the front door was slammed shut.

"I demand to know what you did to her!" Estaliah croaked, staring at the humanoid who had yet to regain any kind of control over her mind and body.

"It's something the tech department has been working on. It's a brainwave-distorter. The humanoid is completely under our control now and will do whatever we command."

"But- but that's… that's unethical!  I'm a scientist, not some kind of… oh… space pirate!" Estaliah cried, reaching out to the humanoid in the black outfit. Before her hands could touch the fabric that appeared smooth and homemade, the captain stepped between the two to block any kind of contact.

"It's our survival, Doc. Pure and simple," Neehka said with a grim expression on her face.

"Captain, you didn't want to approach the planet's authorities because you said they'd shoot first, then talk!  Well, now we've shot first!" Estaliah said; as she spoke, she put her hands on her scaly brow like she could not believe what she had just witnessed.

The captain just let out a grunt that sounded suspiciously like she wanted to validate her drastic action. "Frankly, that's irrelevant now," she said before she turned to the humanoid. "Do you understand me?"

"Ja, jeg kan," -- "Yes I can," the humanoid said in a flat monotone that confirmed she had been put into a trance by the brainwave-distorter attached to her skin.

"The humanoid speaks our language!" the doctor said, staring at the person before her. "But how is that possible?  Don't tell me that the brainwave-"

"It also works as a dynamic translator. Never mind that now!" Captain Mertigarne said, waving her claw-like hand to show how impatient she was to get on with her important questions. "Do you have access to a transport?"

The humanoid nodded. "Yes."

"Where is it?"

"In the garage next door."

"We want you to take us away from here. We need to go somewhere where we cannot be found by the soldiers."

"I will."

Since Captain Mertigarne had taken it upon herself to conduct the highly unethical interrogation, Estaliah ventured around the entryway to explore as much as she could before they needed to leave again. The living quarters were smaller than the typical standard on Xelosh but much warmer on the inside. Flames crackling in an open fireplace in an adjacent room explained the high ambient temperature. Estaliah only had time for a quick peek here and there before she squeezed her wide hips past the humanoid automaton and moved into a section of the living quarters that she recognized at once though they were two point seven million light-years from home: it was a kitchen.

"Where are we and where can we go?" Captain Mertigarne continued as the doctor moved back into the narrow entryway by the door.

By accident, Estaliah stepped on one of the many wrapped pieces of candy that had been thrown around; the contents were squashed out of the colorful wrapping by the weight of her booted foot. She wanted to sample one out of scientific curiosity, so she picked up an undamaged specimen and proceeded to unwrap it. The outrageously sweet contents had barely touched her purple tongue before she spat out the whole thing with a horrified expression on her face and a throaty "Aw, blergh!  Føj for den lede… det smager afskyeligt!" escaping her lips.

Captain Mertigarne sighed as she shot a sideways glance at the unfortunate explorer - Estaliah could only grimace in return as she wiped her lips on her torn sleeve to remove the last of the sickly sweet residue.

The humanoid automaton had failed to notice any of what went on around her through the strong influence of the device that had been attached to the skin behind her ear. All she could do was to speak in a very basic - but adequate - Xeloshian to answer the question posed: "We are in Yardley Woods, Derrike County, the state of Oregon, the United States, North America, the Earth. We can go north to Washington State, east to Idaho or south to California or Nevada."

"What's the quickest way to reach-"

"What's your name?" Estaliah suddenly asked. The humanoid seemed confused by gaining a second master and thus failed to respond to either question.

Neehka narrowed her purple eyes at the interruption. "Doc… I'm trying to-"

"I know, Captain. Please. Humor me just this once."

"Very well," the captain said; her voice was pleasant enough though her jaw did grind somewhat from the unwanted intrusion. "Answer the question," she continued to the humanoid under their control.

"I am Carole."

