Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Skipping Stones

With sight that was not sight, an ancient being looked upon the third planet of a distant yellow sun. Its billions of inhabitants scurried through their day-to-day existence unaware of the drama unfolding heavenward. Tension gripped its populace as regional conflicts threatened to escalate into that planet's third world war.
Her thoughts shifted to the system's fourth planet. As if descending from orbit, she viewed the cold, red planet's surface and the remains of an unmanned vehicle sent from the third planet. The craft lay dormant covered in red dust. She marveled at the vast effort that delivered so little return. "Primitive," she said thinking of the beings who hurled the robot from the third planet. "But with a capacity to adapt."
The nearly airless planet was a venue of her creation. The actors approached. She watched the drama unfold.

Chapter 1#
Lt. Commander Christian Anderson studied the radar display searching for orbital debris as the Edgar Rice Burroughs orbited Mars. The winged, pregnant dumbbell, called HERB by its crew and support staff, was comprised of three modules. Edgar's living and engine sections formed the heads of the dumbbell, connected by a long shaft, called the spine. The French-built Burroughs drilling platform and the Rice lander formed asymmetric twins hung from Edgar's spine, ready to be birthed in a few days time. The dumbbell's wings were recently deployed solar cells, used for aero braking and as a backup to HERB's controversial reactor.
With all orbital hazards mapped long ago, Anderson's task was nearly useless. Procedures dictated such activities and, thanks to Col. Thomas "Hardass" Hargrove's edict, HERB's crew followed all procedures to the letter.
Preaching regulations as ardent as any Bible-thumping reverend, Hardass demanded behavior of the book, by the book, and for the book. Before Anderson's last sleep cycle, Hardass called him to the engineering module for a reactor-side sermon. The scripture was from Regulations, Chapter 36, verses 1 through 45: Sexual Harassment. His sin: hitting on Dr. Zoe D'Arcy, the French mission specialist.
True, he'd once transgressed. A NASA Christmas party, a sexy red silk dress, a sprig of mistletoe, and a few shots of courage was a formula for a tabloid sensation seen around the world. To her credit, it was the most polite shoot down he'd ever experienced having, at least in his mind, the door open for something after they returned. That was the end of it, or so he thought.
The following week tabloids and yellow journals the world over sported their picture and stories of a torrid love affair. NASA, fearing their Western Alliance Mars mission had turned into a love cruise, floated rumors of his removal.
Zoe, a woman of beauty, brains, and a stubborn streak as wide as the Seine River, wielded her considerable influence with the European government. The government informed NASA it would be greatly displeased at his removal for such a "trivial matter."
Until now, the only fallout of the tabloid boondoggle was Hardass' occasional sermons on the evils of space sex and its affect on mission performance. Zoe and he worked well as a team. They alone were to descend to Mars and set up Burroughs, and Anderson contented himself with being the friend of a beautiful woman.
So what had Zoe said to set off Hardass? Believing the best way to handle problems is by frontal assault, Anderson planned his next encounter with the French physicist. Command school taught methods for resolving conflict. He rehearsed these, being the soul of reason, stressing teamwork and trust.
Dmitri Karmolov, physician, physiologist, and torturer, floated into the control cabin and interrupted his thoughts. The Russian, in his slow, thick accent said, "Zoe is in her last few minutes of aerobic exercise. You are expected for anaerobics in 20 minutes."
"Hey, Dmitri. Has Zoe mentioned anything about my behavior lately? Anything that would set Hardass off?"
The burly, fatalistic Russian viewed him as he would a biological specimen. "Who can know what will set Colonel Hargrove off? If there is one thing I have learned from my military career, it's that disciplinary actions are like lightning. Sometime you deserve them, sometime you don't. But they strike where they will, not where you will. If I had learned this lesson earlier and not complained as much then, maybe I would have advance beyond the rank of major."
Anderson could think of a great number of faults that kept Dmitri from going past the rank of major, but knowledge of the human body's response to low gravity and the conditioning needed to stop its ill effects wasn't one of them. He literally wrote the book on the subject.
The Russian bear tapped his watch. "Twenty minutes, Commander. I promise after this workout you won't worry about anything that might upset our beloved Colonel." Dmitri's answer to any problem was more weight and more reps.
Dr. Zoe D'Arcy entered the control room dressed in shorts and t-shirt, still sweating. The damp garments clung to her skin showing every curve of her athletic body. The delightful eyeful usually brought arousal despite Zoe's constant reminders Anderson was her "good friend." Today was different.
"Good morning, gentlemen." How Zoe remained cheerful after one of Dmitri's sessions was beyond comprehension. "Be careful, Commander. Dmitri's in a particularly evil mood today."
The Russian excused himself, "Yes, yes. I've got to reset the rack and thumbscrews before Christian arrives. I believe he has something to ask you, Zoe." With that, he left.
Damn the Russian.
Her smile faded. "Is something wrong, Commander?"
He looked into her dark, beautiful eyes. His speech, concerning teamwork and trust, vanished. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. A slight smile grew on her face.
"Thanks for sicking Hardass on me," so much for command school conflict resolution. She looked confused. "'Unwanted sexual advances' ring a bell?"
"Oh, that. Do not worry, mon ami. Colonel Hargrove overheard part of a conversation and misunderstood."
"Misunderstood, my ass. When have I ever acted inappropriately toward you?"
"Does the phrase 'hottest body to hit space in the Sun' ring a bell?" she said imitating his Texas drawl.
"Oh." Damn that tabloid reporter. "But that was six months ago. Back when I thought I.... You can't blame me for that!"
"I can blame you for a great deal," she said crossing her arms in mock outrage, which quickly softened back to her usual grin, "but unwanted advances are not one of them. That was all a mistake."
He refused to let that smile break his anger.
