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“What’s that, Grandpa?”|
Tom Cook looked at the screen and felt his heart freeze in mid-beat. Instantly, he knew what it was: he’d seen the anomaly once before and it scared the wits out of him that time, too. He didn’t like the thought of facing it again, especially not with his grandson on board.
Tom wasn’t paying attention. All he could think about was staying out of the way. He trimmed the engines, veered hard to port, and prayed to God that the object would miss the small sloop. But he found he couldn’t avoid watching. Frightened as he was—and as terrifying as it must be for the youngster—his eyes were drawn to the eerie light stream bearing down upon them, dead to starboard. Some pleasure outing, he mused: even if it didn’t kill them both, it might be enough to make the boy’s parents forbid him from taking the lad sailing again. And that, the old man thought, might be worse than dying for both of them.
He peered through the observation window: it was bright blue, streaked with white, trailing a wispy tail like a comet. It streaked toward them like an ion storm, at speeds that would leave a starship foundering in its wake. Passing the sloop off the starboard beam, the object swerved suddenly, passing in front of them—then behind them, in a tight spiral of light, swirling around them like a spiraling eddy, inching closer and closer, until it was so close it seemed he could reach outside and touch it.
Then, suddenly as it came, it sliced past the ship’s stern and off into the blackness, leaving the small craft shuddering in the energy waves it left behind. Though never prone to space sickness, Tom felt his stomach weaken under the strain, and he entertained the passing notion of making a dash to the head before it was too late. But first, he wanted to reassure his grandson. He turned, only to find young Roscoe giggling and grinning from ear to ear.
“Grandpa!” The boy ran to the stern porthole and rested his chin on the ledge, gazing out into the space beyond the fragile hull of the ship. Putting the controls on automatic, Tom walked over to the boy and knelt beside him.
“Roscoe,” Tom began.
“It was the Ancients!” the boy exclaimed, his young eyes wide with wonder. “We saw them! It was the Ancients, wasn’t it Grandpa?”
Tom smiled and placed an arm on the boy’s shoulder, wondering how to explain it. People had been seeing these same anomalies since interstellar travel began. Four hundred years had passed since then and still nobody knew what it was.
“Well, maybe you’re right at that,” he said at last. Leaving the boy aft, Tom returned to the controls and set course for home. He’d had enough excitement for one outing, he laughed to himself, and he counted himself lucky that a six-year old didn’t know enough to realize how frightened he should be.
The old man looked to see his grandson still gazing out into the darkness astern. An hour later, the boy would still be there, curled on the window ledge and fast asleep, dreaming of myths and magical adventures.
* * *
From the UMN Trans-Terran Dispatch, 28January2547:
ALIENS ESCAPE SITE OF MASSACRE
by S.L. Yang
COVINGTON, New Babylon
January 28, 2547
With shock waves still resounding across Terra from news that our first encounter with an alien race has led to a bloody massacre on a habitable planet in the Hawkins Star system, the government of President Mikos Sarkisian is reeling from allegations that the actions of the Cosmic Guard permitted the aliens to escape responsibility for the slaughter.
Initial reports released yesterday by Central Command portrayed efforts by a squadron of frigates near the scene as instrumental in saving a host of civilian craft from attack by alien warships. Interviews with the spacers themselves, however, suggest that the frigates actually interfered with pursuit of the aliens by those who had witnessed the encounter and allowed the aliens—whom CosGuard now calls the “Crutchtans”—to flee the region and escape to open skies in the east.
“We are going to get to the bottom of this,” promised Admiral Winthrop W. Weatherlee, commanding officer at Demeter Command and a member of the hastily-convened board of inquiry that will be investigating the incident. “CosGuard exists to protect people, and heads will roll if we discover that any officer of the Cosmic Guard willingly allowed the perpetrators of the massacre at Hawkins Star to escape justice.”
