by: William C. Burns, Jr.
Mary, the on-board chimes, “Time to the objective, Alvon Seti orbiting Tarpell IV, two minutes thirty seconds, Chieftain Thomlinson.” I cue the tactical subroutine and a status bar appears across the top of the display. The weapons servos and power stores all check green. This is it. One man, re-entering Real/space in an experimental craft, thousands of parsecs into unknown space, with no idea what to expect. A job to die for.
Trailing streamers of sparkling stellar luminescence, my ship emerges from Geodesic/space through the heart of Tarpell IV a class G star in the far reaches. Alvon Seti, forth from the sun, appears in the haze of re-entry, a glittering ball of a planet and the mostly likely destination of J. T. McGyre, Commanding War Chieftain of the five Fringe Campaigns. I pause. War-Chief McGyre, four-hundred thirty seven years dead and I half believe he’s down there, waiting. He was that kind of man.
“Mary, deploy three probe-servos and the Geodesic com node. Anything out here?”
“There are no signs of traffic, hostile or benign.”
“Do we have a link home?”
I am elated. “Well punch a hole, and inform the Clan. We are triumphant!” There is a small twinge, I’m not there to start the celebration.
Probe data reveals a planet entirely hidden by a cloud of orbiting debris, even over the poles, which means some kind of active dynamic system at work. Is it a cute parlor trick or a defense servo? I need a better look.
“Mary, send one of the probes in for a little re-con. I’m going to the forward bubble.”
“Chieftain, remain at station.”
She worries so.
Suspended in the bubble, I command the vista of the planet below. “Mary, give me a heads up track on the probe.”
“Tracking . . . Alert Chieftain, Alert. The probe is now off- line. Signal ceased upon contact with the orbiting fragments. Sounding collision!”
“Cancel collision, I see it.” The probe is hurtling back this way. Not on a collision vector, but close enough to be a warning.
“Chieftain, return to station, there is a perturbance in the trajectories of the debris orbiting the objective, perhaps a precursor of hostile action. You are exposed in the bubble.”
A face coalesces on the surface of the cloud-mass, a face that I know well. Breathless, I confront the glittering eyes and enigmatic smile of War-Chief McGyre on a planetary scale.
The lips move as the com-link screeches to life. “Who are you?”
“Chieftain Lance Thomlinson, forward re-con of the Seventh Fleet.”
“And your mission?” The voice is warm and rich.
“I was in the neighborhood.” Its hard to appear nonchalant in free fall. I have no idea why I think he can see me.
“Well, you’re arrogant, I’ll give you that.”
“And you’re dead. . .”
“You are certain of this?”
“Call it a hunch. Of course, you could allow a little reconnoiter behind the curtain.”
“And this will satisfy you?”
“As you have said, ‘There is no lasting satisfaction, this side of death.'”
“Ha! A young man of your caliber should have better entertainment than quoting old men. Very well, as we have so few visitors, you may come down for a visit. However, let’s exchange a little hearsay and slander first.”
I wake, with a start, in the bubble. There was this bizarre dream of a face covering a planet.
“Mary, have I been asleep?”
“Yes, approximately five hours into your conversation with chieftain McGyre you drifted off. Do you require medication?”
“The link is still open if you wish to continue.”
“War-Chief . . .”
“Call me JT,” his voice interrupts, I just can’t get used to him . . . or whatever it is talking to me. “Are you feeling alright son?”
“I’m fine. Now, about that visit.”
“Let me open a way for you. This may take a little time, so go ahead and get some breakfast.”
An hour and a half later, I cue an update on the progress of the lander/lifter, while consuming my customary curative and bagel.
“Mary, real time view of the planet, please.”
A dark band circling the planet had became visible shortly after JT signed off. It continues expanding, opening what appears to be a clear channel to the surface. It’s a shame none of this will get back to the Clan for twenty-one days.
“Lance?” his voice booms in the galley.
I jerk, startled by his voice. “Yes?”
“The path is clear. A beacon has been fixed at your landing location. It should show up on standard ship’s radar. I hope it will suffice, I’ve been away for quite a time and have no idea what kind of craft the Clan uses these days.”
“Fishing for information? You know I can’t divulge any more than absolutely necessary.”
“Are the dimensions of the channel satisfactory?”
“Yes. We’ll drop within the hour, I require half a kilometer of clear landing-mat.”
“Its already there. See you when you arrive.”
I wonder if he means it.
Nothing compares with strapping yourself in a lander/lifter and dropping from the calm of space into the turbulence of manual planetary entry. I fall in a screaming blue-white arc down the channel. Resonant harmonic chords build within the diamond hull accentuated by random, bone-jarring lurches. The restraints bite.