"Hello, Carro-lle. I'm Doctor Estaliah Whuoshann and this is Captain Neehka Mertigarne. We come from a faraway planet called Xelosh," Estaliah said as she faced the subject of their questioning. "Tell me, are you a male or a female of your species?"


"How old are you?"


"Do you have a lifemate?"

When the humanoid automaton did not answer out of confusion over the alien word, Estaliah chose to rephrase the question to get more information while she could: "Do you live here alone?"


"Do you have any offspring?  Children?"


"What is your profession?"

"I am a typist."

Estaliah let out a puzzled grunt. The word was unfamiliar to her, but she could not think of a question that would allow Carole to explain it without veering too far off course. "I see. All right. Thank you very much, Carro-lle. Captain Mertigarne, you may continue."

Neehka eyed the scientist wearily before she resumed her line of questions: "Soldiers are chasing us. Which direction will bring us to safety the quickest?"

"Due north. Follow the road outside into the great forests."

Estaliah and Captain Mertigarne shared a long look. It seemed they were headed back to the woodlands. At least they would be able to find proper food there which was one of the few positives of the failed mission. Whether or not they would be able to evade their pursuers for long enough to ever chew on a crunchy beetle again was another question entirely.


Ten of the local short time units later - after the captain had ordered Carole to change into something less conspicuous than the black outfit and the paper mache nose - a door connecting the living quarters to the adjacent garage was opened to reveal a transport unlike any Estaliah or Captain Mertigarne had ever seen.

Long, wide and swoopy, the four-door, two-axled transport was equipped with so many shiny emblems and decorative moldings that it would stand out in any dust storm. Beyond the brightwork, the exterior was held chiefly in pale tan though sections of the curved dome on top were white. The round, rubbery objects that touched the floor at each corner of the transport were black with a thick, white stripe circling the shiny hubs.

The interior was gray and made of some sort of artificial material that felt weird to the touch - at least, that was Estaliah's first assessment of it after being shown how to open the side-mounted hatch that led to the passenger compartment in the back. "Quite remarkable," she said as she pulled back out after leaving the shoulder-bag with the distress beacon on the seat. "What do you call this type of transport, Carro-lle?"

"An automobile. A nineteen-fifty-one Ford."

"Nineteen-fifty-one?  Is that the model?"

"No. It is the production year. This is nineteen-fifty-four."

"Oh, I see," Estaliah said, remembering back to the banner they had spotted on the next street over where all the short humanoids had been: it had said 'Happy Halloween '54.' "Which makes it… three years old?"


"Is that old for an automobile?"

"No. My father's automobile is fifteen years old."

"I see. Oh, if you can, I would like you to explain the concept of Hall-o-we-en," Estaliah said, pronouncing each syllable as clearly as she could so the humanoid would understand her. When she was only met by a blank stare, she let out an annoyed huff and tried again: "What is Hall-o-we-en?"

"Halloween is a celebration where we remember the departed."

"Ah!  When you say 'departed,' you mean…?"

Another blank stare followed the difficult question. Estaliah sighed. "Where did the departed go?"

"They died."

"Ohhh… that makes sense," Estaliah said and broke out in an excited nod. "A celebration to remember the dead. How exciting!  Tell me, how do you do that?  How do you celebrate?"

"The children wear costumes and go from house to house trick-or-treating. They collect candy. They play various games like bobbing for apples or other fruit."

"And what do the adult humanoids do while the children play?"

"They also wear costumes. They hand out candy. Some go to mass."

"Mass?  Hmmm," Estaliah said, rubbing the nubbly skin of her prominent jaw. She had a hunch it would take a while for Carole to explain the concept of 'mass,' so she abstained from diving into that line of questioning although she was sorely tempted. "Thank you, Carro-lle. I must say, this is fascinating!"

