In Defense of Liberty
I. Long, Cold Winter
Day 970, Evening at Hanna’s First Inn
Hanna came into the lounge pushing a wheel barrow filled with firewood. Refilling the always dwindling stack by the stone fireplace was a required chore every few hours. The restaurant was nearly empty save for the “East Side Kids,” the crew living on the other side of the river and always willing to brave the wind, snow, and cold. Three tables had been pushed together near the fire and Rocco, along with his wife Sinopa, BJ, Les and Judith, Histy, and Travis had taken up residence.
None of them liked to cook and all enjoyed service with a smile. That, good company, and well-poured spirits! Captain Travis was staying with Histy and BJ for a few days. Both of the Spacers’ own dwellings, the in-town cabin and the “mansion” down south were closed for the winter to save on heating costs. They all arrived at First Inn in Travis’s shuttle. Normally the proprietor would have screamed about his landing such a large craft outside the front door but in reality it helped melt a lot of the nearly eight feet of snow that had fallen in the past couple months. That, and she needed the business as most folks were hunkered down in their own homes just trying to survive.
Kara, who, living alone, had elected to stay the winter at the Inn in exchange for kitchen duty, had joined them, this being her night off. Bart and Janie, also staying at Hanna’s rather than live in isolation, completed the group.
The Winter, more than halfway through, has been severe. Not that they hadn’t known that Winter would be long, but no one had expected average daytime temperatures of 2 degrees Fahrenheit with nights dropping into the minus 20’s. Bart and Capt. Monroe, the only two colonists with any modest meteorological training, concluded that the residual dust from last summer’s meteor strike was still affecting the amount of solar radiation reaching the ground. The summer and fall had been cool and that only served to snowball into the miserable winter they were experiencing.
Looking at the blackboard menu on the wall, Travis said, “Pretty slim pickings, Hanna,” as she stood by their table waiting to take their orders. “Heck, I have a better choice up on the Mayflower.”
“Fine,” she answered a bit testily, “Fly on up there and bon appétit.
“I should have warned you, Travis,” Les said, “While we started off with what we thought were adequate supplies for the Winter, we never suspected that most of our food animals were of the hibernating kind. They all seem to have disappeared and hunting has been slim to none. The fire last month destroying the grain silos on the community farm didn’t help. We still haven’t figured out what started that.”
“Have the chicken,” Histy offered.
“Self-serving lout,” Hanna muttered in jest.
Travis said, “I’ll take the slizzard stew, thanks.”
After they had all ordered and drinks had been set before them, Sinopa said, “Even the slizzards are gone. I took the cargo bus down to the southern hemisphere yesterday with some others and we went on a little hunting and gathering mission. You’ll be eating southern slizzard tonight.”
“I wish someone had told us a while ago,” Glen Travis said, “We thought you all were set. We’ve ramped down our own greenhouse and chicken coop to just what our tiny crew needs. That, and Monroe has set up a tobacco plantation in one of the rooms. I presume, Sin, that your harvesting party isn’t a regular event?”
Les said, “I gave her permission. The colonists need some good protein once in a while. If HE3 weren’t being rationed. . . .”
“A necessity, Les,” Travis said, “Andy and I had to stop the NIFT runs to the fourth planet for fear the rapidly approaching Goonies would spot the auto-atmospheric mining ships.”
“I know all that,” Les said, “And we’ve fuel enough but have to preserve it for what might come. Bla-bla-bla. Food is tight.”
Kara said, “We won’t starve. Private farms still have some supplies, just not enough to keep us obese.”
“Heh,” Janie said, “You’re right.” Looking at her husband she continued, “And a few of us could stand to lose a few pounds.”
Bart said, “What!?”
Histy grunted and said, “Still, it’s a tight situation. Not much variety but we’ll survive.”
The howling wind outside must have masked the landing of another ship, the cargo bus, also normally taboo in Hanna’s eyes, but overlooked tonight. In walked Andy and Ash.
Brushing snow off himself, Andy said, “I’ve given Mariana the night off.”
Rocco said, “From her baby?”
“Nope, from me!”
“Pull up a table, boys,” Travis said. “First round is on me.”
From the kitchen there came a yell, “Son-of-a-bitch! Get away from that!”
“My, my,” Ash said, “The long dark Winter is getting to all of us.”
“Well,” Histy said, “At least there aren’t nooses hanging from the rafters, yet.”
Hanna came storming out of the double doors to the kitchen and when she spotted the newcomers, said, “Sorry; didn’t know you were here. The usual?”
Andy said, “Make them doubles. Heck, I brewed them and tonight I need the anti-freeze. It’s fracking cold out there.”
BJ, always the gentle sort, said, “Hanna, anything wrong?”
She replied, “Oh, no, BJ, just the mangy mutt was chomping on one of the raw slizzards I had been cutting up.”
“Well . . . Fido is just a retriever pup, after all.”