“Don’t fight the stick son,” he tells me.
“Cute!” I yell over the din.
Roll just a bit here and pull up ever so gently, oh yes. The sky peals with my thunderous laughter.
In the quiet, after the landing, I tremble.
“Not bad, son. You do that a lot?”
“Where are you?”
“The structure southeast of your position, can you see it?”
“Looks like a mass of brain coral.”
“That’s the one.”
“Let me seal up my bio-suit.”
“There is really no need . . .”
I feel the chill as the wind tugs at the bio-suit. I flip the safety and listen the whine as the pistol achieves full charge. Not that I have much to lose, I just don’t relish the thought of being killed without a fight.
The non-euclidian structures pocking the landscape go on forever, in all directions. Wonder if he destroyed anything to accommodate the landing-mat. On second thought, it looks as though the mat has been here forever. My shadow is fading and I watch as the gap in the orbital debris closes, obscuring the sky. I move on.
Inside the suit I hear the crunch of the sand under my boots, accentuated by the sound of my own breathing. There are too many places for things to hide around here. Monsters, where are the monsters?
Instead, I find a series of comic, flashing signs leading to a gigantic lop-sided structure. A walk around it reveals seven entrances, the largest looking very much like the mouth of a living thing. The left one bears an unsettling resemblance to a virgina. Let’s go with the asymmetric one on the right. The passageway is dark and convoluted. I trigger the transponder concealed in my left arm trying to contact Mary, nothing. Most of the time I find my way by touching the slippery, dimpled walls.
A distant, wane light grows into a portal. I emerge into a cavernous chamber filled with multi-colored streamers attached all over the vault, dangling to the irregular floor. To the left and right there runs a passage at right angles to my passage, like the hub of a wheel and straight ahead, another passage that pierces toward the center of the structure. Air currents moving through the room caress the streamers, rippling them like seaweed. The only sound is my heart and the whine of the pistol.
“Those are recording devices,” his voice booms out of nowhere. The quick draw and discharge of the pistol knocks down a vast array of the stuff. I am shaking.
“The particular section that you atomized covered a good portion of the third ice-age on this planet.
That’s it. “Where are you?” I shout. He doesn’t answer. “Stop screwing with me! Fine . . .” I turn back the way I came.
“Why are you here?”
“I’ve traversed thousands of parsecs through unknown space in a chancy test ship to find out what happened to Commanding War Chieftain J. T. McGyre.”
“Damn it, just because! Look, whatever you are, you are NOT McGyre.”
“You are certain of this?”
“Proceed down the passage toward the center. Can I ask you to leave the weapon . . .”
“At least engage the safety.”
“Why? You afraid . . .”
“Look Lance, there is a lot of . . . well, a lot of art in here.”
The passage has changed, seems dimmer now. I quicken my torches and shadows dance the walls as I proceed toward the center.
I try to ignore the scurrying shadows down the cross passages. Something out to the right is calling something like my name in a deep booming voice. Rivulets of ooze trickle down the leathery walls. There are patches that rhythmically bulge and contract, like the abdomen of a breathing leviathan. I come to a choice between a left branch and a right. I pick the left. Shortly I find the top of a stair twisting down into the gloom. There is a wall to the right and nothing as far as the torches can pierce to the left.
The level of light increases as I descend. I count forty three steps. At the bottom there’s a dimly-lit room, the size of a slag-ball field. The room is filled with thousands of statuettes, some human, others alien creatures, and there in the very center, a bigger-than- life statue of War-Chief McGyre with some kind of octopus creature wrapped around his legs. I laugh a dry and dusty laugh, devoid of any real humor. Not a pretty sound.
In this dream I’m in some kind of vine choked arena. There are these . . . creatures rising out of a boggy swamp in the center, creatures of all shapes and sizes running wild screaming, shrieking, raising all manner of bedlam.
I wake naked, terribly cold, parched and coughing blood.
“How long have you been ill?” His voice echoes through the structure. Silence is my answer. “There were several packets of medication embedded in that bio-suit thing you were wearing. They are placed beside your left hand.” After splitting the seal I swallow the bitter tonic. “Can I have some water?” I croak.
“Sorry, can’t help you there.”
“What do you want?”
“Son, this is more about what you want, what you need.”
There is a motion and to the left a heinous, two-faced figurine turns to regard me. Every hair on the back of my neck stands erect as I scream. Something grates, stone on stone, under the floor. The sound is unbearable, then fades, and finally its gone. In the silence I discover that the statue of JT McGyre has turned, and now faces me.
“What do you want?” I shout.
“I want for nothing, young pupil.” This is contemptible, at least the lips on the statue could move. The voice continues, “You, on the other hand, want for much. I have decided that you want for a healing, and if you live till dawn, you shall have it. Do you require further elaboration?”