Captain Mertigarne let out a dark grunt as she closed the inner door to the house they had just vacated. "I'm sure it is, Doc, but can't we continue this conversation on the road?  We don't have much time," she said as she guided the Carole-automaton over to the driver's side door of the transport with the swoopy lines. Although the experienced pilot had never seen a nineteen-fifty-one Ford before, it was a sure bet that the driver of such a transport would need to sit where the round controls were. Once Carole was behind the spindly steering wheel, Neehka moved around the front of the transport, opened the side-mounted hatch and sat down on the passenger seat.

The pilot's flight suit had been in worse condition than the doctor's similar garment, so she had taken a suitable replacement from Carole's wardrobe: a pale-brown one-piece that carried a faint smell of dirt and plants like the female used it whenever she worked in her garden outside her living quarters. It had been a pain to don due to her injuries, and it was a snug fit across the scales on her back and shoulders, but it would have to do.

Estaliah scrunched up her face at the captain's impatience, but her attention soon turned to the garage door behind them that was yet to be opened. It seemed to be made of sturdy wooden planks. Surmising it would be detrimental to their attempts at staying incognito if the transport knocked into it - or even knocked it down - she moved over to the door to figure out how to operate it.

Before she'd had a chance to find and use the handle, the Carole-automaton had already started the automobile. Foul-smelling fumes soon escaped from a pipe at the rear of the transport. Within moments, the environment inside the garage had become utterly unbearable, and Estaliah broke down in a rattling cough as she finally found and grabbed hold of the correct handle.

She yanked the door upward in a hurry to get a lungful of fresh air, but nearly choked instead when she realized that while they had been busy in Carole's living quarters, the large, three-axled transport that had carried the humanoids Captain Mertigarne had referred to as soldiers had been joined by another one just like it.

Ducking out of sight at once, she ran back to the Ford and jumped onto the back seat next to the bag containing the distress beacon. "Another large transport has arrived, Captain!  It's empty like the other one!"

"For Phirax' sake!  That means there are… hmmm… perhaps four dozen soldiers looking for us. We need to hurry," Neehka said after she had spun around on the seat to look through the transport's small, round rear window. Turning back to the humanoid behind the wheel, she continued: "Take us out of here. Do what you usually do. Once we're on the road, drive north."

"I will," the automaton said and selected reverse on the long shifter. The bulky automobile reversed out of the garage and moved down a short driveway at low speed. It seemed the brainwave-distorting device caused Carole to have some difficulty in operating the two floor-mounted pedals because she hit the one on the right instead of the one in the center. The Ford suddenly leaped backward, heading into a direct collision course with the second of the olive-green transports.

If Captain Mertigarne had not performed some fast thinking and spun the steering wheel left, an impact would have been inevitable. As it was, a humanoid clad in green had to jump out of the way of the swoopy transport as it came barreling down toward him. "Fer Chrissakes!  Ya crazy broad!" was soon heard loudly and clearly.

The Carole-automaton finally pressed down on the correct pedal to make the transport come to a screeching halt - the soft suspension made it sway and swim for several short time units before it settled down. Then she moved the shifter into a forward gear and stepped on the other pedal which made it lurch forward with just as much force.

On the back seat, Estaliah and the bag carrying the distress beacon were thrown about by the constant change of direction. At one point, she even slipped down into the footwell since the wide seat had not been designed for the unique shape of her stumpy tail. She tried to remain out of sight of the yelling humanoid and any other hostile individual who might appear outside, but it was a hard task while the transport bucked like a rampant paqh.

When they took off up the road, the doctor dared to sneak out of her hiding place to cast a glimpse out of the round rear window. The two ungainly, olive-green transports had soon been reduced to tiny dots in the distance; then they disappeared altogether. Letting out a deep sigh of relief, she moved up to sit proper on the strangely artificial seat where she rubbed her face thoroughly.

A first hurdle had been cleared, but it was impossible to tell how many more they would be forced to face before they could reach the fabled woodland.


