BIG TROUBLE

Excerpt from the journal of Sergeant Teodor Vuksov:

Joy and dread overwhelm me by turns.  We have landed at last on a beautiful new world, the existence of which was noted by our forces nearly fifteen years ago during one of the first battles of the rebellion.  No doubt only its remoteness has kept us from utilizing this planet previously.  Now, that remoteness makes it all the more desirable.

But, it is as I feared.  The Quadrant has infected even this pristine world with its presence.  We homed in on the transmissions between a local base and their Mission Control and touched down in a valley used at one time as a colony site.  We were forced to destroy a Quadrant ship which was at rest nearby, and an armed force of an unknown number attacked our reconnaissance crew.

Though our forces prevailed, we do not know if all the enemy were killed.  If not, they may be in contact with the Quadrant Fleet even now.  They may be planning further attacks against our sick and weary troops.

General Aleksandr is said to believe us safe for at least a few months.  I pray that this is true,  In the meantime, Colonel Borovitch will be scouring the area for enemy soldiers.  At his direction, I am readying a small but relatively healthy platoon for the task.

One thing is sure.  None of us will be safe so long as Quadrant troops remain alive and at large.

*                                          *                                    *                                            *

I think it was the coughing that woke me up.  At first, I couldn’t open my eyes.  Then the horrible smoke taste in my mouth started to gag me, and I tried to roll over because I thought I was going to throw up.  But there seemed to be no way to do that.  I didn’t know if I was just too weak, or if something heavy was crushing down on me, but for a Godawful minute there, I was starting to suffocate.

Then whatever was on top of me spasmed and started coughing, joining a growing chorus of coughs.  I couldn’t become one of the gang because I couldn’t get enough breath to cough with.

There was a shifting, and the massive weight of Captain John Calhoun Vickers rolled off of me, still coughing.  Finally, I could turn over, although I no longer needed to throw up.  I felt pretty sick, just the same.

When Cal came back to his senses, he did a feeble head count.  All of us still had heads.

“That was pretty slick, Cal,” said Morris, between spasms of coughing.

“Yeah,” Beth rasped out.  “And I’m sure at some point, I’ll be glad to be alive.”

I looked around at the forest floor.  The area was a mess.  Scorched trees were lying all over the place in a crazy tangle.  Smoke was still thick, swirling around the blackened stumps.  Not far away was a deep crater.

Cal pointed weakly toward the crater.  “If that had been a direct hit . . .”  He trailed off, none of us needing to hear the rest.

Out beyond the smoke, I heard a crunch, then another.  Cal held up a hand toward us, but we were already stifling our coughing fits while trying to bring our SSRs into play.  Just at the limits of visibility, I saw something dark moving from tree to tree.  That story about the tarks started to tickle my consciousness just a little.  The five of us drew beads on the shape, but it never stopped except behind a tree.  All this time, it was working its way toward our position.

It was behind a tree now, and I think we were all prepared to shoot the next time it appeared.  There was a flash, and a curved piece of metal was flung end over end toward us.  “Get down!” yelled Cal, and he didn’t have to tell us twice.

We crouched there for a tiny eternity.  But nothing happened.  Gradually, Cal stretched up to look at the object.  “What the hell is that?”  he said.

I peered out from under the earthmover to where the object was glinting in blackened rubble.  It was a set of handlebars from an airbike.

“Fifteen years I’ve nursed that thing along.  Now look at it,” said a familiar voice.  His hands up and a rueful smile on his face, Gordon stepped cautiously out into the open.  “That’s all they’ve left me.  Still alive, I see, Captain.”

“Still alive,” said Cal.  I wasn’t sure whether he was agreeing with Gordon or voicing his disappointment that the phrase applied to Gordon too.  “What was the idea of that airbike crap?”

By this time, we had clambered out of our little pit and were taking stock of each other.  We were all blackened, and each had some hair singed off.  Gordon had a cut over his right eye and his left sleeve was in shreds.  There was some blood on his left arm, but the arm didn’t seem to be bothering him.

“The idea,” said Gordon, finding Vanessa with his eyes and smiling at her hurried attempts to wipe her face clean with an equally dirty sleeve, “was to give you lot the chance to get away.  Unfortunately, you’ve not been as quick on your feet as I had hoped.”

“And how were you planning to get away,” asked Cal, sounding a tad petulant.  Nutty though it was, we were all impressed with what Gordon had done, and Cal knew it.

“I was going to calculate that when the time came, ” Gordon said with an unconcern that seemed real enough.  “By the way,” he continued, “we’ve got a lot more company than just that little fighter.  While you were napping, a very big ship came in and landed in the valley not far from the compound.”

“Bigger than the Thalasso?”  The Thalasso wasn’t that big and I knew it, but I figured my question would give us a better idea what we were up against.

Gordon laughed.  “Oh, my, yes, Irish.  I said a big ship.”

“And dark blue,” Vanessa said.  It was not a question, and Gordon only nodded.  Their eyes locked for a moment, then Vanessa looked down.

We all stood there watching our situation go from critical to worse.  Cal finally said, “I have to reconnoiter that ship.  Gordon, get my crew out of this area.”

A couple of us started to protest, but Cal said he had to judge the situation for himself and felt most comfortable doing that alone.