“Her name is Fedora and she’s a full Earth-year old and knows better, thank you very much.”
Medical Notes of Doctor Kellerman
After lengthy examinations of Drs. Hibbes and Chandler, and Natasi, Dr. Stuart and I have reached some startling conclusions about what we’ve taken to calling Beyond Syndrome. The spacers have — perhaps not realizing how serious it is — started referring to it simply as “BS.”
While the three subjects are fully recovered now, it is apparent that repeatedly traveling in the Beyond, or more specifically exiting it back into our universe, leaves a person, or almost anything biological, in a state of weakened condition, both physically and especially mentally.
As best we can determine, when a human re-enters “our space,” not all of “themselves” follows back. The peculiarity of lack of physical law in the Beyond and the need for a human to think his way back into our universe results in about a four-percent loss of their atoms and molecules, which seem to simply remain behind. There is loss to bone, muscle, and — most dangerous of all — brain cells. This would explain the “silliness,” for want of a better word, and forgetfulness exhibited by the three after their trips. Repeated trips exasperate the problem almost logarithmically.
The three subjects made three trips into the Beyond within a couple weeks and suffered serious mental degradation as well as physical problems with their hearts and neuromusculature systems.
The better news is that the damage is short term. Eventually, the lost atoms and molecules seem to find their way back to their owner in our space. I say eventually because it takes a period of about two weeks for each group of left-behind matter to do so. So, a person who takes three trips to the Beyond requires six weeks to become “whole” again. The process almost appears metaphysical in nature and I will not speculate about what forces are occurring or why. What we know of the Beyond is nil, with only the data from the subjects themselves offering any explanation.
On Day 722, Ash, Andy, Travis, and Calver all made a Jump to test their shuttles’ BOD engines. Upon their return, all showed, equally, the debilitating effects of Beyond Syndrome. All made full recoveries in two weeks. Test animals on board their ships showed the same problems so it appears that all biological material is at risk. Brain matter seems especially vulnerable. Non-biological matter is not effected.
It is my recommendation that the BOD engines be scrapped — not used ever, since we have no way of knowing the long-term effects of the disease. On a personal aside, I doubt they will follow my advice.
III. Final Plans
Day 971, Strike Force HQ
They were crowded around a large, round plotting table. Andy’s Primary and Backup Crews, Travis and Monroe, and others on a need-to-know basis. There was a similar table in the control room on board the Mayflower, the ship now hidden behind the larger of Alchibah’s moons, Oliver. The Dancer, captained by Al Steel, was already positioned behind one of the larger asteroids –nicknamed Goliath for it’s roughly 240 mile diameter size– in the large belt residing between the 3rd (Alchibah) and 4th planets. The idea was to keep them out of sight and radar range of the rapidly approaching UNWG cruisers, just now passing the 4th planet, a gas giant. In four days the Goonie ships would be entering The Belt and that was where, deep within, the forward forces hoped to ambush them.
“So.” Andy stated and then waited before saying, “All the shuttles are equipped with the shields and fireballs. Several have 100mm Auto Cannon as well. Four have the 2 CM Rail-guns and all have the System Version of the ACHE Drive, we are using the jumps to keep one more surprise up our sleeves and to hide some of our capabilities. After we jump, the Dancer, equipped with the 5 CM Rail-guns, will head at top speed to our new position.
”No one uses the ACHE Drive until you hear from Travis, Monroe or I. I would so love to see their faces when Ash starts pulling 90 G’s right in their Six.”
Monroe said, “The Goonies will have to slow considerably when they enter the belt. Their cruisers are large and not as maneuverable as our smaller, faster shuttles.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow?” Mariana asked both Travis and Monroe.
“Yes. One more good meal at Hanna’s tonight and then we’re off in the morning to the Mayflower for a final briefing and deploy the day after that.” Travis said, “The Galileo, filled with supplies, should be in position behind Depot Rock by tomorrow. R. Blackfoot is piloting it. Not a task I’d normally assign to a robot but it’s pretty simple — just park it behind an asteroid and wait for us. I have no one else to do it. Anyway, the two shuttles on the Mayflower, plus mine, will organize from there. Steven Fallon will be my Co. Greg Bugbee rides shotgun with Darren Calver, and Glenda will go with Natasi. ETA four days for us to be in position. Monroe,” he said, glancing at Larry, “–the old man– will hold down the fort.”
“Old man! Thanks a lot.”
“We leave in three days,” Andy said, “First Strike Force should be in position to to meet and greet about the same time at Pica. Firebird, Thorn, Grinder and Dustup will head up to the Mayflower and hang there as a final, hidden defense. If we need them, they jump to us. If Bart and the town needs them, they’re close by.”
Turning to his own forces, he added, “And remember, Turkeys, one jump only.”
Mariana injected, “That goes for all of us. Andy. Ash. Glen!”
“What?” Travis said with a ‘Who? Me?’ look.