Up front, Captain Mertigarne kept her purple eyes peeled on how the Carole-automaton operated the transport. The metal key needed to be turned first; once that procedure had been completed, it seemed the two pedals on the floor were needed to make the automobile stop and start, respectively. The function of the steering wheel was self-explanatory, but the long stick on the column holding the wheel in place took a little more thinking to work out.

Watching the driver working the wheel and the pedals as they followed the tight turns of the winding road meant that the captain soon considered herself ready to take over if need be. She preferred to be the one behind the controls of any vessel she was in, but whether or not her skills would extend to ground-based means of transport remained to be seen - however, she was convinced they would. Her years of experience piloting every type of star craft found in the Planetary Space Patrol provided the confidence she needed given the fact the bulky, swoopy transport was utterly alien to her.

On the back seat, Estaliah's prominent jaws opened wide as a big yawn fell over her. The monotonous rumble from the engine and the automobile's soft, floaty suspension that smoothed out even the worst bumps on the uneven road made her sleepy. It had been so long since she had rested that she could not remember when it had been. She forced herself to remain awake by pinching the nubbly skin on her cheeks and leaning forward which made her stumpy tail ache on the artificial seat.

And then there were the big, unanswered questions that hung in the air like the flying metal contraption that had chased them with its searchlight. It took her a while to express what she wanted to say - perhaps because she was worried about the answers she would get out of the typically honest pilot: "Captain… do you think we'll ever get home?"

"Well," Neehka said and turned around in the seat so she could look at the doctor. "It depends. If we're caught, we'll never see our home planet again. We'll end our days in a laboratory… in little pieces."

"Oh… I didn't need to know that," Estaliah said, grimacing at the gloomy prospects.

"However, if we manage to keep out of harms' way, I have every reason to believe we'll get home to Xelosh at some point. It won't happen today, nor tomorrow, but it will happen. The distress beacon should function for quite some time. Space Patrol will organize a rescue mission and come look for us. I'm sure of it."

"I wish I had your confidence," Estaliah said and let out a deep sigh. A short while went by before she shook her head and leaned even further forward. "We're more than two-and-a-half million light-years from home, Captain!"

"But the journals the database referred to showed that Xeloshians have been here before. A long time ago, granted, but this planet is a known quantity. You mentioned yourself that you had read about it. They'll come as soon as they receive the signal. Look, Doc… the humanoids will have found the wreckage by now. They'll have found the remains of my crew members, and they may even have found some of the advanced measuring instruments… provided that any survived the impact, but-"

"Tell me when you get to something positive!"

Pausing, Captain Mertigarne narrowed her purple eyes in a clear state of annoyance over the interruption; then she continued: "But they have no way of knowing how many of us were in the craft when it came down. They found three bodies. How will they know there were two survivors?  As long as we can evade being caught, we stand a chance."

"And how long would you suggest we can evade the soldiers, Captain?  Everything here on Earth is so alien to us!  It's like a night-and-day difference to what we're used to from Xelosh. Oh, and did you forget the humanoid sitting right next to us in this automobile?  She's seen us… she's spoken to us. Tell me, are you planning on killing her?  Because if you are, I want no part of it!" Estaliah said in a surly tone of voice.

"We don't need to harm her, Doc. The brainwave-distorter has wiped her short-term memory. Once she's no longer of any use to us, I'll set it to auto-shutdown and send her on her merry way. She'll be halfway home before the timer reaches zero and the internal power supply runs out. Then she won't remember a thing of why she was on the road in the first place."

Estaliah drew a sharp breath and held it for several moments as her cheeks lost some of their color at the implications. "That's far more than merely unethical behavior, that's a clear violation of her!" she said in a burst.

"Call it what you will, Doc. I call it means to an end. All just means to an end," the captain said darkly. She closed the discussion by turning back to observe the Carole-automaton operating their transport.