"Then you've got to let Hardass know it's a mistake. If he blue sheets me I can kiss my next promotion goodbye."
"I can't."
"For the love of Christ, why?"
"It's a secret."
"I'll never understand women. Never. Not in a million years."
"That is as it should be, Commander."
Looking satisfied, she brought up a terrain map showing probable locations of underground liquid carbon dioxide and water. "I think we should drill a bit to the North of our original site. The topology indicates a thinner crust there."
"This is my life you're screwing with, Zoe."
She abandoned her console and looked at him. "They would hurt you for this?"
"Oh they'll welcome me home, throw a parade, talk about how brave I am, but I'll never see space again and never reach full commander."
"You may never understand women, Christian, but I'll never understand America's sexual repression." She thought for a moment more, chewing her lip. "Ok. I promised I wouldn't tell but that was before I knew it would hurt your career." Schoolgirl excitement spread across her face. "Besides, some secrets are too good not to share."
A burst of static from the radio and a warning ping from the radar interrupted her explanation.
"What the hell?" He stared at the console not believing the contact streaking across the screen.
"What is it, Commander?"
"Something at 900,000 kilometers, closing fast at seventy-five thousand kilometers per second. That's one quarter the speed of light!" His hand went to the intercom, but the contact disappeared before he could call Col. Hargrove to the command cabin.
As he adjusted the radar settings, another contact appeared on the opposite side of the HERB with the same course, speed, and radar cross-section. It stayed for a few seconds then disappeared. The radio emitted a short burst of static as the blip appeared and disappeared.
Zoe leaned over to view the screen. "A glitch, no?"
"Maybe. Do me a favor, and check the diagnostic server. Cole has it running a full system diagnostic. If something's wrong it should show up there."
Anderson replayed the radar loop. Each contact lasted three seconds with a three second interval between appearances. The speaker emitted regular, static bursts, their volume fading, then gone.
"Nothing from the diagnostic server regarding the radar. Dmitri's rats are still misbehaving, however." Much to the crew's amusement, zero gee struck Major Karmolov's rodent experiment like Viagra; they copulated energetically and constantly. Even Hardass thought it was funny.
"Look at this, Commander. The scanners detected a broadband EM spike coincidental with the first radar contact. It appears every six seconds, in the first contact's direction, and every eighteen seconds in the second contact's direction. The distance between contacts is approximately 12 light seconds. I do not think the radar's malfunctioning. Something's out there."
"So what are you saying? Bug-eyed Martians are coming to pay us a visit because they're displeased with our drilling site? Traveling in teleporting ships at one quarter the speed of light?" Anderson asked.
One perfect eyebrow arched upward in challenge. "No, Commander. What I'm saying is that something traveling four times the speed of light, in a line that crosses over our ship, briefly slows down enough to be detected. And according to this," she said pointing at the reading, "they are arcing back toward us."
Anderson worked it through in his head. Impossible as it seemed, her theory accounted for the readings. He was still struggling to find another, more reasonable, answer when the radar registered an object emerging from the planet's shadow.
He and Zoe struck the bulkhead as HERB spun on its axis. Anderson, by fate or design, landed squarely on top of her. "Didn't Colonel Hargrove warn you against such advances, Commander," she said straight-faced but with a mischievous glint in her eye.
Anderson grimaced. Zoe often joked to defuse tense situations, just when he thought humor most out of place.
He saw Mars come into view from the same side of the craft he was pinned to. It had a green tint now. Years of sub-orbital fighter pilot experience screamed at the wrongness. He should be pinned against the wall opposite the spin.
"That's..." he said.
"...on the wrong side," she finished.
A ship, unlike any from Earth, came into view. It was an inverted flying wing with a forked tail section. Sunlight glinted off alien characters painted on its surface.
The source of Mars' green tint was a field extending from the alien ship that surrounded HERB. Their ship stopped spinning as the field disappeared. Freefall returned.
"They control gravity!" Zoe said and then drifted into French.
Lt. Col. Marsha Cole flew into the control room shouting profanities that would make a forty-year veteran sailor blush. Dmitri followed HERB's lanky engineer. Both were in a state of dishevel. Cole's colorful expletive describing the new ship came at the same time as Dmitri's "Bush Moi."
Colonel Hargrove flew into the control cabin spouting profanities, though not as artistically, or profusely, as Cole. His flat top hair was unruffled but his ever-present, unlit cigar was bent to the point of breaking.
"What the hell is going on Anderson? If you fired maneuvering thrusters without my authorization, I'll bust you back to E1 so fast you'll..." Hardass' voice trailed off as he saw the vessel. "What the hell is that?"
"Hell if I know, sir but we think it's capable of traveling faster than light."
Lt. Commander Christian Anderson knew the Marine Colonel had seen much in life. Raised on a small Kansas farm, getting an appointment to Annapolis, being a war hero, then becoming an astronaut, he was a small man's success story. His "by-the-book" style, while unimaginative, made him popular with his superiors.
To his credit, Hardass didn't stay stunned long. "Readings. I want readings from every scanner we have. Designate the unknown as contact Alpha.
"Anderson, get down to Rice and use the high-resolution terrain mapper to get a contour image. Cole, you and Dmitri analyze Alpha's design. Determine if it's inhabited and if so, by what. D'Arcy..."
"I'll use Burroughs spectrum analyzers to determine the ship's material composition."
"Very well. Let's get moving people. I'm on the radio to Earth."
Christian Anderson and Zoe D'Arcy flung themselves through pressure doors, down the spine, and into the Rice lander. Both strapped in. Working as a team, they brought systems from standby to full power. Hardass' image appeared on the communications console. "Mars is blocking Earth so I can't send a signal out. I've tried radioing that thing with a 'Hello' in every language Dmitri and I know. They haven't responded. How's the warm-up?"
"Almost finished, Colonel," Anderson replied.