“I know perfectly well you made a second jump a month ago without telling anyone or reporting to us at the lab.”
Ash laughed and said, “So that must have been the time you bumped into your ship’s hanger wall and damaged your shuttle on return.”
Travis looked sheepish but said nothing.
“The point is, ladies and gentlemen by presumption,” Mariana said sternly, “Dr Kellerman and I are in agreement that the jump should not ever be used. Still, I’ve been overruled on this and I understand the logic of allowing just the one time jump from our lairs to the prey for the element of surprise. But I mean it when I say, one time only. More than that and you get real stupid real fast and are useless to us.”
Andy said, “Point taken, Spotter.” To everyone he said, “Okay. Our plan is simple. The Goonies really only have one logical path they can take to reach Alchibah and we will waylay them there, inside the belt. Strike Force will greet them and if they turn to run, there will be no where to go because Steel and Travis’s forces will be nipping at their flanks. Worst case, the Second Team jumps from the Mayflower or provides cover for the Colony. The colonists are armed if it should come to that. Glen and I think we have everything covered. Glen?”
“There’s no way,” Travis said, “for the Goonies to know what to expect when they arrive. The only thing they know is that the Mayflower and the Dancer went through the wormhole, presumably to arrive at Alchibah. That is, I presume, why they aren’t running full-throttle to reach us.
“They don’t know our condition, they might think we’ve regressed to savagery and are barely surviving. They can’t know that we have converted the lifeboats to fighting ships — modest as they are — equipped with some rather spectacular armaments, courtesy of the mad scientists and Ash. They will not be able to scan the planet until they exit the belt and are in clear space again.”
“Exactly,” Andy said, “Our job is to make sure they never exit the belt. Got that, Rag-tags? I’ve also told Les and the rest of the Town Council that starting next week, all Liberty street lights are off. Shades down on windows at night. If — God forbid — the enemy breaks through and reaches the planet, I want no tell-tale signs to help them locate our settlement.”
“And if they do?” someone asked.
“They won’t,” he declared, “I made a promise to a man I’ve never met and I intend to keep it. Clan Alchibah will not fail.”
IV. Farewell and Thanks For. . . .
Day 971, Evening, First Inn
“A toast,” Historian said, “To the brave men and women heading off to defend the homeland.”
A round of cheers went up around the dining room at First Inn as glasses were raised.
Despite almost half-a-foot of fresh snow, 34 colonists had braved the weather to see the first of the warriors leave. No doubt they would be back the night before Strike Force left, as well.
Travis raised his glass and said, “Another toast, to Bart, Joe, Karl, Connor, and all of you other ground forces as well. We salute you and know that you will fight just as hard as anyone.”
Connor said, “We’re all set here. What with the Dora, our flitters, and even a couple guns mounted on the cargo bus, and a well trained militia, we can take care of anything.”
They all sat down to a hearty meal of grilled slizzard steaks and greenhouse salad and yams. Fedora the retriever made the rounds of all, looking for handouts. She had found that licking hands got attention and a larger portion of meat. Andy, Travis, and several others all fell for her latest ploy.
Afterward, as people gathered in small groups and chatted, Andy, Ash, Travis, and a few others pulled up a small table and sipped the colony version of brandy. Travis said, “I’ve got some good news. Hibbes and Chandler have finished and tested the combot. It works!”
Histy said, “What exactly is that, Glen?”
“We got the idea from the way we were using the Surprise.” He lit a cigarette and continued, “As you may or may not know, the Surprise has been tailing the Goonies since they exited the wormhole. It’s driven by two reprogrammed robots and lurks nearby the enemy, popping out of Beyond long enough to observe position and record any communication chatter between the four ships. Then it re-enters Beyond and pops up by the Mayflower to report.”
Ash said, “I got together with the doctors and designed a small, spherical ship — just about two meters across. We stuck the brain of a robot — sans body — into it. That left just enough space for a BOD drive.”
Nash interjected, “What’s the purpose of it?”
Travis answered, “First, we don’t want pre-strike communications to be intercepted. Secondly, the distance in space between where Steel is parked, and the Galileo, and Andy’s force, and the Mayflower, is great enough to make coordination difficult and slow. There’s hours of delay by regular transmission means. The combot is programmed to home-in-on each of us in turn — jumping from one group to the next. It will pop up, grab any low-powered, scrambled messages we have for others, and in a few seconds be on it’s way to the next group. Total time about a minute for each full cycle.”
“It’s not perfect but should do the trick,” Ash added.
“I think it sounds brilliant,” Histy said.
Meanwhile at the bar, Kara and BJ had settled into a couple frothy beers and a game of Backgammon.
BJ said, “You know what’s strange, Kara?”
“What’s that, Beej?”
“As small as this colony is, I still don’t know everybody in it.”
“Don’t feel bad,” she laughed, “Neither do I. It just depends on the circles of people you move in.”