“All right,” said Gordon.  “There’s a river about a length in that direction.”  He pointed toward the deep woods.  “We’ll meet you about a half-length upstream at an island all overgrown with trees.  You really can’t miss it.  Let’s go!”  At that, Gordon took off running and, with a nod from Cal, we followed as best we could.

It wasn’t long before we were out of the blackened area and into the deep woods.  Once we got under tree cover again, I felt a little lightening of my load of terror.  But it had only sunk beneath the surface.  I felt it all around the edges of my consciousness, ready to clench my gut and make my legs weak again any time.

Loud and virtuosic though they were, I didn’t notice the bird-things singing for quite a while, what with fearing for my life and all.  But you couldn’t miss the bugs: gnats buzzing around your head, spindly-legged things that lit on any exposed skin and bit it, and big, black flies that seemed to want in to your nose and ears in the worst way.  We were moving fast enough that, despite the annoyance, they really didn’t have time to bother us as much as they wanted to.

Up ahead, I saw Gordon pull up short, back Vanessa and Morris up, and guide us all around the trees and bushes a different way.  Vanessa asked him what was up, and he gestured toward the area we would have passed.  In that clearing, a tornado of black and white flying things buzzed angrily over the carcass of some dead animal.

“Poisonflies,” Gordon was saying to Vanessa.  “Two bites for most people, and anaphylaxis sets in.  They usually die.  I’ve never seen anybody survive more than two bites.”  I filed poisonflies away in my head with all the other things on this planet that scared me.

We pushed on.  I heard the sound of rushing water ahead of us, a great deal of water.  I was sweating like a pig under my field jacket, and I thought about how it would feel to shuck off my clothes and dive into that cold river we were coming to.

That reminded me of the time my brother and I had dammed up the little creek downhill from our farm.  We were supposed to be painting the tool shed or some such, but it was a hot day just like this one.  Being the conscientious louts that we were, it wasn’t long before we had our clothes off and were playing in that muddy water.  We were so absorbed in building a mud fort on the bank, we didn’t see Mom come up behind us with a willow switch.  She laid to among us with her scourge, and I’m telling you, that was exquisite agony on our bare legs.  You’d best believe we got those chores done in record time.

Funny, the things that trigger our memories, I thought.  Funny, how I”m in imminent danger of having my clock stopped by the Russ, and I can’t keep my mind on what I’m doing, I thought next.

We came to the river.  There was a game trail along the bank and Gordon led us upriver along it.  We had to step carefully now because of the confusion of roots by the river, which meant that we had to slow our pace a little.  This was a good thing, because we were pretty much beat already.  At least it was cooler along the riverside.

The light on the water made millions of tiny reflective diamonds, more dazzling than gemstones could ever be.  There were long-necked birds, white with burnt orange and teal green bands, criss-crossing each other as they swooped down on the water’s surface.  Shiny big-eyed creatures about the size of frogs were thick along the river bank.  They eyed us and shifted nervously as we passed.

I was just getting lost in the beauty of God’s creation and all that stuff when Gordon brought me back to the scary realities of life.  He was in the lead, and asked Vanessa over his shoulder, “So what started this war with the Russians, anyway?”  I’d never heard them called that before.

Vanessa had to think for a moment, which was understandable since she’d been prepubescent when the whole mess got underway.  “I think . . . didn’t it have something to do with a mine, Beth?”

Beth was too tired to say anything but, “Yeah,” so I volunteered that the Russ had objected to paying out the Quadrant’s standard share of the proceeds from what, at the time, was the biggest uranium mine anywhere.  They appealed to the Quadrant Board and were predictably squelched.  So their leader, Igor Smolenkaya, had defied the Board and refused to pay up, as they had agreed to do generations before in their articles of colonization.  One thing led to another, and Smolenkaya told the commander of the local Quad military base to vacate or be annihilated.  The deadline passed, and another, while teams of negotiators tried to work out a deal.  Then the Board decided a bad precedent was being set.  They evacuated their forces for safety’s sake, and prepared for war.

The Russ proclaimed themselves free and independent of Quadrant rule.  They called themselves The United Russic States.  While Quad was still dithering, they attacked, with a skill and ferocity and degree of preparation that surprised the hell out of everybody.  After all, they were fighting for their homes and their families and their very lives while the Quadrant troops were just fighting for money.  Still, Quad was God.  Now, fifteen years later, their home planet was a toxic ruin, most of their bases of operation were destroyed, and they were forced to agree to pretty much the same deal they’d gone to war over.

I saw Gordon shaking his head as we trudged along.  “That story doesn’t surprise me in the least,” he said, sadly.

I waited for him to go on  When he didn’t, I asked, “So what was it you called them?”

“Russians.  That’s what they call themselves on Old Earth,” he said.  I couldn’t help noticing that he wasn’t even out of breath, while my legs were turning to hot mush.  “But they’re the same people,” he continued.  “Same kinds of names, same language, same alphabet.  Just like the China colony.  It’s named after a country on Old Earth, as well.”  He shook his head again.  “All those people, just wanting to be free, to rule themselves as they see fit.”

“Those colonies agreed to abide by the articles of colonization,” I said, feeling vaguely patriotic and sticking up for the Quadrant since Cal wasn’t there to do it.  “They made whatever deal they made.  They ought to stick to it.”

Gordon actually stopped, stopping all of us.  He glared back at me as if trying to decide whether I was worth battering.  “Freedom is not a business deal,” he said savagely, then turned and hiked away with a fierce energy.  We had a hard time keeping up.