In the image background, Anderson saw the burly Russian pat Marsha on the butt. People who are intimate have a certain comfort around each other's bodies. While Anderson was no empath, it was obvious something was going on between the crass American and the pessimistic Russian. The two exchanged knowing smiles.
He looked at Zoe. She saw the same thing. Finally he understood. She smiled at him. "That's your secret?"
"Oui, mon ami. Hargrove overheard a bit of conversation between Marsha and I. As you know, he can be most forceful, and you know his rules on fraternization. So to keep them out of trouble, I lied. I believe you call it 'Flying Cover.' Aren't they cute?"
"Freaking adorable." Seeing the indicators turn from yellow to green he keyed the comm channel open. "Warm up complete, sir. Ready to scan on your mark."
"Very well. Prepare for burn." Hargrove chewed the bent stogie with near manic ferocity.
Safety harnesses held them in place as HERB spun under its own power, pointing the underside of Rice and Burroughs at the alien craft.
Their field of view was limited to the Edgar's head and Burroughs. Zoe activated the spectrum analyzers and then pointed Rice's telescope toward the craft. As Anderson activated the radar, sending his scans to Dmitri and Cole, Zoe zoomed in.
"Exciting, no?" Zoe grinned like a child about to ride a roller coaster.
"More like freaking terrifying."
"Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Back at a nice safe space station in orbit around Earth." Anderson examined the contour scans. "Do you see those openings in front? Do those look like torpedo tubes to you?"
She shrugged.
A burst of light appeared behind the alien craft. Another ship, similar to Edgar in design, came into view. It had two hexagonal modules separated by a long boom. Six, evenly spaced, cylindrical pods ran the length of the boom.
"Two space ships, mon ami. They're trying to make first contact. We'll go down in history as the first humans to meet extraterrestrials."
"Are you getting this, Anderson? Another craft just appeared," Hargrove said.
"Yes, sir. We have it on our telescope, but my radar isn't showing it at all."
"Designate as contact Beta. Edgar's radar doesn't show anything either. Beta emitted an EM burst as it appeared."
"We picked up something similar before, sir. It's almost as if a rock traveling faster than light were skipping across the top of Einsteinian space. It causes an EM spike every time it slows below light speed."
Dmitri pointed to a monitor near Hardass. He reported his findings in his thick, Russian accent. "We've found possible hatches," he said pointing to a monitor with one hairy arm, "Assuming these are hatches, the beings are slightly taller and wider than humans. This appears to be an airlock."
"Good. Get on Beta," Hargrove ordered.
Cole pointed to Dmitri's monitor. "Hardass, Alpha has control surfaces, so it's designed for space and atmospheric travel," Cole said. Only she dared use Hargrove's nickname to his face. No one else tried. Cole took no shit and dished out plenty. Hargrove seemed to respect that. She floated toward the video pickup. "Hey, Princess. I'm picking up a bunch of signals back and forth between those craft. You think you can use one of those fancy French doctorates to take a look at them. They don't match any PRI or modulation pattern I've ever seen."
Zoe looked at the data streams on her console.
The Alpha rotated until it faced the newcomer. "If those are weapon ports.... Colonel, I think we should get out of here."
"Commander, I’m not blowing a first contact because you've got cold feet."
"Mon Dieu," Zoe shouted, "They're firing at each other!"
Beams, similar to the new Western Alliance charged particle weapons, flashed between the two ships--red from the Alpha, blue from the Beta. The blasts splashed short of their target as some invisible screen surrounding each ship flared in rainbow colors.
Alpha accelerated and was gone. Beta moved closer to HERB. In action too quick for any eye to follow, Alpha reappeared in a burst of light and strafed the newcomer. Beta sent a truncated beam under HERB. Something exploded nearby. Shrapnel bounced off Rice.
Zoe screamed. Anderson ached to do something but, stuck in Rice, he possessed limited options.
"Prepare for burn!" Hargrove said as he rotated HERB in the direction of orbit then ignited the much-protested nuclear engine.
Anderson watched in horror as a red beam beheaded Edgar just behind the command module near Rice. The rapidly vaporizing metal and escaping air flipped his crewmate's section end over end toward Mars.
A second beam struck behind Burroughs toward the drive section. A small explosion, luckily not the fuel cells, sent the engine and spine tumbling away from each other. Burroughs broke free, crashing through the solar wings leaving Rice the sole knot on a long stick.
Anderson ordered, "Emergency separation. Now!"
"They're dead." Zoe sat there, stunned.
"They're all dead. Don't you understand? They're all dead!"
"So are we if we don't get out of here. Start emergency separation and start it now. I've got to give us some cover."
She hesitated for a moment longer. Finally training overtook emotion. Anderson cut power to the radar and established a link to the Burroughs module. "Come on you oversized mosquito. Activate."
Burroughs responded. Anderson initiated its orbital descent program as Zoe detonated the docking ring, shooting Rice away from Edgar's remains. He adjusted his craft via attitude jet and brought Rice into a steep descent in front of Burroughs. Old instincts and reflexes from his career as a sub-orbital fighter pilot came into play. He used thrusters to set his velocity close to that of Burroughs.
A barrage of translight missiles appeared in a flash of light near Burroughs as its retro rockets fired. The drilling craft exploded shooting brightly glowing debris past Rice.
A large mass brushed them, spinning Rice slowly. Hoping the damage was minimal, he let the craft tumble uncontrolled, knowing emissions, whether engine or electronic, would aid the alien craft in targeting them. Sporadic beams flashed past Rice but none struck.
Anderson wished for his old Shrike fighter as he ignited the main engine. Rice spun awkwardly as he oriented the large landing thrusters to get them behind Phobos. He held his breath until several million tons of rock floated between he and the alien ships.
"You did it," Zoe shouted.
"I haven't done jack. Wait until we're down. Then you can thank me."