“I mean,” he said, “Who’s that severe looking woman over in the corner, by herself?”
“That,” Kara said, “Is Nurse Leguin. Not a pleasant person. Always angry, it seems to me.”
“Wait a second,” BJ started, “I think she’s–”
At that moment a strangled barking could be heard coming from the hall outside. Kara and BJ raced out to see what the problem was. In the hallway, by the door, Hanna was kneeling over Fedora laying prone on the floor.
Connor joined her and examined the dog. “Looks like she over-indulged,” he said.
“More like she was over-indulged,” Hanna rejoined.
“Hanna,” he said, “Let’s get her away from the drafty door. Where does she usually sleep?”
“In my room,” she said.
“Well, let’s get her up there. Her nose is warm and I suspect she has a fever. Probably just some bug, I’m sure.”
Kara and BJ returned to the bar, their game, and began a conversation about what sort of dog they hoped to get when more puppies were available. BJ was hoping there might be a poodle in the works since he suffered from allergies to dog-hair. Kara wanted a retriever just like Fedora.
Later that evening, most had drifted off to sleep, either in their own homes or in one of the rooms at the Inn. Connor promised to stop by sometime the next day to check on Fedora and then headed back to the Stuart compound.
Histy sat back in the plush couch and noted that BJ had headed up the stairs with Kara, perhaps to her room. He smiled as he puffed on a Mayflower cigar. Looks as though she’s shaved herself, too. Then he thought of all the recent births and his smile grew; the colony was indeed growing. The colony would be just fine. His smile vanished as another thought came to him. The colony would be fine only if it could survive and defeat whatever the Goonies had in store for them. He noticed that he was now alone in the lounge and retired to the room he’d rented for the night.
V. Steady Hands
Day 972, Mayflower Lab
Travis, wondering where everyone was, entered the Mad Doctor’s laboratory to find both of them, as well as Monroe, Bugbee, Natasi, and Calver crowded around one of the tables. The table itself was crowded with various Pyrex beakers and tubes and all the other things Travis usually saw there; stuff he neither knew of nor cared about.
He said, “What’s going on–”
With an impatient wave of the hand, Monroe shushed him. “Quiet, Glen, this is a delicate procedure but the results could help us win the battle.”
Dr. Chandler was adding something to a vessel.
Hibbes whispered, “Careful, John, just a bit. Too much and there’s no telling what might happen.”
After much silence while Chandler made various mixtures and stirred this and that, Travis pushed his way through the others to get a better look.
“OH!” he said, “But what about. . . .”
“Got it right here,” Monroe said.
After the olives had been added, they all raised their glasses and after much lip-smacking, agreed that this batch of ship-brewed vodka had produced the perfect martini.
Travis said, “The Stuart Brewery is about to get some competition.”
VI. Sick as a Dog
Day 972, Connor Benjamin’s Notes
As the colony’s sole veterinarian, I must admit I’m perplexed over the condition of Hanna’s dog, Fedora. She’s running three degrees hot, has serious respiratory problems, and general weakness in her muscles. I’ve eliminated “Kennel Cough” and any possibilities of a parasite. If this were a human, I’d say it was a bad case of the flu. It certainly wasn’t something she ate since we were all feeding her from the table and ate the same things. The poor dog is quite sick and I’ve had her isolated in a small room in the lab. I must run further tests.
VII. Hair of the Dog
Day 973, Main Hanger Bay, Mayflower
They were suited up and standing by their shuttles. Travis was about to put his helmet on when he gave a short cough.
His co-pilot, Steven Fallon, gave him a look and said, “You look like shit.”
“I feel like shit,” Travis replied and another cough erupted from him.
“You got to lay-off those damn cigarettes, Captain.”
Monroe entered the bay and walked up to Travis. He said, “Jeez, you look like I feel.”
“No, really,” I feel like I’m coming down with something. I’d say the flu but how could I have gotten that?” With that, Monroe also had a small coughing fit.
Travis said, “Swell, we’re going to fight a war and we all come down with a fracking cold.”
“Well,” Monroe said, “Good luck, Glen. Good luck to all of you.”
Travis coughed again and said, “Thanks, Larry. Good luck to you as well.” Then, to everybody, he — with a congested wheeze — said, “Let’s move out.”
VIII. It Spreads
Day 973, About the same time, Liberty Lab
Mariana looked up from her equipment and, to a very ill looking Connor Benjamin said, “It’s not a bacterium. Not a virus. Whatever it is, it’s smaller than that. Perhaps some sort of DNA fragment that manages to replicate anyway.”
He started to reply but issued only a phlegmatic cough and wiped the sweat from his feverish brow.
Mariana looked concerned and said, “You better lie down. You’re in even worse shape than Andy was this morning.”
“I’ve got to,” *cough*, “get back to the,” *cough-hack*, “compound. . . .”