A few minutes later, we came to the island Gordon had spoken of.  There was a log from our bank that went halfway across, and another from the island side that overlapped the first one, making a dandy natural bridge.  We had a bad moment when we had to leave the tree cover while crossing, but we got there all right.

The island itself was about the size of a turfball field, and heavily overgrown with trees and bushes.  We could have hidden a battalion in there without being seen from above.  Gordon led us to a little clearing he’d used many times on hunting trips, where we stashed our packs and field jackets.

Beth looked almost comatose with fatigue.  “How you doin’, Doc?” asked Morris.

She looked at him and narrowed her bleary eyes.  “Don’t you worry about me, Qualls,” she said in a sort of tough squeak.

We all lay down in the grassy shade, except Vanessa and Gordon.  I watched the tips of the trees that towered overhead describe big circles in the sky as the wind’s soft, distant roar and the river’s more immediate roar blended in a soothing tapestry of sound that gradually eased away my fear, and the throbbing of my feet, and my grief, until I was gone, sailing off across a windswept canyon.  I heard the birds singing in the treetops far below me.  I looked off into unimaginable distances on every side as I sailed on and on.  I knew I was on an airbike, but it seemed to be directing itself as I dodged around mountain peaks and great birds with feathers of metallic green and gold.

I looked down and one of them was gliding along below me, just off to one side.  It swung its massive beak and struck my foot once, twice, then again.  I opened my eyes, becoming attuned to my aching body once more, and Vanessa was there looking down at me.

“God, Kelly, I thought you were dead,” said Vanessa.  At least I thought it was Vanessa, although I didn’t remember her with her face half-blackened and part of her hair singed off.  She looked worried, and bone-tired.

“Wha’s a matter,” I slurred, adrenaline jerking me into a sitting position.

“You guys have been sleeping for two hours.  And Cal’s not back yet.”  I would have thought she was messing with me, except for the tight sound of her voice.  I felt like I’d just closed my eyes.

Beth and Morris were sitting up too, still half asleep.  Morris muttered, “How could he not be back yet?”

“I don’t know,” said Vanessa.  “But we’ve got some decisions to make.”

Vanessa sat down in our midst, and we all huddled there for a while, staring intently downstream.  Gordon wandered up from the river with a long stick in one hand and a serious-looking knife in the other.  Just as I was getting a grip on my SSR, he sat down too and started whittling.  Nothing was said for a while.

Finally, I managed, “Okay, now, Cal.  Any friggin’ time.”

Morris looked at Gordon.  “He should have been here by now, shouldn’t he, Dr. Gordon?”

Gordon didn’t look up from his stick.  “I should think so,” he said.

“Well, the terrain’s really rough,” said Vanessa.  “He doesn’t know the way, so I’m sure he’s taking it slow . . .”

Beth spoke with some reluctance, which was unlike her.  “All he’s got to do is follow the river, Vaness.  No way he wouldn’t have made it by now.  Unless he’s — well — he might have gotten hurt or something.”  She looked at Vanessa, who was biting a knuckle, and cringed a little.

It made me mad that she had said aloud what was understood very well, I thought, by everybody.  “There is no point in that kind of talk,” I said.  “Everybody’s gonna get needlessly upset.  Vanessa, we’ve just got to give him a little more time, that’s all.”  I was saying it, I was hoping it was true, but I had a sinking feeling all the same.

Disagreement came from an unexpected source.  “I don’t want to get anyone upset,” said Morris with just a touch of uncharacteristic sarcasm, “but we’ve got to consider the possibilities.”

I started to repeat, “There’s no point — “

“Just hear me out,” Morris interrupted.  “This is something we’ve got to talk about.  All right, Vanessa, you’re Cal’s second in command.”

Beth tried, “Hey, all I said was –“

“We’ve got to consider the possibilities,” repeated Morris, with a patience beyond his years.  “We’ve got to have a plan.  We can’t just sit here till dark, not if what Dr. Gordon says is true.”

Vanessa was visibly trying to pull herself together.  “If Cal’s hurt, we’re wasting time sitting here as it is.  It’ll take us over an hour just to get back to where we left him.  Anything could be happening to him.”

“There’s no going back,” Gordon’s deep, authoritative voice said regretfully.

He had our attention.  Vanessa asked, “Why not?” And Beth, who was still tired and cranky, said, “Look, if we decide to go back for Cal, then that’s all there is to it, okay?”

We were all still looking at him, but Gordon kept on whittling.  He was getting quite a point on that stick.  I saw he would need some prompting.  “Not that we’ve decided anything yet, but . . . what do you mean?”

“The Russ, as you call them, have got to come after us,” said Gordon.  “They’ll know they’re not safe so long as we’re running around out here.”  Beth started to object, but Gordon only went on talking.  “If they were smart, and if they were able, they’d likely start after us right away.  If they did, they could easily be as far as that missile crater by now — maybe further.”

“Yeah,” said Morris.  “That makes sense.”

Vanessa was wavering.  “If Cal’s hurt, we’ve got to go back,” she said with a little tremble in her voice.

“Be a nasty shock to run into the Russ, though,” I said.

“We can’t just sit here worrying about that.  What if he is hurt?  If it was one of us out there, he’d be on his way to help us already.”  Beth was beginning to get a bit worked up.