Citing military protocol, Weatherlee declined to release the names of any officers involved in the preliminary inquiry. Senior military sources speaking off the record identified the squadron leader as Lt. Commander Roscoe Cook, who is serving his second tour of duty in the Hodges Sector, well beyond the control zones authorized for civilian travel. Cook, a native of Planet Isis, was unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, leaders of the opposition Tory Party demanded that the President appoint an independent special prosecutor to conduct a thorough inquiry into the circumstances of the Hawkins Massacre....
The crowd was boisterous and rowdy. Clinking glasses and toasts mixed with scuffles and shoves, and the air reeked of lager and sweat. Patrons jostled about the bar, filling their steins with the chilled, intoxicating brew that warmed their nights and made life on the cold, arid planet bearable. Men from a dozen worlds drank and sang, churning the room with their stories and songs. Lights glowed warmly through the frosted windows; laughter and music floated past the walls to be scattered by the wind.
For it’s Springtime on Ishtar, me darlinA tall, muscular man broke through the cluster at the bar, carrying four steins of lager. Swarthy and bearded, he wore maroon thermoflax coveralls and black leather boots. He ambled tenuously to a round wooden table in the center of the room, with most of his cargo intact. At the table, three others sat by candlelight, two in native attire and a uniformed Cosmic Guard yeoman. They were engaged in heated conversation lost in the din of the crowd.
Now the girlies o’Ishtar ain’t pretty“Laddy,” said a native with a heavy Ishtari accent. Scraggly patches of beard covered his craggy face, and he wore a blue knit cap. “Ain’t no slimy lizard can tell me, pack up an’leave. A scant six month gimme bare time to ’coup me costs o’gittin there, an’ they have the bloody gall to swoop down from the sky an’ farce me off, an’ escort me half-back here.”
The bearded native distributed his catch from the bar. “Well, Cyrus,” he said. “Ye did after all let them carry ye off, wi’out liftin s’much as a hand-laser agin them. Ye know, we seen how they scattered when the laddies came after’em proper at Hawkins. If ye’d just stood your ground—”
“Pssh.” The second native made room for the bearded one at the table and cast a side glance at the green-shirted yeoman sitting across the table. “Ain’t no blamin Cyrus, now. Ye know bloody well it’s these limp-wristed Cozzies what’s too bloody sissified to be protectin decent folk agin them stinkin sallymanders. If it showed us anything, Hawkins taught us that, as well.”
Cyrus sipped his lager. Bloodshot eyes flashing, he turned to face the yeoman. His mouth twisted into a sly grin as if welcoming the fight he hoped to provoke. “Spacer,” he hissed, “ye say ye’re not lackin sympathy. But them lizards is gittin bolder by the day, an’ makin it so’s honest merchants like us can’t survive. ’Twixt them an’ the pirates, we’re riskin our hides ev’ry time we sail, an’ all we git from yer kind is preachin and promises. Well, laddie, where’s our help?” The others at the table gently pounded the table, indicating their agreement.
Like all servicemen in the region, the yeoman had become quite adept at deflecting questions like this. Locals accosted CosGuarders randomly on every planet and colony along the frontier, demanding answers to the alien threat. It never helped to remind them that if they stayed on Terra’s side of the Neutral Zone, the Crutchtans wouldn’t bother them.
“Gentlemen, we have our own problems,” he began, reaching for his stein. “We can’t ignore Crutchtan abuse of our citizens, but it’s bad tactics to confront an enemy without knowing his capabilities. Besides, the human race doesn’t revolve around Ishtar.”
“Bosh an’ bahanna!” bellowed Cyrus. “Them lizards has pushed us out o’too many systems already. If we don’t soon draw a line, they’ll be halfback to Earth herself afore the rest o’ye even blink. An’ besides, all we be hearin from ev’ry corner is not to worry, because our ships is so superior.