"Why land?"
"Because it’s the only thing this piece of shit is good for. For now we land, wait for the fighting to stop then get a signal to Earth."
"Then we die."
"Hey, we've got two weeks of air. A lot can happen in two weeks."
He wondered why he preferred the slow death on Mars to the quick death that seemed imminent in space. In the end it didn't matter. Dead was dead. Maybe part of him wanted to finally reach his goal of stepping on the red soil. Maybe he just wanted something to do before death, wrapped in a bright red beam, sliced through Rice like butter.
He fired the landing engine to drop the craft toward Mars. Minutes passed. Anderson realized he would soon pass under the futuristic battlefield.
He spared a look toward his crewmate. Her face was a mixture of sorrow and fear. Tears would come soon.
"We'll deploy the drag chute in two minutes. Let's see if they're still fighting."
"Will they shoot at us again?" Zoe asked.
"Only if we look like anything other than a piece of debris spiraling in. I wouldn't worry if I were you. More than likely they're too busy with each other to worry much about us." He knew God damn good and well they should worry but he thought it best to give Zoe something to hold on to.
He rotated the craft to give them a view of the stars. They saw nothing.
"Zoe, find us a landing site on the other side of the planet.
"Oui." He had never known her to appear so frail. The woman who stubbornly set her oar against the rapids of life was now adrift.
He remembered well seeing his wingman's Shrike explode on his first combat mission, the paralyzing fear and knowing he was next. All you had to do is survive one more minute. In times like that anger made a good oar.
"Zoe, I need you mad. Hate the bastards that did this. Do whatever it takes to get through. Keep thinking, 'Today we live. Tomorrow they die.'"
His words sunk in. While she didn't look angry, she didn't look helpless. "There is a relatively flat area we can make near Burroughs' original landing sight. I'll try to patch into the global mapping satellite. If it's still there, maybe we can get a signal to Earth without danger."
Anderson overrode the computers preprogrammed landing sequence. He judged the distance to the landing site and their rate of descent. The thrusters fired again to bleed away their velocity. Shortly, Rice dragged against the thin Martian atmosphere. "Drogue chute deploy in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1-now!"
With a bang the chute deployed. Deceleration pressed them into their seats as the thin fabric bit into the atmosphere. As he had hundreds of times in the simulator, Anderson continued landing procedures. "Disengaging drogue chute." Another explosive charge released Rice, and they were in free fall again.
"Engaging thrusters," Anderson continued. With a loud roar the landing thrusters burst to life pinning them to their seats. An anvil of weight fell on his chest. After a ten count it lightened enough for him to breathe again.
"We'll overshoot the original landing site," she said. "I'm activating the terrain mapper to look for another."
The mapper would send a flood of emissions to the aliens yelling "shoot here" but Anderson decided if the engine didn't give them away nothing would.
An image appeared on the center monitor. "Here. This is a wide, flat plane on our current course. It should do."
Alarms began buzzing. "Oh shit. We're losing fuel, Zoe. We've either got a tank rupture or a line break."
Anderson ran through the line pressure readings to localize the break. Just before he began diverting fuel down an alternate pathway something in the fuel system exploded. Rice tumbled wildly toward the surface. "We're going down hard."
The French scientist closed her eyes. Anderson wished he could do the same. He adjusted the craft to go in butt first, their best chance at survival.
He'd faced Death before. Learned to stare the Grim Reaper in the hood and laugh as he ducked past his skeletal grasp. There was no way out of this one however. The bastard was going to win.
For some reason his mind flashed to an old movie made in the late twentieth century. A red pinto station wagon with two Illinois Nazis fell from a bridge for an impossibly long time. He looked at Zoe and said, "I've always loved you." He thought it a very Zoe-like joke.
She didn't get it. "You have the worst romantic timing possible, mon cher." She grabbed his hand and squeezed.
They fell toward their fate and the red planet.
Dealbinder, Verlian master of the Long Haul, sat on the command dais with ears laid flat, back hair ridged up straight, claws yearning to be unsheathed, and a low growl escaping his muzzle. He expected the attack on his ship, such was the nature of the Kurr, but turning guns on a defenseless ship boiled his blood.
Earth made its first stumbling steps into space, attempting to create a colony on its nearest planetary neighbor. As the cub race made its first effort to stand upright, the Kurr slapped it down.
"Status," he growled.
His black furred weapons officer, Quickeye, reported, "The Earth ship's severed command section continues its plunge toward the planet. Deep scans show intermittent life signs. The Kurr ship entered the atmosphere and is crash landing nicely."
"May they do more crashing than landing. Attach a grapple beam to the section showing life signs. Be careful. Earth doesn't have inertial dampeners."
Shortdraw, a diminutive Brewer, approached Dealbinder’s dais. The being was one of Brewers aboard the Long Haul. "Dealbinder, permission to send a few Brewers over on a gravity sled. The Earthers won't be as excitable if they see one of us first."
Shortdraw, his helmsman, shamefully lacked hair and was only two-thirds Dealbinder's height. Despite his shortcomings, he had a point. The Brewer's shorter stature would less agitate the frightened Earthers and their size would let them navigate the Earth ship better.
"Make it so. Send Scuttler and Wallclimber on Bay f4's grav sled." He hated to lose that shipment, but he couldn't let the Earthers suffocate.
Bay four split end-to-end releasing the Long Haul's precious liquid payload into space. It saddened Dealbinder to see the canisters float away. He looked longingly at his own glass, half empty of Earth's greatest export.
The forward view screen showed the two Brewers on bay four's sled moving toward the severed head of the Earth ship. The grapple beam stopped the spin and arrested its fall toward Mars. If the section maintained atmospheric integrity and the airlock still functioned, the doomed Earth expedition might live. If not, he would morn the young race's failure.