I said, “Yeah, but we’ve got to be careful, Beth, that’s all we’re saying.”

Vanessa stood up.  “If Cal’s not here in twenty minutes,” she said, “We’ve got to go back.”

Morris looked to Gordon.  “What would you suggest,” he asked softly.

Gordon looked at him, then glanced around at all of us.  “Well, now,” he began.  “The thing your captain was most concerned with was getting his crew to safety.  Is that how you feel too, Vanessa?”

That question was a body blow to her resolve.  “Well, that — that is the ranking officer’s responsibility.  But if there’s a chance that Cal’s hurt, and we’re in a position to help him . .  we’ve got to try.”  She said it, but she didn’t sound so sure any more.

Gordon was talking directly to her now.  “I understand.  Now, here’s our situation.  We are, as you say, at least an hour’s hike from where we left your Captain.  Even if we find him right away and bring him back, meeting no hostile troops, that’s two more hours gone at the least.  Shelter is a four hour hike from here — for me.  In your condition, I’d say five at the least.  And the sun will set in about five hours.”  He paused for effect.  I thought about that long, curved claw he’d shown us.  “If we reach shelter after dark,” he continued, “well, we may reach it and we may not.  I’ll help you whatever you wish to do, but as –”  He turned to Morris.  “What is your name, there, Midnight?”

Morris seemed to find Gordon’s question hugely amusing.  “C.P.O. Morris Qualls, sir,” he answered with a grin.

“As Morris says,” Gordon continued, “It’s bloody well time to decide.”

Vanessa turned half away from us.  She sank back down and put her head in her hands.  She looked awfully young and vulnerable to be filling Cal’s shoes.

Gordon began inspecting his stick.  It was sharp as any spear, and somehow he’d cut little barbs close to the point.  He said, “I’m going to try to stick some fish . . . at least I call them fish.  Anyone care to join me?”  He gave us a meaningful look, then nodded slightly toward Vanessa as he headed toward the river.

“Ah, yes,” said Beth, brightly.  “Nothing like a little fish-sticking.”

“Yeah,” I offered.  “Be a good supplement for our . . . you know . . .”

“Our field rations,” said Morris, bailing me out.  “Yeah, well, I can’t wait to see one.”

And so, muttering inanities, we stiffly and awkwardly followed Gordon down to the water’s edge.  We had to be leaving Vanessa to what was probably the toughest decision of her life.

Gordon took his position with each foot on a boulder, straddling some shallow water.  He was peering intently downward.  “Usually find them around rocks or tree roots,” he muttered, as much to himself as to us.

Morris kept his voice down as he said, “There’s another thing no one’s said yet.”  We looked at him expectantly as Gordon gazed into the dark water.  “Well, I don’t know if it’s sunk in with you guys yet, but we’re as marooned here as Dr. Gordon was.  Is.  With the Thalasso gone, we can’t even contact Mission Control.”

“Don’t worry, lads,” Gordon interjected, not looking up.  “The Quadrant will be along in fifteen, twenty years, and we’ll all be saved.”

Beth said miserably, “If they sent a ship today — and I hope to God they did — it wouldn’t get here for six months.”

We looked at each other for a long moment.  It occurred to me that we hadn’t been on the planet six hours yet, and our position was none too swell.

Gordon made a sudden lunge with his stick.  He pulled a wriggling, long, sinewy, slimy-looking fish-like thing out of the water and held it proudly aloft.  Beth raised one hand, and shaking her head, turned and walked away.  “I wouldn’t eat that with your mouth,” she said, shuddering.

Then I heard something that made my heart leap — and in a good way, this time.  It was Vanessa’s voice, crying out, “Cal!  Cal!  Over here!”

And there he was.  Dirty as hell, tired and scorched, but walking under his own considerable power up the riverbank toward us, was our captain.  He wore a relieved smile that mainly served to separate his dirty upper face from his dirty lower face.  Eschewing our log bridge, he waded out through the shallows, but before he could get to the island we were all over him.  All of us were laughing, splashing, yelling; we hugged him, kissed him, slapped him on the back and tousled his hair, all at the same time.

I looked over to see Gordon, abandoned at the moment of his triumph with the “fish.”   His face was about fifty-fifty chagrin and amusement as he watched the hero’s welcome we were giving Cal.  He glanced at the squirming thing on the pole, shrugged, and tossed his catch, stick and all, up onto the riverbank.

*                                               *                                       *                                            *

The chemical composition of our field rations was such that, when you broke the seal on the carton, the air would interact with something or other inside, the molecules would get all excited, and you’d have a hot meal.  Not necessarily a good meal, but it would be hot.

We had all assembled in the little clearing and were chowing down.  Gordon fried his catch in one of those self-heating skillets which campers and military personnel still use when they don’t want to give their positions away with campfire smoke.  He had cleaned and beheaded the little monstrosity, tossing the offal into the river and carefully rinsing the rock he’d used as his butcher block.  He explained that he didn’t want to draw any poisonflies, which I felt was a laudable goal.

Cal told us about his scouting expedition.  Having worked his way back to where he could get a look at the Russ ship, he’d decided to get in closer and try to figure out how many soldiers she carried, what kind of weapons they had, and so on.  The ship was a troop transport, he said, with at least two hundred Russ commandos on board, all men as far as he could tell.  They had rolled out some tanks, a few heavy-duty airbikes, several all-terrain vehicles — and of course, they had the fighter, which was pulled up alongside the mother ship.