“Nada, Connor, you ain’t getting anywhere near Terry ’till we figure this out. I’ve sent both Sally and the ever disagreeable Nurse LeGuin out to the compound to take care of things. Sergeant Nug will make sure they don’t wander where they shouldn’t be.”
“I,” *cough*, “promised Andy–” *cough*
“You promised both of us but now you’re here and Andy is in the next room because I kicked him out of the compound as well.”
A groan and hacking cough came right on cue from down the hall.
IX. Misery Has Company
Day 974, Council Notes by Les Reye
An emergency meeting was held by the Town Council last night. Several members were absent due to the very topic at hand; the flu-like illness spreading throughout Liberty. Many services have been suspended because of the debilitating disease. Even Hanna’s First Inn is closed due to both Jules and her being bed-ridden.
I’m amazed that Andrew Stuart, Ash, and Gabe, all of them barely able to walk, took off as planned with the rest of their crews this morning. Mariana, needed here, decided to remain for another two days and then risk jumping to the Strike Force trench behind asteroid Pica to join up with her husband. She and Doctor Kellerman are working full time on the problem. The risk to her, of course, is that if she jumps to Pica and then jumps again to the Goonie ships, she will be suffering a double dose of Beyond Syndrome but a solution must be found, and quickly.
So far, no one has died from the disease so that’s one small blessing but this couldn’t have come at a worse time.
X. Back Tracking
Day 975, Lab Notes by Drs. Stuart and Kellerman
It appears that the initial outbreak of the infection was at Hanna’s. Oddly, though, many who were there two evenings ago are perfectly fine.
We’ve interviewed everyone –in detail– who was there, both sick and well. What they ate, what they did, where they were. From that data we now know that the one thing in common for all those now sick, was that they petted or had their hands licked by Fedora the dog. She seems to be the point of origin. There are exceptions, though. Sinopa swears she did not come in contact with Fedora yet she is also ill. Further, the two colonists who went with her on her southern hunting trip are also sick and they were not in attendance at the First Inn.
After another round of interviews, it now appears that the point of origin was one of the slizzards brought back on that hunting trip. Tests have been run and confirm this. Incidentally, cooking the slizzard meat seems to kill the infectant, so it was in handling the raw animal, probably dripping blood, or in eating the raw meat as Fedora did, or lastly in having your hand licked by her once she started showing symptoms, is the means of transmission. In the latter case, many whose hands were licked kept right on eating their own food and gave the disease to themselves.
All of this tells us that the slizzards, or some of them, down south are carriers of the disease, which we’re now calling FidoFlu. Unfortunately, that doesn’t point us towards a cure. We know it’s a a tiny RNA fragment that adheres to tissue. Entry point is definitely the alimentary canal. Specifically the mouth or esophagus. From there it finds its way to the bloodstream and makes it’s way throughout the body.
Update by Dr. Kellerman: More illness is being reported and now it seems certain that coughing — or the aeration of sputum particulates is also spreading the illness. Dr. Stuart has started showing signs of the disease. I’m worried about her making two jumps in her condition. She is still helping me search for a cure. If we find one, though, how do we get it to the infected men and women who have gone out to meet the Goonies?
I’m transmitting all that we currently know up to the Mayflower where the info will be given to the combot for dispersal to all the forward forces. It should reach them in time to prevent further spread of the disease amongst themselves. It would seem vital that space helmets remain on at all times to protect uninfected soldiers.
XI. A Mission For Kara
Day 976, Liberty Town Hall
Dr. Kellerman looked at the other four in the room. He said, “Les, I need you to release a bit more HE3. No arguments, please.”
Turning to Bart he said, “I need you to fly Kara and Stanley, here, down to these coordinates, where Sin says she took the carrier slizzard.”
To her he said, “Kara, by default you seem to be our resident expert in the wildlife department and I understand,” he paused, nodding towards Robinson, “that Stanley here is helping you. Also, you didn’t get sick.
“You know what the slizzards around here are feeding on. I need you to head south and find out what is different in the diet there. Perhaps we’ll find the agent — or the missing agent — that keeps the slizzards healthy up north.”
XII. Other Communicables
Day 979, The Galileo, Asteroid Depot
Travis, covered with a blanket, lay on the bench in the back of his shuttle, shivering, feverish, and thoroughly sick. Steven was just downloading the communiqués from the combot as it made it’s rounds.
“Captain,” he said, “All forces are in position. Mariana has joined up with Andy and company. She’s got FidoFlu, too.”
Travis groaned, went into a coughing fit.
Steven continued, “Surprise reports that the enemy is two days from the Ten Ring. Intercepted ship-to-ship indicates that Redmond is indeed running the show. Got another message here, from Jai Firebird Benjamin. They are on the Mayflower, ready for action.”
Travis managed to croak, “Steel’s three and our three and Andy’s two. With two more at the ready on Mayflower. Not bad odds!”
“Anything you want to say to anyone?”