“The Hunter/Healer, the creature modeled in the statuette facing you, is lose in the world and it is hunting you. You have some small head-start, run.”
There is that grinding sound again, returning.
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“I’ll stay and . . .”
“It is coming and it will kill you. Run.”
“Why?” Silence is my answer.
A shattering crash comes from across the chamber, I am up and running back up the stair, totally on automatic, pure adrenaline. The passage by which I entered, leading out through the library is sealed. Navigating by touch, I plunge down a cross passage in the dark. Left, right, right, I’m losing track.
An eternity later I burst into an egg shaped chamber. The walls are some kind of rough, glistening white stone coiling up into a ceiling that is a vast bluish lens. The chamber hums with sizzling energies from the focused beam coming through the lens which looks more than a little dangerous. I search finding a thin ledge curling around the beam to a portal on the other side of the chamber. I try the footing, my back to the beam. It is said animals believe that as long as the can run, they will live. I laugh.
Screaming! Its in the passageway outside the chamber, moving this way. How does it track me? My hand slips in my own sweat, no blood. my hands are bleeding, hadn’t noticed. The hideous heads come through the door. The shoulders and bulk of the beast are too big for it to fit through the entrance. Its writhing and squirming, enlarging the opening. I am half way to the door on the far side. Several of the legs have worked through the door and the heads are whipping around. One of the spines on the heads slices through the beam and is vaporized. Tumult. The sound is shaking me off the ledge, I’m gonna hit the beam. “Run, scramble, don’t stop, just run.” It’s my own voice, I’m deafened but I feel the words in my bones.
Too big, it can’t get around the beam. Its movements become even more hysterical. It advances until some other tentacle passes into the beam, the scream is renewed and it pulls back. Please let it destroy itself in this fit of rage.
Out of the chamber into the passage. The paths, one up one down and one to the right. “I hope you are enjoying the show!” He can hear me, I know it.
Taking the path that appears to ascend I find a slimy knotted rope/ladder thing descending into a dark pit. Been a few years since I did this, but I grab the rope anyway. Down, it is so far down. I hold on. After an eternity my quivering arms finally give out. I fall.
Too tired to resist or care I am only peripherally aware that I have crashed into some kind of branch. Cling, damn it cling.
Velvet hands of wind try to drag me up, then down. The branch vibrates violently when the wind is at its peak. The walls are segmented plates of some kind and they are pulsing noticeably. I wait for an updraft and roll off the limb. Branches, I crash through branches, hitting me all over. Splat!
What is this? Warm slick muck, oozing up to my chest and the bottom is covered with viscous eels. This reeks!
Over there, streaks of lightning snaking up and down behind a curtain of gelatinous membrane. I run through the muck like in one of those dreams where you run and run, but get nowhere. My God, the bottom is moving! Run/crawl/swim I thrash toward the membrane. It is tough, I can’t seem to open it. Open, come on, open! I bite it and make a hole. The taste! And I thought it stuff smelled bad. It doesn’t want to open but I squeeze into a tube filled with stuff that looks like cotton candy. The membrane closes behind me. This candy bites! I let go with my hands and sink a bit. Pointing my feet I start a semi-controlled descent though a night filled with lightning. I hang in a place where the tube kinks. Muck slides by me.
I kick until the wall of the tube rips and then gives way and I tumble out onto a dry floor. I look up and find three paths, one up one down and one to the right, back where I started. “Great! Simply ferthing great.”
The beast screams a retort, It has made its way out of the lens chamber and is coming this way. How does it know?
I scramble through the passage to the right. “I could use a little help down here.” There is no answer. “At least tell me how long till dawn.” Nothing.
A burst of cold air slaps me and without thinking I drop and roll to a stop. Inches, a very few inches from an abyss. I scream the scream of all living things.
I wake from a dream of distant oceans. I feel . . . different, strangely different.
Back at the intersection I hear the beast down the passage that descends. It doesn’t matter, just really doesn’t matter. I walk back to the egg shaped chamber with a ceiling that is a vast bluish lens. It will come. I wait, standing with my back inches from the sizzle of the focused beam. The light in the room is shifting, becoming more intense. Somewhere up there dawn must be breaking.
It comes around the corner. First one then the other head regards me, or perhaps the beam behind me.
“Come on baby.” It rears up, I step back. It hesitates. I feel the beam on my back. “Come on . . .”
It leaps and we fall back into a world of exploding light where nothing hurts anymore.
I fade into being in a dimly-lit room, the size of a slag-ball field, facing the statue of War-Chief McGyre with some kind of octopus creature wrapped around his legs. I am fully clothed and armed.
“How did you know?” This time his lips move.