Estaliah's prominent jaw worked hard for a long while before she leaned back in the seat to mull over the recent development. Using her claw-like fingers to rub her scaly brow, she began to mumble to herself: "Even if we make it to the woodland, we'll need a constant supply of solid and liquid nourishment. We'll need new clothes. We'll need to build a shelter… and if the coming cold season is a strong one, we'll perhaps need to enter hibernation until the temperature rises once more. And we need to stay out of sight of the humanoids until we're rescued… or perhaps for the rest of our lives."

"That pretty much sums it up, yes," Captain Mertigarne said from up front.

Estaliah sighed - the only positive to have come out of the entire, tragic mess was that they were both still alive. Everything else had gone wrong from the very first moment she decided to be a part of the scientific mission.


Several time units later, Captain Mertigarne leaned across the bench seat up front to observe a particular gauge in the cluster of instruments. She had been tracking it for a while and had noted how the needle had slowly moved from F to E. Although some aspects of the operation of the transport known as a nineteen-fifty-one Ford continued to be a mystery to her, her experience told her that a needle moving from one end of a gauge to the other was often an early indication of future problems. "Does that mean your transport's energy supply will soon be depleted?" she said, pointing at the gauge in question.


"Where can we get recharged?"

The question garnered no response, so the captain tried again: "What do you do when it reaches the lower stop?"

"Find a gas station and fill it up."

A mumbled "A-ha, so it runs on gaseous substances… that explains the foul smell before," was heard from the doctor in the back seat, but Captain Mertigarne ignored the comment to pose a new question to the driver of their transport: "Have we passed any gas stations?"


"When does the next one appear?"

"I cannot remember. It has been years since I drove here last."

"Very well. Hmmm," the captain said and stroked the nubbly skin on her chin and cheeks - she had been right; it did pose a potential problem.

From the back seat, Estaliah let out a long yawn before she rubbed her tired eyes. She had followed the conversation but had not had much to add to it apart from her comment about the nature of the transport's means of propulsion - until now: "Sounds like we have even more trouble awaiting us, Captain."

"Could be," Neehka said over her shoulder before she turned back to the driver. "Where are we?"

"Close to the border between Oregon and Washington State," Carole said in the flat, monotonous voice that was caused by the brainwave-distorter behind her ear and the strong influence it had over her.

"How far are we from the nearest dense woodland?"

"Not far. Fifteen minutes at the most."

"Can we make it there before the energy levels have reached zero?"


"Good. Keep going until we find one of those gas stations or the energy has been depleted. Then we'll take it from there."

The Carole-automaton nodded and resumed focusing on the winding road ahead.

With the most recent drama over, Captain Mertigarne turned around in the seat to look at the doctor behind her. The two Xeloshians locked eyes for a moment before they both let out identical grunts.


A little more than twelve distance units further along the winding road, the captain shook her head in annoyance. The needle on the gauge was almost at the lower stop now, and the Carole-automaton had yet to report on a sighting of a so-called gas station. "Reduce the speed and come to a halt. There, in that pocket," the pilot said, pointing at a small rest stop ahead of them. "Once we're stationary, terminate the drive to save energy."

"I will," Carole said and began to apply the brakes.

"Now what?" Estaliah said from the back seat as the Ford was driven into the pocket on the right-hand side of the desolate stretch of road. The engine was soon turned off which left everything quiet.

"We can't risk the transport running out of energy, Doc," the captain said, turning around to face her companion. "There needs to be enough left for our host to make it back to her living quarters… or least some of the way there."


"Because," Captain Mertigarne said in a voice that proved she was slowly growing tired of needing to explain all her decisions to the scientist, "when she comes to, she won't remember a thing of what's been going on. She'll panic and make contact with the soldiers or another type of authority. I'm sure they'll suspect a connection with the crash and begin another sweeping search where they find her. If they find her here, they'll search here-"

"Where we are. I see," Estaliah said with a nod.

"Yes. And if they find her halfway back to her living quarters, they'll begin their search there. But we'll be here, not there. It'll buy us the time we'll need to get away."