“Well, the whores can all go lonely for the good it does us, if we still let ourselves git pushed around. An’ if you Cozzies keep givin ground each time they hiss at ye, there’s naught akeepin us from the lizards’ stewpot.” All of his companions agreed.
The yeoman shook his head sadly, in resignation. Reasoning with spacers was like teaching algebra to a mutluk, and reminding them that the Crutchtans were vegetarians only made matters worse. “I’ve no love for them either, but they’re hardly savages. They’re advanced enough for space flight, after all.”
“Cozzie,” rasped Cyrus, his glassy eyes ablaze in the candlelight. “Ye never met them creatures face to face, like I have. Ye never felt their slimy hands on your skin, nor looked in the slitty eyes to see the devil’s very soul.” He emptied his stein and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“I tell ye, them monsters won’t be restin until they’ve destroyed us.”
Fortunately, one of the spacer’s friends interceded. “Laddies,” said the one lately returned from the bar, “we’ve got enough troubles these days, wi’out goin for each other’s throats. To spacers,” he said, lifting his stein. “The sorriest lot o’bastards in Terra.”
“To spacers,” chorused the others.
Around them, the clamor grew like a dust storm on the Ishtari plains. Old friends shouted greetings across the dimly-lit room, and the talk became militant on subjects ranging from trade tariffs to the shortage of women on the frontier. Everyone drank as if dying of thirst, and hoarse voices raised hearty choruses about asteroid mining and Demetrian summers, pirate raids and outlaw heroes.
* * *
....Outside, five small figures, shivering in the cold, emerged from the shadows and walked tentatively toward the pub, looking about nervously with each step. They could feel the warm glow inside, and heard the laughter and singing. The voices sounded guttural, like animals at play, and yet there was something familiar, almost friendly, about the sounds, as if beneath the snarling bluster beat hearts pulsing with kinship and kindness. Huddling together for warmth, they paused in front of the door.
After more than few moments of hesitation, they entered and walked down the steps to the inner door.
* * *
A stunned silence fell over the bar. Ninety-five and one-half pairs of eyes followed the diminutive creatures as they slowly walked from the door to the bar. The wind whipped against the outside wall; inside, hushed voices carried whispers of the carnage to come.
There were five of them. The tallest stood almost five feet tall; the heaviest weighed about a hundred pounds. Even without the strangely colored outer cloaks and their eerie, floating manner of walking, their bald pates and translucent skin were unmistakable. Slowly, whispers crept across the room as lips mouthed the hated word: aliens.
They were Veshnans, from the diplomatic mission negotiating on behalf of the reptilian race claiming the disputed region of space on the other side of the Neutral Zone. Tiny skin flaps on top of their heads hid their aural membranes, and two small slits squeezed between two large, pale pink eyes, served as nostrils. But a human-sized mouth, in an oddly familiar place at the conflux of cheek and chin bones, gave them an unexpectedly human appearance. Quilted gold tunics beneath their cloaks draped their bodies, and slate gray scarves dangled from their necks.
An ominous murmur pulsed through the crowd. Sullen, angry men withdrew from the bar. The aliens approached, still closely grouped, clinging to each other for safety. Timidly, one grasped the railing and stood, tiptoed, peering over the bar into the curious face of the barkeep.
“Five glasses of prune juice, please,” it said in a clear and unaccented voice. Jumping with surprise, the startled barkeep knocked over a half-dozen glasses, which shattered loudly on the floor and caused everyone nearby to yelp in alarm. Still, he had the presence of mind to overcharge his strange customers for their drinks, and watched in wonder as they strolled, prune juice in hand, toward the center of the pub to survey the room, blissfully unaware of the tension growing around them.
Presently, one of the aliens pointed to a table at the far corner of the pub, near the entrance to the sanitary annex the building shared with the one next door. The others nodded, and exchanged a singing chorus of voices. After several moments of debate, the aliens started walking toward the table. Before them, the crowd parted; angry stares followed them.