Dealbinder thought of the planet-fallen Kurr. His claws unsheathed themselves as anger swept over him. If the Earthers perished, the Kurr would provide them an honor guard to the afterlife.
"Status of the Kurr ship."
"They've skidded to a halt. I'm reading three probable life signs. No power emissions from their ship."
Dealbinder smiled. Except a Verlian smile had nothing to do with happiness. He addressed Brightsmile, his wife and second in command. The Brewers joked that that made her the actual ship's master. Dealbinder failed to see the humor in it. If he heard such comments, outside the considerable earshot of Brightsmile, he showed the Brewers how little humor he saw in it.
"We'll need a landing party to recover the ape-cats and, if possible, their superluminal drive. I'll know how they developed and equipped so many translight vessels so quickly even if it costs every Kurr its skin."
Even now, Kurr ships drove the Verlians toward Earth. With the Verlian armada called toward the Riss frontier, the ape-cats made short work of the diminished containment fleet.
There was no way to save Earth from invasion.
He watched the gravity sled stop next to the broken vessel. The Brewers entered the ship.
Dealbinder waited a few minutes until impatience got the better of him. He clawed the communications channel open. "Scuttler, report."
"We've entered," the Brewer sounded out of breath. "The airlock is intact, but the ship is leaking air. Only a minimal atmosphere remains. We found two of the crew unconscious and in bad shape with multiple contusions, abrasions, and broken bones. The third attacked us with a wrench. The old guy wouldn't quit. We finally had to sedate him. We're shoving them into e-suits now, preparing them for transit."
Dealbinder sighed, a trait Brewers and Verlians shared. "I'm greatly pleased at least some of the Earthers survived. Two perished. That's two too many but better than I expected."
The view screen snapped to another image. Shortdraw pointed at it and said, "Looks like we have more survivors, Dealbinder," Shortdraw pointed at the view screen. There, hanging beneath shiny fabric, bobbed another piece of the ill-fated Earth ship.
"Quickeye?" Dealbinder queried.
"Scanning. Two life signs, both probable to strong."
"Never underestimate an Earth pilot." Dealbinder's ears wagged in amusement.
Shortdraw drew his lips back showing teeth. A Verlian would see that as aggression. With Brewers it showed amusement.
"Scuttler, get back to the ship. Looks like we have another rescue operation for you."
Did they all survive? If so, this was a joyous day indeed.
Quickeye broke him from his reverie. "There's been an explosion on the landing craft! They're falling with no thrusters."
"Ready the grapple beam!" Dealbinder ordered.
"They've dropped below the horizon," warned Quickeye.
"Set course for orbit above the falling vessel. Engage superluminal drive, level one," ordered the ship's master.
He prayed to Seers past, supplicating them to guide his helmsman, as he watched the Brewer work. No Verlian could match the speed of Shortdraw as he swung the ship toward Mars and engaged the superluminal drive.
The forward view screen showed the Long Haul's phase field cycling through the color spectrum from red to blue then bright white. As the ship transitioned from normal space to superluminal space, the screen showed an instant of blackness, and then exploded back into real space, phase field changing from bright white, to dull red, then fading to invisibility. The view screen snapped onto the falling craft. The status bar beside the image indicated altitude and rate of descent. They were too late.
"Engaging grapple." Quickeye didn't wait for the order. A green-gray beam struck the small lander surrounding it in a gravitational field, first neutralizing then reversing the planetary pull. Dealbinder watched the status bar. The fall stopped just short of the planet. The craft began to rise.
"We've got them!" shouted Quickeye.
Verlian roars and Brewer cheers erupted on the bridge of the Long Haul.
Anderson and Zoe held hands as they fell through the Martian atmosphere. He added the missed romance to his list of unfulfilled dreams. Death would come soon in the form of bounces and skids across the Martian landscape.
Centrifuge-like gravity nailed him to his seat. Rice's fall slowed, and then stopped. Confusion gripped Anderson's mind until he noticed the green-gray glow of the alien gravity device. So Death was not to call so soon after all.
He watched the altimeter drop to 10 meters, and then climb. The force reduced to the point he could breathe again.
"Why have they not killed us?" Zoe asked, her voice strained from the effects of high gravity.
"Don't know. Maybe they're in a taking prisoners mood now. Who can figure the psychology of bug-eyed aliens," Anderson answered, his head pounding.
Zoe actually smiled. Her face contained fear, worry, sorrow, and pain, but for an instant she smiled.
As Rice rotated Anderson sighed in relief as he saw the Edgar-shaped ship above them.
"The good guys, no?" Zoe asked.
"Maybe. At least they aren't the 'blow you to bits' guys."
One of the six cylinders was split lengthwise and opened to space. The gravity beam guided them into that opening.
Another beam, from inside the cylinder, took over holding Rice in place. The cylinder closed leaving them in darkness surrounded by the gravity beams glow.
Another light entered the container. A circular hatch opened casting a bright light silhouetting a bulb-headed humanoid figure. The BEMs had arrived.
It rode a circular piece of metal with a control panel on one edge. It orbited Rice twice, and then landed near the airlock. There was no way to keep the alien out. An airlock system designed for ease of use cycled. The alien entered.
As the humanoid stepped into Rice, Anderson realized the alien didn't have a bulbous head. It wore a helmet and held two space suits, no thicker than his coveralls, in its hand.
As the being pulled off its helmet Anderson was surprised to see a human face looking back at them. A perfectly ordinary, everyday, seemingly human face broke into a grin as he laid lustful eyes on Zoe. She was still clad in shorts and a tee shirt. "I'm not interrupin' anything am I?" The voice was Southern.
Anderson protectively stepped in front of her.
The newcomer grinned and tossed the space suits toward the pair. "Y'all want to suit up and get into the Long Haul. There's some folks in there that want to meet you."
"You're human."