*Cough* “Send aspirin.”
“Anything more meaningful?”
Travis merely gave a choking cough, but was thinking to himself, why did it take the Goonies so long to get here? They’ve not been traveling at the speed I know from first hand experience they are capable of. They should have been here two weeks ago. With that, he launched into another fit.
Fallon unconsciously checked his helmet to be sure it was on tightly. When the action starts, Glen would need to put his helmet on as well and that would be miserable for him.
XIII. Combot Transmissions
Day 980, The Asteroid Belt
A partial log of messages ferried between the forces.
100111101: Steel to Andy Stuart: “We’re all set. On your mark, we jump to 1000 yards from our targets and open fire.”
100111110: Andy Stuart to Travis: “All in position. I set mark for jump at six hours, 43 minutes, on signal that combot will give you as official time-keeper.”
100111111: Travis to Andy Stuart: “On mark set. If I don’t die of this fracking cold first, we’ll be there.”
101000100: Natasi to Bugbee: “All dis vaiting. I bored. Still five hours to action. You?”
101000110: Bugbee to Natasi: “Too nervous to be bored. I’ve never been in any kind of army unit or war. I just hope we live to see each other again. I’ve . . . I rather like you a lot, Olga.”
101000111: Mariana to Kellerman, via Mayflower-Liberty link: “Try the gamma sequence, Kurt.”
101001011: Travis to Steel: “Good luck, buddy. Let’s show these Earthers that Martians can hold their own candle!”
101010001: Natasi to Bugbee: “Da, you nice kid. Now stop thinking man-woman things and devote youself to Calver’s instructions. Glenda told me to say dat.”
101010100: Monroe to Travis, Ash, Andy Stuart: “Hey guys, I’ve been analyzing the chatter between the enemy ships from the last few days. It just struck me that something is weird. It’s the same chatter.”
101010111: Andy Stuart to Monroe and Co.: “Please elaborage, Larry. Why wouldn’t it be the same kind of ship-to-ship talk?”
101011010: Monroe to Co.: “I mean exactly the same. That chatter is a six-hour recording, playing itself over and over again.”
101011101: Travis to all: “OK, I’m getting a bad feeling about this.”
XIV. A View From the Bleachers
Late, Day 980, Liberty Town Hall
Over 55 men, women, and children were crowded into the main meeting room of Liberty Hall, listening to reports from the Mayflower via a link run over from the Stuart Compound. Everyone would have been there but many townspeople were confined to the overburdened Hospital, quarantined. Others were manning posts elsewhere in town.
The shades were pulled on the windows and there was silence except for those play-by-play reports from a wheezing Captain Monroe, filtering messages given him by the combot from the forward forces. By Les’s reckoning, the Spacers and Strike Forces would be engaging the enemy in less than two hours.
The town was hunkered down as best it could — made easier (or more difficult, depending. . . .) by yet another foot of snow dumped on them.
The door burst open in a blast of cold, wind, and snow and Dr. Kellerman rushed in and over to where Les was sitting and said, “We’ve nailed it, Les. We’ve got a cure — I think — for FidoFlu. I’ve been working on it all night. Thanks to Kara and Bart who, along with Robinson, tabulated what they found and pointed us in the right direction. Mariana was vital, of course, even with her long-distance help. Several of our test subjects are already showing improvement.”
Rocco, sitting nearby, said, “Sin–?”
“Sinopa volunteered, of course, and is doing fine. So is Connor, Hanna, and Jules. Even Fedora.” Kellerman said.
Historian was there and asked, “So what is it?”
“In layman’s terms, please,” Les added.
Kellerman said, “FidoFlu is an RNA fragment, really just a few proteins that, with the help of a host, replicate themselves. Kara noted that there’s one fish the slizzards like to eat, up by us but not found down south, that carries a mirror of that fragment and joins much more readilywith that fragment. It neutralizes it. You really must read her notes because it was a yeoman’s task to isolate the source. I simply turned it into a serum that attacks the disease and ends it, or at least gives the host a chance to defeat it.”
Les said, “Great. But how do we get it to our forces about to do battle?”
Rocco said, “Can’t we get it to the Mayflower and they could BOD-jump it to our troops in the belt?”
Kellerman said, “No good. Like any biological material, the jump would damage it.”
One of the colonists in the hall caught their attention, calling out, “Hey, we’ve lost the signal.”
Sure enough, the speaker relaying transmissions from the Stuart Compound had gone silent.
Histy said, “Probably just the storm knocked a wire down.”
Les said, “The wires are underground! Anyway, what’s important is that we’ve got to figure out a way to get the serum to our forces in the belt.”
XV. Combot Transmissions
Day 981, The Asteroid Belt
A partial log.
110001001: Gabe to all: “One hour till the party starts. Don’t be late! Hope you kids got your diapers nice and tight!”