Lost in thought and seated at the table was a CosGuard officer, with the eyes of a poet. Sitting quietly by himself in the farthest corner of the pub, he seemed uncomfortable and out of place, and looked to all the world like someone who’d just lost his best friend. The three gold stripes on his space-black epaulets showed him to be a full commander, and the subordinates aboard his ship knew his sharp voice with its edge of steel and ring of command. But the lager had dulled his senses along with his mind, and his eyes had long since gone glassy with drink. Among the crowd, he was the only one who’d failed to notice the strangers’ arrival in the pub, and it was only by chance that he raised his eyes to see them walking slowly toward him. By the time he managed to clear his windpipe of the drink a sudden gasp had drawn into his lungs, the newcomers had arrived at his table and were preparing to make themselves at home. Under the murderous glowers of the crowd, he realized that he was beginning to perspire.
“Excuse me, Commander,” one of them said, “but we recognized your uniform and thought it would be interesting to chat. Do you mind if we join you?”
The commander would come to wonder why he was not surprised by the alien’s flawless speech, but at the time all he could do was take a deep breath and emit a soft, involuntary whimper. His eyes quickly darted about, desperately seeking help: when he’d entered, the pub had sparkled with Cozzie colors, mingling with the natives. Now, he searched vainly for a friendly face.
“Please sit down,” he said at last, clearing his throat. Despairingly, he caught sight of the last remaining Cozzie discreetly slipping out the door. As his mind struggled to free itself from the effects of the lager, all he could do was wonder why having a quiet beer seemed to be such a problem for him.
“Making peace means making contact,” the alien linguist said in a tone that seemed to admit no debating the point. “It is more than merely talking across a conference table. We decided to mingle, as you call it, to help us better understand each other.”
“Admirable,” said the Terran, his voice cracking. He’d heard stories, but always wondered what bar brawls on Ishtar were really like.
* * *
“So every winter Ghilgh’a’sin’s spirit returns to the ground, to sleep until spring. “Is that not a lovely legend, Commander?”
A tall, sneering spacer rose from a table at the other end of the room and emptied his stein. Pushing away from his friends, who tried to pull him back to his chair, he glowered at the aliens sitting at the officer’s table and began staggering toward the aisle.
“Commander?” repeated the Veshnan.
“Yes, it’s a beautiful story,” answered the Terran, but his attention was elsewhere. The mood of the crowd had turned livelier, almost festive. Looking about, he saw everyone’s eyes following the spacer’s progress, their faces giddy with anticipation.
“You see why Terra has nothing to fear from the Crutchtans?”
The commander heard voices raising in hearty encouragement as the spacer neared them. His head had cleared enough to realize the danger they faced, but he not enough to let him plan an escape. He felt a surge of resentment toward his companions for placing him in this predicament. It quickly passed, for he realized that they were not responsible for the lowlife of Ishtar and knew no better than to wander into a spacer’s bar. “Any culture where the strong give their lives for the weak, and an act of love becomes a source of renewal, will be friendly and peaceful,” said the Veshnan. “And they will be the best sort of neighbors. All they need is a chance.” The spacer was forty feet away and closing. The crowd was definitely enjoying itself; the prospect of blood always warmed the Ishtari soul. “Listen to me,” said the commander, calmly but intensely. “We have to leave. Tell your friends to put on their cloaks and prepare to follow me.”
“Is anything wrong, Commander?” asked the alien. “Have we done something— ”
“I’ll explain later. Just do as I say—quickly, but with no sudden moves.” The Veshnans donned their cloaks and fastened their waistbelts as the commander rose to put on his heavy gray overcoat. The spacer stopped short and chuckled.
“Ye wouldna be leavin us now, Mr. Cozzie,” said Cyrus, his voice thick with drink. “I need a ward wi’your lizard-lovin friends.”