"Nothin' gets past you chief. I'm Reginald Montgomery. Now let's shake a leg."
"And we're in a vessel that can go faster than the speed of light."
"The Long Haul ain't fast, but she's a good ship. Still, she's faster than anything the ape-cats can field. Now come on."
"And you're here to rescue us?"
Apparently Reginald had had enough of Anderson's inquiry. "Shut up and suit up now, or I'm leavin' you here for the rest of the trip!"
"I think we should do as he asks. Our other option is to make love until Rice runs out of air, no?"
Anderson did a double take at Zoe. Had he heard what he thought he heard?
"Ah the French woman. I wasn't sure whether it was you or Marsha Cole." The Southerner peeled off some French that made Zoe blush.
"You speak French very well. Too bad your vocabulary is not as cultured as your accent. You're from the future, no?"
The stranger smiled crookedly. "More like the past. Now, would you please get in your e-suits? I'll explain the rest when we get inside." With that Reginald exited the lander.
Anderson and D'Arcy did as requested. The e-suits were simple coveralls with feet, hands, and a helmet. As he pulled the suit over his shoulders it began sealing itself along the front and tightened around his skin. The suit remained baggy around his joints. The helmet was self-sealing as well.
They boarded the thin plate hovering just outside the airlock. Anderson stumbled as he stepped onto it. Suddenly he was much heavier.
"Careful Zoe. This thing has a gravity of about one g." Even with the warning she stumbled.
Anderson heard Reginald's voice. "I'll lower the gravity a bit." He did something with the controls and suddenly Anderson weighed less. He heard Reginald's voice speaking in some guttural, growling language and another, much deeper voice, replying.
The sled glided back to the hatch with no sense of motion at all.
"The ship's master, what you'd call a captain, has lowered the gravity ship-wide."
The iris hatch opened into a short tube ending in another iris. The first hatch closed once the circular sled passed through. Anderson heard atmosphere hissing into the tube. When the hissing stopped, the other hatch opened revealing a hexagonal corridor running the length of the ship. There was an iris hatch on each of the corridor walls. Anderson guessed the corridor connected the command and engine compartments just like Edgar's spine.
Even after years of being in space, Anderson felt his stomach turn as Reginald rotated the sled, landing it on a black painted floor.
"Always remember, black is down," Reginald said.
Anderson tested the air as Reginald helped him out of the e-suit. It had an odd, musk scent.
The corridor looked cavernous. At first Anderson thought it was six months spent in HERB's cramped confines. Then he realized the ceilings were abnormally tall. "How did humans get a ship like this?"
"It's not a human ship, its Verlian. Oh, and they call us Brewers, not humans. Y'all come this way to the bridge. Ver Kiterler is waiting."
"The Verlians have a habit of calling things by their function rather than title. They also use nicknames a lot. My great, great, great, granddaddy went to work brewin' beer for the Verlians back in the 1800s. So they call us brewers. Kiterler actually means 'deal binder' in bear-speak. He was called Brewbringer before the Seers sent us to rescue you. Not a bad fellow once you get to know him."
"They like beer and you brew it?" Zoe asked.
"I'm a helmsman. I don't brew beer. A lot of us still do though. The Verlians just haven't gotten around to renaming us yet. And no, they don't like beer. More like worship it. You see the Verlians are a naturally aggressive race and latent telepaths. Beer calms 'em down and heightens their empathy with other Verlians. That's why they can switch nicknames the way humans change hairstyles. Confusin' as hell if you ask me."
Anderson wasn't sure what he expected telepathic aliens to look like. He was sure, however, that he never expected them to look like bears. But there they sat. Three very large brown, black, and blond bears intermingled with two humans.
Of course, calling them bears was like calling humans apes. They were of ursine ancestry but had longer fore limbs. Their hands were very odd indeed, possessing retractable claws extending from their fists. They walked on four legs as often as two and sat on the ground with a back and armrest extending from the deck. The aliens were as tall sitting down as a human was standing.
The bears were in constant conversation speaking in baritone voices through a complex mussel. Both humans and bears sat behind consoles made of an unknown material. On a pedestal in the middle of the bridge sat Ver Kiterler, Dealbinder. The bear motioned them toward the pedestal with one extended claw.
"Welcome to the Long Haul. Please accept our hospitality."
Another Verlian, with blond fur and blue eyes, brought a tray containing three glasses and a large pitcher, all filled with an amber, frothy liquid. Reginald held up his glass and toasted, "Confusion to the Kurr."
"Here, here," quoted Kiterler as he drained the pitcher and belched loudly. "Ah, now that's something to fight for. Drink up. As the Earth author stated, 'for tomorrow we may die'."
"No thanks. I'm on duty." Anderson had no desire whatsoever to drink.
The bridge went dead quiet. Even the Verlians stopped talking. All eyes were on Anderson. Zoe leaned over and whispered in his ear. "Perhaps we should drink, mon cher."
Anderson and Zoe smiled at each other and reached for the proffered glasses. He held his glass up. "May all Kurr engines explode on takeoff." He tipped the glass, drained the contents, then belched loudly. It was beer of decent quality.
The bridge erupted in rebel yells and Verlian roars.
Kiterler slapped Anderson on the back sending him to the ground. "Now that's a fighting spirit. We may just win this one."
Reginald bent down to help Anderson up. "You done good pard’. Refusing a Verlian's gift of beer is a quick trip to the infirmary."
Kiterler placed his pitcher-sized mug back on the tray. "No doubt you have many questions. We'll do our best to answer them. Right now we must get back to our wayward Brewers. Shortdraw plot a course back to Scuttler and Wallclimber."
Reginald replied in Verlian and assumed a position behind a console. A chair lifted out of the deck as he approached. The consoles adjusted for human or Verlian use.
The ursanoid bear spoke to the black furred Verlians. The forward view screen displayed the horizon of Mars. The image magnified. He and Zoe could see the Edgar's severed head.