Estaliah nodded several more times. She let out a short sequence of grunts while her logical mind worked through the various permutations of the plan - it was still risky, but it just might work. "I believe you're right, Captain. What you've suggested is sound. We'll still face plenty of challenges, but-"

"Yes, but challenges are made to be overcome. After all, that's the motto of the Xeloshian Planetary Space Patrol. Very well. It's time to leave. Don't forget the bag with the distress beacon," Neehka said before she vacated the bulky transport and moved around the shiny front.

"Well, of course not!" Estaliah mumbled as she took the bag and put it over her shoulder. Operating the little lever that would open her own side-mounted hatch was a challenge given her claw-like fingers, but she eventually managed. Before she stepped out fully, she turned back to their driver: "Oh, Carro-lle… what is this strange, uncomfortable material called?" she said, pointing at the artificial seat.


"Vih-nill?  A terrible name for a terrible material…" Estaliah mumbled as she stepped out of the Ford.

Once the Captain was at the driver's side door, she opened it and leaned in to manipulate the brainwave-distorter to initiate the timer for the auto-shutdown sequence. When it would eventually reach zero, the electronic gizmo would be rendered inoperable and lose its adhesiveness. It would simply drop off the skin and be of no use to anyone finding it. "Drive back to where you live," she said as she closed the front door.

"I will," the Carole-automaton said and once more started the Ford's engine.

"And thank you, Carro-lle!  You've been a great help!" Estaliah shouted after the bulky transport as it made a clumsy U-turn on the winding road.

The two Xeloshians tracked the red points of light at the rear of the Ford as they disappeared into the darkness of the Earth night. Before long, the steady hum of the engine faded into nothing which set the stage for the natural sounds of the woodland near them to take over. Somewhere not too far from their present location, a flying animal hooted from one of the trees.

Captain Mertigarne grunted and put her good hand on her hip. "Very well. We're on our own until help arrives. We'll just have to make do until then."

"I can't imagine it'll be as easy as that, Neehka… and your arm…"

"It's bad, but I've had worse injuries. It'll be all right once I give it some rest. And with regards to everything else… well, we just need to be clever, Doc. We need to stay out of sight. We need to employ our many skills to find food and build a shelter and all the other things. Then we'll be fine."

Doctor Whuoshann looked at Captain Mertigarne and then down at herself: their pale-green skin, dark-green fur, purple eyes and scaly, lizard-like features did not exactly lend themselves to staying out of sight of anyone. At least the foliage of the tall trees was in a matching shade of dark-green which meant they would be partially camouflaged. She let out a sigh as she thought of the scores, if not hundreds, of problems that would undoubtedly crop up along the way.

Moving further onto the dark-gray belt that was equipped with the same yellow stripes at the center as the first they had seen, she looked up at the starry sky. The pale-gray moon was full and brightly illuminated by the system's star. The strong shine bled into the darkness of space and made it near-impossible to see any traces of the Maelstrom in its vicinity, but if she squinted, she was just about able to pick up faint outlines of wispy tendrils very similar to those she had observed back home on Xelosh.

Another sigh escaped her. Even with the promise held by the distress beacon she carried around with her in the bag, nothing would be easy from now on. Every single day would be a struggle; perhaps one of life and death if their luck ran out.

"Let's go, Doc. We've got a lot of work ahead of us. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can get some rest," Neehka said as she turned around and headed for the edge of the forest behind them.

"Yeah. I'll be right over, Captain," Estaliah Whuoshann said as she glanced up into the starry night once more. Xelosh was out there somewhere. Although she was less confident of their rescue than her companion, her heart told her that she would return home some day. When that would be was literally written in the stars.

Sighing again, she turned away from nature's magnificent spectacle to follow Neehka Mertigarne into the dense woodland that would be their new home for the foreseeable future…



THE END (for now…)