“That’s your fault,” I told Gordon.  “You had every opportunity to take out that fighter with your shotgun, pal.”    We all laughed at my little jest.

“I got other plans for that fighter,” said Cal.  “That’s an SL-14.  Small as it looks from the ground, we can fit three amidships, one or more aft, and of course a pilot and co-pilot.  It’d be a tight squeeze, but I’ve seen it done.”

“Ho, yeah,” I said, thinking that Cal had become quite a kidder.  “All we have to do is borrow it from the Russ.”

But Cal was not smiling.  “We’re gonna take it,” he said.  “Those SL-14s hold a ton of fuel.  That little bird can get us to Walker One, no sweat.”

As we looked at each other in disbelief, I recalled that Walker One was the remotest outpost of the Quadrant Fleet, about a month back toward Tavic.  Our long-range equipment on board the Thalasso had used it as a relay to communicate with Mission Control.  Truth to tell, there wasn’t much on Walker One but communications gear.

Morris broke the silence.  “We’re gonna take that fighter?  How?  With what?”

“Our friend Gordon here knows this country inside and out,” said Cal.  “All we have to do is circle back around somehow to get within striking distance.  If we can get close enough to that fighter, I can take it, pal.  Leave that part to me.”  Cal scraped out the last of his carton.  “One advantage we have is that a lot of them are sick.  Or wounded, or something.  I must have watched them off-load two dozen stretchers or more, and taking care of all those people is gonna tie them down in a big way.”

“Yeah, well, fine,” said Beth.  “So what do we do in the meantime?”

“There’s no meantime,” Cal said, now fiddling with his pack.  “We’re gonna start right now.  We’ll be in position to hit ‘em before dawn tomorrow.”  Beth’s face was so tragic I wanted to laugh, but it really wasn’t funny.

“I think you’re forgetting something,” Gordon rumbled.  He gingerly lifted a hot piece of creature into his mouth and began to chew.

Cal looked at him for a moment, as Gordon went on chewing.  “Okay, I’ll bite.  What?”

“The sun will be down in about four and a half hours,” replied Gordon, with grave patience.

“So?  That’s great, all the better.”  There was a hint of challenge in Cal’s tone.

Vanessa said, “Cal, he’s talking about the tarks.”

“I know what he’s talking about,” Cal snapped.  “If there’s any such thing as a tark, we’ll just have to take our chances.   If there isn’t, I’m not gonna miss an opportunity to hit the Russ before they settle in.”

“The Russ will lose a lot of men to the tarks tonight,” said Gordon, scouring his frying pan with a handful of sand.  “But they’ve got men to spare.  There’s only five of you, and I should think you’d want to keep it that way.”

“Uh, there’s six of us altogether,” mumbled Morris, ever modest about correcting his elders.

Gordon turned to him.  “If your captain disregards my advice, there’s five of you.  I’ll be heading for shelter as soon as I finish here.  If you’re caught outside after dark, you’ll all die.”  He looked at Vanessa.  “Which would be a shame.”  It wasn’t lost on me that a few moments before, when it looked like Vanessa would be in charge, Gordon had told her he’d help her no matter what she decided.  With Cal back, it was a very different story.

“Bullshit,” spat Cal.  “You’re coming with us.  Even if what you say is true, we’ve got weapons that didn’t exist in your day, okay?  We’ll cut your little critters to pieces and so will the Russ.  If they lose one man to the local wildlife I’ll be surprised.”  Cal had stood up during this, while Gordon, still seated, regarded him with a bored tolerance that made the blood rise to Cal’s face like I’d never seen.  “And don’t tell me what you will or will not do here,” Cal went on, his voice rising.  “You’re used to calling your own shots and having it your own way.  But this planet is still Quadrant property, and for all intents and purposes, I’m the Quadrant here.  Do I make myself clear?”

The bored tolerance had evaporated.  Now, if I ever saw murder in the making, it was there in Gordon’s eyes.  “Well now,” he said, with a dead calm in his voice.  “So you’re the Quadrant?”  He stood up.  “If I were those two hundred Russians down there, I’d be trembling in my ballet slippers.”  His eyes were burning.

For an instant, they seemed to be straining toward each other, like vicious dogs about to explode in violence and bloody fur.  We were all scrambling to our feet, and I stepped between them, saying, “Okay, now, you guys.  Settle down.”  It was lame, but it was all I could think of.

“Yeah, come on,” said Beth.  “We’re getting real confrontational here.”

Vanessa put a hand on Cal’s shoulder.  “Let’s try a little different approach here, okay?”  Still at Cal’s side, she turned to Gordon.  “Dr. Gordon, isn’t there some shelter we could use that’s a little nearer to here?  You know, close enough so we can try to do what Cal — what Captain Vickers wants to do?”

There were now two people between Gordon and Cal, and still Gordon’s eyes burned into his.  He said, without looking away, “There might be.  Not that I know of, but there might be.  The Hill People may know of something.”  He turned away and began tying up his pack as though nothing had happened, as though he hadn’t just floored us all with his last few words.

“Did you say . . . the Hill People?”  asked Beth.

Morris crouched down and peered intently at Gordon as he said, “Do you mean to say there’s intelligent life on this planet?”