"They're alive?" Zoe asked.
"They are indeed. All injured and unconscious but alive, if not-so-well. We'll place them in a med-bed as soon as they're aboard."
"They are alive," Zoe said as if trying to convince herself. "They are alive," she said again convinced. She hugged Anderson hard. He hugged back.
"I knew all along Hardass was too mean to die."
"You and he have much in common then," Zoe said and hugged him again.
She gave the ship's master a long, around the neck hug then kissed him on either side of his mussel. The Verlian hugged her back burying her in fur.
The Verlian spoke to her in French. She smiled.
"What'd he say?"
"He said I hug like a Verlian."
"A great compliment, I assure you Commander," Kiterler ruffled Zoe's hair the way Anderson's father did to him as a child.
The black furred Verlian spoke. An image of the Kurr vessel appeared on the forward view screen. The image then dimmed and blurred.
"What's going on?" Anderson asked.
"The Kurr have thrown up a dispersion screen around their wrecked vessel. It prevents us from scanning or using the grapple beam." The Verlian captain looked at Anderson, seeming to measure him against some internal calipers. "How would you like to pay a visit to the beings that did this?" asked Kiterler.
"I think I'd like that a lot," Anderson said. "Whoever did this to Earth was going to pay."
Anderson smiled like a schoolboy after his first kiss. Zoe's goodbye lasted until the Brewers catcalls and whistles turned into comments about someone getting a hose to break them up.
That warm feeling was quickly replaced by anger when Reginald let slip details of the Kurr invasion fleet.
"What do you mean they're going to invade Earth?" Anderson yelled more than queried.
The sled glided over the Martian landscape approaching the downed Kurr ship. The plan, such as it was, involved landing near the craft, boarding it, then kicking ass without taking the prerequisite names.
"Calm down, chief. There ain't nothin' you're gonna do about the Kurr comin' to pay Earth a visit," Reginald Montgomery said. "Besides, that's two weeks off. A lot can happen in two weeks. Hell, two weeks ago you prolly didn't believe in space aliens. Now look at you, on an assault team with two of 'em.
"Tell you what, we capture any ape-cats we'll send 'em on to Earth so the big shots can see what's coming. We already stockpiled a bunch of equipment and such for Earth's defense. Problem is the people of Earth'll use it to blow each other up if we expose it 'for the Kurr show up. Tell me I'm wrong, and I'll call you a liar."
Anderson wanted to protest but couldn't. The Chinese decided to cozy up to the United Islamic States using the leverage to retake Taiwan and threaten Japan. The Western Alliance and UIS arms race would soon end as the twenty-year cold war became hot. War was imminent.
"Perfect time for an invasion," Anderson grumbled. "If they have any luck, the Kurr will sit back and laugh as we blow each other to kingdom come."
"Actually, pard’, it may be the best time. Just think, all those weapons you were gonna use against each other can be turned on the Kurr."
"All they have to do is pit one group against another then mop up anything left standing. It's what I would do if I was them," Anderson said.
"That's cuz you ain't a Kurr. I've never heard of one negotiatin' or cuttin' a deal. They've always conquered and nothing short of conquered. Hell, the last planet rolled out the welcome mat and said 'Y'all come on in.' Stupid Arvin.
"The Kurr never knew defeat until they met up with Verlia's armada. Not that the Verlians needed that many ships. When a sublight ship meets a translight ship it’s a one-sided fight fer sure. Back then the only way we could lose was to run out of missiles. That all changed after the Kurr developed a superluminal drive of their own. Have to admit; never thought the ape-cats would do it.
"Now the main Verlian fleet is on its way. It's just gonna be fashionably late to the party. The Riss decided they was up for a fight and learnt they was wrong the hard way. Problem is while the Verlians were off teachin' the lizards a lesson, the Kurr up and launched a translight fleet.
"Kicked what few ships we had on the Kurr border in the teeth and headed toward Earth."
The gravity sled halted next to a rock outcropping. "Alright, the Kurr ships on the other side. Remember, pull the trigger once to fire once, pull the trigger twice and hold for continuous fire." Reginald hefted his own phase/pulse rifle.
"Yeah, yeah. I got it," Anderson said.
The Verlians walked on all fours with a much larger version of Anderson's rifle strapped to their back. The giant aliens lead the way.
The radio in Anderson's suit spoke in guttural Verlian tongue. He saw the others pointing their weapons toward a lone boulder away from the outcropping. Something not quite humanoid leapt over the boulder and began a run-jump in their direction.
Against the United Islamic States, if one jihadist ran toward a group of armed men, a squad of jihadists were ready to open up from hiding.
Anderson looked up in time to see three forms leaping from above. "Behind us!"
One creature fell toward him. Instinctively he rolled backward, bringing his legs upward, catching the creature in the midriff. He kicked upward hard sending the Kurr flying in Mars' low gravity. The time spent in Dmitri's torture chamber paid off at last.
Anderson rolled over pressing the trigger twice and holding. A stream of bright pulses left the barrel catching the Kurr just as it landed. Its midsection exploded, spraying blood and entrails across the red sand.
Anderson looked for a new target. Thomas, the one called Scuttler, lay on the ground, unmoving, his e-suit and flesh ripped open exposing his crushed rib cage and intestines to Martian air.
Reginald pointed his rifle at the murderous Kurr but not before the creature leapt. His shot missed.
Anderson pulled the trigger once catching the Kurr in mid leap. Its helmet caught the blast spreading red goo over Reginald.
A Verlian, Brightsmile maybe, held a Kurr impaled on her claws. The creature fought but to no avail. The claws extended through one shoulder and one leg.
The original Kurr continued its charge. "These guys are madder than jihadists," Anderson said and drew a bead on his target.