The commander had no illusions about what “a word” with somebody blocking the exit meant on Ishtar. Though painfully aware that he was out of his element, the time for fear had passed. Now, he needed the clearest thinking his own blurry brain could muster. That, he thought, and about a year’s worth of luck.
A quick glance and the beleaguered officer had sized up his adversary. The haze in the spacer’s eyes promised a slow reaction if they tried to slip past him. But he was a big man—bigger than the commander, anyway—and would be far stronger, even in his drunken condition: the lower gravity of the officer’s home planet guaranteed that the spacer would beat him senseless if they came to blows, and few Ishtaris would pass the chance to help someone dust off a CosGuard officer. Even in the best of times, Cozzies were not very popular here; someone would surely stop them from escaping if they tried rushing the door.
Even worse, they might just grab the Veshnans. A physical attack on diplomats in a pub—the commander shuddered to think about the complications.
No, he thought. They had to ease past him gradually. A sudden move could provoke a riot. And the honor of the Guard required at least one try for a graceful retreat before dashing for the hatch like a whipped puppy.
“My friend,” he said firmly. “Please step aside and let us pass.”
Cyrus folded his arms and smirked. Sweat coursed down his face. Hate burned in his eyes like glowing coals.
“My friend,” the commander smiled coldly. “We’d love to stay and share a lager-pitcher with you, but I’m afraid we’re due somewhere else...and running a bit behind schedule as well. Perhaps another time.”
“I’m wantin no drink wi’you, matey,” stormed Cyrus, his eyes searching the officer for the smallest reaction, the faintest hint of fear. But the Cozzie held his ground and returned Cyrus’ hateful stare without flinching. He even folded his arms and stiffened his back, defying a closer approach by the drunken spacer. Taken aback by the show of resolve, Cyrus spat out his words like acid. “Kindly send your wan, wee friends to be steppin over here.”
A wave of gleeful hate filled the air. Several men moved to block the aisleway, the only route to the door. Hurriedly, the bartender began clearing bottles and glasses from the top of the bar. Then, amid cheers from the center of the pub and a quietly sinking heart from the lone Cozzie in the room, a huge man rose and lumbered past the others to stand beside Cyrus; it was a ghost from the commander’s past.
“Hello, Cozzie,” said a giant that the increasingly-alarmed officer recognized from a past encounter, though the Cozzie had quite forgotten the his name. Once, in the course of duty, a squadron of frigates had disabled this goliath’s freighter and confiscated its cargo after the man ignored several orders to stop and three warning shots across his bow. The spacer had tried to slip past a CosGuard blockade, bent on making a run to one of the illegal colonies past Hodges’ Binary. He’d spent a week in the commander’s brig, his ship in tow to Looking Glass, and the brooding, sullen man had never forgotten.
At least my luck is consistent, thought the Cozzie. By now his hopes ran less to escape than to the prospect of a short convalescence.
Suddenly, the commander noticed an annoying pressure, from a source he took pains to avoid when leading his ship into battle. By reflex, he started to look over his shoulder to the narrow hallway leading to the kitchen and—
To safety, he thought, dismayed at the time it had taken to arrive at the obvious solution. The doors weren’t very sturdy, but it didn’t matter. Once inside, he could lock the door and signal his ship; the molecular transmitter on board could whisk them out of danger long before the door gave way. Must be the lager, he thought, smiling as he realized that the lager led him to the answer as well.
“Listen carefully,” he whispered to the Veshnan linguist. “Take your friends down the hallway behind us and wait for me in the room with the small ceramic pot in the middle of the floor.”
The alien had heard the exchange between the Terrans, and understood enough to be frightened beyond measure. Quietly, as their officer friend kept talking, the Veshnans backed toward the hall.
“What the— ” the giant puzzled dumbly.
“Beelzebub’s ghost!” thundered Cyrus, when he understood what was happening.