Gordon looked at him and smiled.  “I dunno how intelligent they are.  But they’re people of a sort, and I think they’ll help us.”

“Are you talking about — there’s an indigenous people here?  Get out!  That’s unbelievable!” Vanessa said, with wonder in her voice.”

“I’ll say,” growled Cal, with none.

Morris was practically choking with enthusiasm.  “Well, are they — do they — What are they like?  How advanced are they?”  Bear in mind that, up until that time, no extraterrestrial native peoples had ever been found.

Gordon seemed a little flummoxed.  “Well . . . I’m not an anthropologist.  Uh, they’re tribal.  They fashion some amazing weapons and things from locally available materials.  No metals as yet.  But they know these woods and hills like I wish I knew anything.”

“And that’s where you were gonna take us for shelter?” asked Morris, straightening up along with Gordon.  “Wow!”  Gordon nodded, blinking in the face of Morris’ excitement.  Our Chief Petty Officer was still just a kid.

Vanessa turned to Cal.  “I think this changes the whole equation.  If we can get their help . . . don’t you think?”

Cal was still dubious.  “If they exist . . . I have to admit it’s worth checking into.  Anything that might help even the odds.”

“No kidding,” drawled Beth.

Morris turned earnestly to Cal.  “It’d be worth while just to see ‘em!  The first non-human intelligence mankind’s ever encountered!”  He was so charged up, he practically burbled.

“And if they will help us out,” said Vanessa, “it could make all the difference.  Cal, we ought to give it a shot.”

“Yeah, I just said it was worth looking into,” Cal said with some irritation.  “But, Gordon — we have to work together here, so don’t take this the wrong way — I don’t want to lose time over some figment of your imagination, okay?  ‘Cause that could cost us our lives.  You see what I’m saying?”

Gordon, who had been checking his automatic rifle, slammed it into its holster and fixed Cal with a malevolent look.  “I’ve always said self-control is a magnificent virtue,” he grated.  “Fortunately for you I’m feeling uncommonly virtuous.  Let’s go.”

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COMPANY

Gordon had frozen in his tracks, but he looked at me in alarm as Cal and the others came bursting out of his cabin.  He said, “What the hell was that?”

I said, “I don’t know,” about the same time Cal asked, “Did you get a good look at it?” and about the same time Vanessa said,  “Cal, I think it was a dark blue fighter.”

It was almost too much for Gordon to take in.  “You mean it’s not yours?”

“Dark blue is the color of the Russ Fleet’s aircraft.  I meant to tell you that there are still some renegades out there who haven’t accepted the treaty,” said Cal, scanning the treetops with his distance scope and ignoring the voice of Mission Control.

I said, “Maybe they tracked us here, and waited for us to land.”

“Oh, you’re a grand rescue team.  I thank you again,” said Gordon as he ran up the back steps and into his cabin.

Morris yelled, “It’s coming back!”  It hurtled over the hills toward us and banked for a turn.  You forget how fast space craft are until you see them blasting along above some real terra firma.  The Thalasso was fairly quick, but this thing would have run figure eights around us.  It was definitely dark blue, and definitely a fighter.

By this time Cal was hollering into the helmetcom, “Don, are you tracking this — shut up, Mission Control.  Don, are you with me?”

“Way ahead of you.  I’m trying to get a radar lock on him right now.  Looks like a Russ fighter,” said Don in his calm, unhurried, “I-can-handle-any-crisis” voice.  The poor son of a bitch was showing off for Mission Control, trying to brazen his way past the fact that we’d left the Thalasso completely exposed in the middle of a meadow and were not too well prepared to defend her against an unanticipated air attack.

The dark little fighter had finished banking and had begun following the line of the hills toward where the Thalasso lay.

“Don, get the hell out of there,” screamed Cal.  “Get into the trees.  Abandon ship.  Move!”

After that, I knew Cal was still yelling, but I couldn’t make out what he said for the noise.  There was a stream of fire that came from the Russ fighter toward a point on the other side of the hills.  Then there was a moment of loud static over the helmetcoms, and a shaft of flame maybe a hundred feet high shot up from where we’d left the Q.S. Thalasso.  Pieces of her were vomited into the air, and spinning crazily, began to shower the hills.  Then there was only a column of black smoke.

We stood there blinking for a couple of seconds.  I heard Morris say, “Oh, God.  Oh, Jesus.”  That seemed to sum it up.

A ball of shock, grief, and dread began to grow in the pit of my stomach.  I was trying not to think about Don, his young wife and his little boy.  I was trying to focus on what I should do now, but all I could see when I closed my eyes was Don, laughing at the end of some stupid game he and I’d been playing on the Thalasso; Don, teasing Vanessa until she left the room, shaking her head and blushing; Don, helping us with our packs as we prepared to leave him to his spectacular yet very private and personal death.

Gordon came bursting out of his cabin with a pack on his back, bristling with weapons, and said, “Well?”  It was a challenge, and it was a call to arms, and I think it snapped us out of our shock and confusion to the point where we began to think again.

“All right,” said Cal, taking his hand from over his eyes.  “All right, he saw the compound; he’ll be coming here next.”  Sure as hell, the fighter was couple lengths away, banking for a run at us.  “Gordon, I bow to your knowledge of the terrain.”