110001101: Hibbes to Ash: “Chandler and I just want to wish you God-speed. To all, of course, but, well, we’ve really enjoyed the challenge and pleasure of working with someone of your caliber and, well, good luck and be careful.”
110001110: Ash to Hibbes: “Careful might not cut it out here just now but thanks for the sentiment. I’ve dug our brain storms and hell or highwater we’ll be having lots more.”
110010011: Travis to Andy and Mariana Stuart: “Good luck all. And Andy? After this is over, you’ll notice a few new bottles on Hanna’s shelf, next to yours. I look forward to pouring you a drink from the first of them.”
110010101: Andy to Travis: “I look forward to the competition. Bring it on! As for that first drink?” *cough* “I’m looking forward to that, too. Now, we’ve got promises to keep.”
110011000: Monroe to Forces: “Surprise just returned and reports that the lead Goonie ship has started sending out a greeting — to us and specifically to you, Glen! You should be receiving it yourselves in real time in a few minutes.”
XVI. Message From Home
A few minutes later.
The face that appeared on the radio screens of the hidden Alchaban forces looked tired, ragged, and under tremendous strain. It said:
“Greetings from Earth. We come in peace. I don’t know if there is anyone listening to this but, if so, we, the United Nations World Government wish for a meeting with the colonists from Earth. Our hands are empty, palms up. No weapons. We merely wish to regain contact with those of you who left Earth some half-a-dozen years ago. My name is Ambassador Trent Dickenson and I bear the good wishes of all mankind and hope you will agree to listen to our plans for a peaceful reunion. I seek a Captain Glen Travis. I repeat, we come in peace.”
XVII. Combot Transmissions
A partial log.
110011000: Mariana to Travis: “Well, aren’t you the popular one. Sounds like a crock to me.”
110011010: JoAnn to all: “This is a trick.”
110011011: Travis to all: “Could be. Maybe not.”
110011110: Monroe to all: “Just letting you know, we’ve lost contact with the colony. Links to both the lab, and the compound are dead. Glen, they know you were piloting the Mayflower. That’s the only reason they use your name. They don’t know that the Stuarts and Andrews and others were on board. I agree with Digger, this is a trick.”
110100001: Ash to all: “Ten minutes to jump.”
110100011: Travis: “None-the-less, hold-off. I’ll jump and meet them. I’ll listen to what they have to say.”
110100101: Everyone to Travis: “You’re crazy!”
110101111: Andy to Travis: “I say we proceed as planned.”
110110000: Travis to all: “I’m expendable. You guys are the warriors. Let me see what they want. I’ve got guns. If they snuff me, you all haven’t exposed yourselves and you can still show-and-tell.”
110110001: Andy to Travis: “Your call but keep your shields up.”
XVIII. A Blast From the Past
Present, Liberty Town Hall
Bart came flying through the Liberty Hall door and shouted, “Explosions. Les! The antennas on both the lab and the Stuart Compound were blown-up. We’ve lost all communications with the Mayflower.”
Les exclaimed, “What the–”
“I’ve just flittered from the lab,” Bart said, “Karl has arrested LeGuin!”
Histy slapped his forehead and said, “Of course. Van Vogt’s nurse. He hired her just a few days before. . . .What idiots we’ve all been. BJ even knew there was fury in someone when we arrived.”
Bart added, “She’s also confessed to the silo fires.”
Les said, “Alright. All Councilmen into my office. We’ve got to organize — NOW! Bart, Kellerman, you come, too.”
XIX. Looking For Me?
Present, The Belt
The jump was instantaneous, of course. Glen was just thankful that he hadn’t re-entered in the middle of an uncharted asteroid. His shuttle was about 2000 yards in front of the lead Goonie Cruiser.
Steven Fallon turned to him and said, “Are you sure about this?”
“I’m not sure about anything, at the moment, but I’ll answer the summons and hear them out.”
The Surprise lurked nearby a smaller rock, hidden, recording everything.
Travis flicked a switch on the com and transmitted to Dickenson, “You rang?”
The screen showed Dickenson looking surprised and he said, “You are Glen Travis?”
“That’s right. You guys should know that. After all, you tried to kill me in Seattle a few years ago.”
“How many of you colonists survived?”
Travis ignored the question and said, “So what’s on your mind, Dickenson? Why are you here?”
Travis studied the screen carefully. It seemed to him that Dickenson was sweating almost as much as he was and kept looking furtively to the side, off camera, so to speak.”
“Look, Travis. . . .” Another nervous glance to the side.
“I’m waiting,” Travis demanded.
Dickenson just stared at the transmitter cam and then, with a look of resolve, seemed to relax; almost as if he had made a personal decision that was irrevocable. He looked around at someone or something off-camera and then shouted, “Get out of here! This is a trap! The Rogons hold us pris–” His words were cut off and a large red spot of blood and tissue erupted from his chest.
Fallon’s hands hit the board and the shuttle’s weapons opened fire, all batteries.