“Move!” barked the commander, tipping over chairs and tables to cover their retreat. Quickly, he ushered the Veshnans into the room with the sign marked “Johnnie,” then slammed the door, bolting it shut barely ahead of Cyrus’ lunging body. He hoped that it would hold for a few minutes. Outside in the bar, a crush of laughing and sneering spacers followed the two ringleaders to the hallway.
“A fine display o’Cozzie courage,” scoffed one.
“I ain’t had this much fun since the day Paddy Hassib got tored apart in the Collyseum,” cackled another.
“Look, what I found,” said a third, stooping by the abandoned table. There, from the floor, he picked up a CosGuard mobile transmitter; in the rush to escape it had fallen from the commander’s pocket.
“Stars to smile on a spacer’s heart,” crowed Cyrus, as someone handed him the radio. “Cozzie,” he bellowed with a laugh. “Ye dropped your squawker. There’s no way to be gittin out.”
Silence was the only response.
“We’ll let ye go, we will,” cooed Goliath, a bloodthirsty glint in his eye. “It’s your puny friends we want.”
The silence was making the mob angrier.
“Ye can’t stay in there forever,” Cyrus shouted. In the hallway the crowd cawed and whooped.
“We’re a-comin in after ye!” Goliath warned, to the cheers of the others. He started ramming the door with his body. Others joined him, shouting with glee. Furiously they hurled themselves at the flimsy metal, trying to shake it loose from its crumbling concrete frame. Each grunt fanned their blood lust; every bruised shoulder whipped their animal fury.
Finally, the door started moving. With a fierce howl, the frenzied men threw their bodies into one smashing thrust at the buckling frame. The hinges ripped from the wall, the door slammed onto the floor, and the blood-crazed men charged into the head in a blind rage. In an instant, the crush from the rear threw the leaders nose-first against the back wall. Cyrus cracked his shin against the commode, the pain crackling up his leg to echo in his lager-soaked brain, but except for the mob, the room was empty.
Within seconds, someone noticed a frozen chill to the air. Goliath looked toward the ceiling in the right corner of the room, where the air-chute was ripped open. The opening was barely big enough for a man, surely big enough for the small aliens. As the drain in the commode finished its cycle, the cold night air poured through the hole, driving the attackers back into the hallway.
The giant was furious.
“Ye noodle-noggined mushbrain!” he bellowed at Cyrus. “Ye should o’ thought he might sneak out some back way, the tricky bastard. The simpleminded twit.” He punched the wall as hard as he could, breaking his hand.
“Don’t be a-blamin me, ye loud-mouthed fanny-noodler,” snarled Cyrus. Too drunk and angry to know better, he stomped on the larger man’s foot and aimed an elbow at his solar plexus. He hit the monster’s belly instead and the enraged giant lifted Cyrus off the floor with his good arm, hurling him into the crowd, knocking several would-be brawlers down and forcing the rest into the center of the pub.
“Fight, fight!” chorused the mob, eagerly joining the melee, little caring whose side they took.
* * *
They had run for several blocks. The cold air burned their lungs. On the Terran’s signal the group stopped to lean against a wall, breathing deeply, their hearts pounding like hammers.
“Your pubs—seem friendlier—from the outside,” the alien said between breaths.
The commander laughed, as much from relief as in response to the alien’s jest. He rested his head against the wall and looked up at the shining stars and lightening sky. “I’ll walk you to your hotel,” he panted. “The rowdies are out in force tonight, and the nights here are short. Dawn will break soon, and it would be better if you were home when the sun comes up.”
They started walking, slowly to help them catch their breath. Before long they were trotting as quickly as they could without stumbling over the cracks in the pavement. The wind pierced their clothing like knives and soon they were shivering again.
“By the way, Commander, I am called Panche’teMunshi. And we are renting a house, not a hotel.”
“My name is Roscoe Cook,” said the commander. He returned the Veshnan’s bow as they ran, nearly tripping over some cracked pavement in the process.
“Welcome to Ishtar.”
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