Gordon didn’t hesitate.  “All right, through that gate and down the hill into those trees,” he shouted, like a seasoned boot camp commandant.  We looked at Cal, and since he was already running in that direction,  we had but to follow.

Once, I glanced back at Gordon, who was not running with us.  He had opened the corral and was starting to chase his animals out and through the open compound gate.  Then I concentrated on running until I heard the fighter open fire.

It was so close it almost made my heart stop.  They were just exploding rounds from some small wing cannons, but they were enough to blow Gordon’s cabin to pieces.  I looked back while running.  There was a thunder storm of kindling propelled by a huge fireball in the center of the compound.  I didn’t see Gordon anywhere.

We were running like hell between the two hills we’d climbed on our way to the compound.  This was a good move because the trees were way too thick for the Russ pilot to get a good idea of where we were from overhead.  Unfortunately, all he had to do was toast the whole area in order to get us, and we all knew it.

From the sound of things, the fighter had banked about two lengths away, and was coming back for more fun and games.  We were crunching along through leaf litter and underbrush, and my breath was already loud and hard to come by — not a good sign if this kept up much longer.

In the midst of all this noise, I heard something I could hardly believe.  It sounded for all the world like an airbike zipping by above the trees overhead.  I remembered the one I’d seen leaning carelessly against the compound’s fence, just inside the gate.  But it was too much for me to figure out while I was running, taking up the rear and trying not to trample Beth, who was slowing down drastically.

We were already running at a crouch, from brute instinct as much as from any combat training.  Then the fighter began to open fire again, and we really hunkered down for dear life.  Oddly enough, though, whoever was flying that Russ death machine didn’t seem to be firing at us.  We heard the fighter bank sharply at about the same time those cannon rounds hit the ground a hundred yards away.

Then, I heard the staccato booming of an automatic shotgun, and the sound of that airbike again.  Cal’s voice drifted back to me from up ahead.  “I don’t fucking believe it,” he yelled, just a little out of breath.  I saw everybody looking off to our left, so of course I did too..

Then I saw Gordon.  My foot caught a tree root and I went down damn near face first in the dirt.  As I scrambled to my feet, I looked back again to make sure it hadn’t been a stress-induced hallucination I’d seen.  But Gordon was still there.  He was going after that Russ fighter — which, in a gravity like this one, could do over 1200 lengths per hour — with an airbike.

Granted, airbikes are maneuverable as hell, and he was putting this one through its paces with the lazy skill of a master, but seeing him up there certainly lent credence to our early impression that Gordon was, in a word, crazy.

It was hard to follow the action, since we were running downhill at this point into an area that had been logged and was now overgrown with new trees.  The cover was getting thinner, but beyond all this we were nearing what looked like a well-nigh impenetrable forest.  It was about two hundred yards ahead.

I heard the shotgun booming again.  The fighter started screaming back toward us.  I looked over to see Gordon do a sideways flip out of the Russ ship’s path.  The fighter had made no attempt to fire at such a flimsy target this time.  Its pilot had aimed the craft directly at Gordon, knowing that the turbulence alone would be enough to wreck him.  And it was.

The airbike was tossed upside down toward a stand of trees, totally out of control.  Gordon could only hang helplessly from the handlebars and watch those trees hurtling closer and closer.  By the time his airbike struck the lower branches of what I later learned was a mang tree, Gordon was twenty feet off the ground and sailing along pretty fast.  I saw him let go, just before the impact, but then I had to take care of a little business of my own.

The fighter had banked again.  I heard it coming, and that ball of fear in my belly was just about crippling me.  We were still almost a hundred yards from the deep woods.  We weren’t going to make it.

This area had obviously been part of the settlement at one time.  There were some ruined outbuildings, and, up ahead, what looked like a big earthmover.  It was half keeled over, with a deep depression underneath it.  Cal had lead us to it and was half directing, half pushing Vanessa, then Morris, then Beth, and finally me into that depression and under the treads of that huge machine.

By this time the sound of the fighter was almost deafening.  As Cal piled in on top of me, I heard the shriek of a missile being fired.  Then everything went black.

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TEA PARTY

“The Quadrant.”

That was what Gordon had said, all right.  I could tell from the puzzled and somewhat alarmed expressions on everybody’s faces.

As Cal stared back at him in disbelief, I heard Don say, “Ooh!  Brain rabbits, brain rabbits!”

“On the air, Don,” warned Cal, automatically, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“I take it you’re talking to your man in the ship — the one who’s had a lock on me for the last few minutes,” said Gordon, surprising the hell out of us twice in two sentences.  I never did know how he knew that unless he just guessed.  Then, to make it three shockers in a row, he said, “Why don’t you have him come up to the house and join us for a cup of tea?  I’m afraid it’s all I have to offer.”  His manner was still gruff, but beneath that I guessed he was starting to be a little glad to see some other humans.  He probably couldn’t help it much after twelve years.

Cal didn’t answer just then because Mission Control was advising us to take Dr. Gordon into custody for his own safety and the safety of the crew.  Beth interjected, “This is Dr. Charkoy.  I disagree.  The subject is no longer threatening us.  In my professional opinion, we’ll get much more information on what happened if we play along and let the subject tell us in his own way.”  All of this was barely above a whisper, and Beth had turned her head away from Gordon.  Nevertheless, he smirked as though he’d heard or surmised the whole conversation and thought it was pretty stupid.