Travis hit another switch and the Surprise disappeared.
The front of the Goonie Cruiser was engulfed in direct hits from fireballs and 100mm shells. Just before the transmission from it stopped, Glen had the chilling experience of seeing someone, something so alien, so different from any creature he had ever known, appear on the screen. While the alien being was of a fantastic type, snake like and hairy, but with limbs ending in claws, the expression on it’s “face” was unmistakable: Pure fury! The cruiser exploded.
The shuttle suddenly gave a lurch as another of the Goonie ships opened fire upon it. The restraints snapping, Glen and Steven went tumbling out of their chairs. Another hit on the shuttle. The shields seemed to be holding but the force of the blasts sent it spinning out of control and headed at high speed into the deep of the belt. The last thing Travis saw on the screen was the rapid approach of a large asteroid and then the hull of the shuttle was rended open on impact with it.
XX. Combot Transmissions
Moments after Monroe sent ’round the report from Surprise.
110111011: Andy Stuart to all: “Damn it to fracking hell. All right — Show time! Let’s rock!”
Lost in the jumps and action that followed was another message:
111000100: Monroe to all: “Andy, Steel, anyone? Alchibah under attack. Mayflower under attack. Three unidentified ships have approached us from behind. Never saw anything like them. One is heading down through the atmosphere of Alchibah. Seems headed to land just west of Liberty. The other two are coming after the Mayflower. These are not Earth ships. Andy, if you can hear me, that must be why the Goonie ships traveled slow — these skull ships came after them and needed time to circle around. Strike Force Rear is launched to intercept. ”
A minute later:
111001011: Jai Benjamin to Monroe: “Frack. We’ve been hit by a skull.”
XXI. And You Thought Winter Was A Bitch!
Day 981, late, west of Liberty
The latest Winter storm had died down and Bob Sarra braved the out-of-doors of his small farmhouse [map coordinates U-10] to retrieve more firewood from the porch. It was coincidental that at that moment, a large, not of human origin craft almost 200 yards long, shaped much like the skull of an alligator, landed in his field. The snow was steamed off of the ground by the heat. Ports opened in the side and ungodly creatures emerged. Two of them, running on four limbs with four more holding various instruments, rushed him. Their claws tore him apart. The wife, hearing the commotion, came outside and was killed as well.
The town, half-a-mile to the east, knew none of this as any communication with the Mayflower had been lost because of the sabotage by Nurse LeGuin, now being held in confinement in the single jail cell at Liberty Hall.
From those same ports on the skull shaped ship some five dozen of the snake-like creatures streamed out and made their way to the east.
XXII. Message In A Battle
Within seconds of each other, seven shuttles materialized around the three remaining Goonie cruisers. Per Andy’s preset coordinates, all were hidden by larger rocks in that densely populated area of the asteroid belt. With the shuttles’ close proximity to each other, the combot was no longer needed but it hung by to relay messages to the Mayflower.
Another transmission issued from one of the enemy ships:
“Surrender, Earth colonists, or we will destroy you. We give you only a moment to decide.”
Gabe said to himself, “Yeah, right, asp-face, it’s the next thing on the list.”
Mariana said to Andy, “I’m getting a low-power transmission on the old wristcom frequency.”
Andy said, “Huh? Put it on speaker.”
“Richard Redmond calling Colonel Andrew Stuart. Don’t know if you’re out there but I need to warn you. Come in if you’re there.”
Andy replied on the same secret channel, “Go ahead. You got seconds before I gladly kill you.”
“Colonel Stuart, I know I’m the last person you would ever want to hear from and I can’t right past wrongs. All I can do is try to warn one man to another when the whole human race is under attack. We’re prisoners on these ships. The Rogons, horrible creatures, have enslaved the people of Earth. They appeared four years ago and with over fifty battle-ready ships, have overwhelmed UNWG forces in the solar system. They have destroyed all the major cities of Earth and have forced all others into work camps to produce such goods as they cannot build themselves because of limited dexterity. This appears to be their pattern thoughout their history.
When, after perusing our files, they discovered that some humans had left — you guys — they commandeered four of our cruisers and are here to destroy you. A few of their own ships are probably following, too.
“Assuming for the moment,” Andy sent back, “That you aren’t lying to me, tell me something that will help us fight them.”
“OK. Their weapons are a more powerful than ours but their defense shields are not. They lack sophisticated arms but make up for it in brute force and ruthlessness. Colonel Stuart, you should know that — Colonel, those of us for which they have no use — they eat us. That’s why they brought us with them. For food. I’m one of only ten men out of 78 left in the hold on this ship.”
“Which ship? Which one are you on?”
Mariana said, “Signal was cut off. My God, what are we dealing with, here?”
Colonel Andrew Stuart replied, “Let’s find out.”
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
–From The History of Colony: Alchibah
3rd Edition, Alchibah year 14.
Author: The Historian