"Hold off, pard’. I've got somethin' special for this pussy." Reginald pulled a grenade from his arm, throwing it toward the Kurr. It exploded before reaching its target sending white tendrils in all directions. These wrapped around the Kurr, entangling the alien better than any straight jacket.
Reginald's Verlian must have equated to 'toss it' because Brightsmile hurled the impaled Kurr into the air. Another tangle grenade intercepted it binding the Kurr into an efficient package.
With the Kurr bundled, Reginald checked Scuttler's wounds. "Nothin' we can do. Damnit Tom, why'd you have to go and git yourself killed."
More Verlian on the radio. "Alright pard’. We're done for the day. Brightsmile and Barrelhugger are going to investigate the Kurr ship. We're to bring Tom and our captives back to the Long Haul.
Anderson was about to object, but his body told him it was time to quit. There's only so much adrenaline a blood stream can take in one day.
With three Kurr and three of HERB's crew in coffin-like med-beds the Long Shot headed toward Earth. It's master launched another long-winded monologue on Kurr tactics.
Anderson watched the view screen. The Sun dimmed to a pinpoint, then brightened every few seconds. "We're skipping." Anderson didn't realize he'd spoke out loud.
"What?" rumbled the Verlian, a bit perturbed at the interruption.
"Like the stone across water, no? Traveling faster than light then dropping back below light speed," explained Zoe.
The Verlian wagged its ears. It took Anderson a second to realize it was the Verlian equivalent of a smile. "Just so, Lt. Commander. The superluminal drive places us into a higher energy level where we travel much faster than in normal space. Much like an electron being excited to a higher energy level, we're able to 'excite' our ship to a higher translight energy level. We can't stay at that level long and fall back into normal space, or level zero. It takes our engines a few seconds to recharge and throw us back into translight space again. I've never thought of it as skipping stones but that is very much the same concept."
As if uninterrupted the alien continued, "The documents we are giving you also contain likely landing spots. The Kurr will attempt to form beachheads on several continents, then expand from there. They love personal combat and will do their best to engage in it early into the subjugation.
"If they hold to their normal tactics, they will destroy many of your population centers in their first attack, decentralize all military command and control structures, and move as many brewers as possible from your large cities."
The Verlian began walking to the door and motioned Anderson and Zoe to follow with an extended claw. Reginald followed. "Its time to take you back to your ship. The sled is programmed to take you to your space station. Explain to your people. The Kurr are coming. Hold out. You must hold out. If your planet falls, we won't be able to extricate the Kurr easily."
They walked down the hexagonal central corridor of the Long Haul. Dealbinder stopped next to the iris hatch, and motioned the brewers onto the small sleds used to navigate the cargo pods.
Dealbinder opened the hatch and guided the sled through. On the other side sat Rice in the middle of numerous crates of all sizes.
"We will defeat the Kurr space fleet. What remains of our containment fleet has joined with Alpha Centauri militia ships. Once the main Verlian armada arrives, we'll begin our assault. Both my race and yours depend on Earth holding.
Dealbinder pointed toward one of the med-beds. "This is Claw Leader P'Krom of Clan Glory Hunt. He survived the crash and was captured during your raid.
"He's sedated now and should wake up in a few of your hours. Keep him and his crewmen under close guard and bound. At first they will try to escape. Barring that they will try to kill themselves. This translator will allow you to understand them.
"These units contain your crewmates. I fear they're in bad shape. The med-units will repair their injuries given enough time. "
"It's time for you to be leaving. Good luck to you and your race." With that the Verlian opened the airlock to Rice. Anderson started to ask one of a hundred questions, but the Verlian picked him up as easily as a child. All the breath left his lungs as the Verlian bear hugged him, then placed him in Rice's airlock. Zoe was likewise hugged, then bear-handled into Rice. The airlock cycled leaving Zoe and him alone.
The Verlian must have retreated quickly because the cargo bay opened, revealing absolute blackness. In a flash of light, Earth was above them. The sled lifted out of the bay. Anderson watched the Long Haul flash out of existence as it leapt to trans-light speeds.
The sled upended itself and made a swift approach toward Station Icarus.
Anderson looked at Zoe. She played with some sort of handheld device left on her chair by a Verlian or brewer. "So let me get this straight. We've just met not one, but two, alien races."
"Yes," she stated as she activated the device. A small hologram appeared on its surface. She fiddled with the device and the image enlarged.
He continued. "One employs humans as brewers the other is out to conquer and subjugate Earth."
"Yes." She put the device down and smiled at him.
"And I'm so in love with you none of that really seems to matter. Am I insane?"
Zoe laughed a bit, unstrapped and sat in his lap. "Yes, but you are so cute when you are crazy."
They kissed all the way down to Icarus.
With sight that was not sight, an ancient being looked upon the third planet of a distant yellow sun. Its billions of inhabitants went about their day-to-day existence unaware of the drama unfolding heavenward. Tension gripped its populace as regional conflicts threatened to escalate into that planet's third world war.
Earth's civilization had been subtly guided by her kind for two hundred years. Now the guidance would be less subtle. Without interference a devastating war would occur within six of Earth's months razing the planet, killing billions. Civilization would be slow to return to such a world.
The Kurr acquired the superluminal drive with a minimum of help. Decoying the Verlian fleet was more difficult. Delaying Humanity's war even more so. The being smiled pleased with her ingenuity. The actors played their parts wonderfully.
Now an invasion killing millions would prevent a war killing billions. Earth would emerge from the invasion united. Her kind would see to an alliance between Earth and Verlia--an alliance to see them through the coming darkness and beyond.
A white furred hand lifted a mug of beer to her mussel. As was the custom of her race she drained the beloved beer in one prolonged swallow, then belched loudly. For better or worse, humanity was about to be introduced to the universe. The Verlian Seer smiled. She hoped the universe was ready.

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