“The subject invites you all to tea.  Come on,” he said.  He strode by us and through the gate towards the house as though we weren’t five strangers in field uniforms toting automatic weapons.

Again, we all looked to Cal for a cue.  Since Mission Control was cautiously deferring to Dr. Charkoy’s judgment over our helmetcoms, Cal fell in behind Gordon and to one side, where, at our host’s slightest movement, he could have brought his SSR to bear on the situation.  We followed.

Gordon had swung the long gate back on its hinges as he’d gone through, and it clanged against a dusty Takawa airbike that was leaning against the fence.  I’d had an airbike when I was a boy.  Seeing it there gave me an unaccountable pang of nostalgia.  I suddenly felt old and a long way from home.

He had the front door of his cabin open before the gate glided shut behind us.  With a sardonic grin, he offered to let Cal go into the house first.  Cal had his jaw clenched.  He gestured for Gordon to precede him with a small movement of the SSR’s barrel.

You had to get the impression that Gordon was baiting Cal just a little, finding our precautions amusing and seeing how much he could get away with.  Knowing Cal as I did, I wished he would cut it out.

We single filed into the house, rifles up and ready for anything.  I went in last, backwards, scanning the surrounding area for any sign of trouble.  Nothing happened, so I went in.  But I stayed just inside the door, where my little camera and I could see the barnyard, the corral, and the surrounding woods pretty well.

The inside of Gordon’s house took some getting used to.  For one thing, it was kind of dark.  But he bustled around, opening window coverings and letting in as much light and air as the placement of windows would allow.  He had some primitive but, even to my country boy’s eye, beautiful artwork on the walls, as well as photographs and holographs, most of an attractive young woman.  Up around the ceiling were what I took to be his hunting trophies and they were plenty bizarre.

There were racks of some kind of antlers, and a couple of sinister-looking skulls, and, on one wall, dominating the room, there was a crudely taxidermed bird with a wingspan of about twelve feet.  Its feathers glittered like precious metals, all gold and emerald green, with markings of black.  It was positioned so that, as the windows were opened, its feathers flashed fire in the sun and reflected their colors everywhere.  You couldn’t help but look at the damned thing.

He invited us to sit at this long table in the center of the room as he started rummaging through his cupboards and drawers.  Beth was gratefully slumping into a chair when she saw the look Cal was giving her.  She froze, then painfully stood up again with a sick expression on her face.

About this time I realized that Gordon was keeping up a more or less steady stream of conversation — not to us, but to himself.  I don’t think the poor bastard even realized he was doing it.  “Let’s see . . . we haven’t six cups, have we?  But here’s an old mug we havent’s used for quite a while, and with this measuring cup, that makes five, and I really don’t care for any just now anyway, so that should be sufficient.”  He just muttered along like that nonstop, in his rumbling burr of a voice.

I tried to catch somebody’s eye, to see if they found this as amusing as I did, but stopped when I got to Vanessa.  She was biting a fingernail, and looking at Gordon with an expression I’d never seen on her before; just looking him up and down with her eyes wide and her nostrils flaring.  I wondered if she was okay.

Cal breathed, “Read me the file on Gordon,” so quietly I could hardly hear it over my helmetcom — until I turned the volume back up.  Then Don’s voice was in my head, saying “Okay, I read you the scant bio before.  Here’s the long entry.  Let’s see . . . Okay, Gordon would now be fifty-one years old.  Born in a suburb of Glasgow, Scotland, on Old Earth.  Played rugby, soccer, and turfball as a kid . . . from a very poor family . . . got his doctorate in psychology from the University of Edinburgh . . . I’m summarizing some of this stuff . . . uh . . . emigrated to the planet Taurus where he became interested in the Quadrant’s colonization program.  Went back to school and received a Master’s degree in agriculture and another in civil engineering.  Worked as a clinical psychologist in Tariq City . . .”

“Cut to the personality profile,” growled Cal, and despite his clattering and mumbling, Gordon heard it and scowled over at him.

“Were you talking to me?”  He had stopped in the middle of filling a huge tea kettle with water.

“No, Dr. Gordon,” said Cal with a touch of condescension.

“If you’re going to stand there all day carrying on a conversation wi’ somebody who isn’t present, you and I are not going to get on,” Gordon said, in a lecturing tone.  I had to give it to him, he did condescension some better than Cal.

As Gordon turned away, filling the old tea kettle from a spotless chrome faucet, Don resumed talking, but in a hushed tone, as if afraid Gordon might hear him.  “Quote:  ‘Gordon has a keen intellect, and vast powers of concentration.  His sense of humor is well developed, ranging from subtle word play to outrageous practical jokes.  He is an articulate speaker, and expert marksman, a master of psychological manipulation.  He is also physically formidable, having been a lifelong athlete — ‘”  Don broke off because Gordon was asking each of us what kind of tea we wanted; it seems he had eight or ten different kinds, some of them local.

“That’s all right, Don,” said Cal, with his head turned away from Gordon.

“You’re doing it again, Captain Vickrey,” Gordon said, repressing a smile.  “What kind of tea would you like?”

“It’s Vickers,” said Cal.  “I’ll have the same kind you’re having.”

“Actually, I haven’t enough cups for all, so I wasn’t going to have any.”

“Then I think I’ll pass.”  Cal’s voice was dead calm, but his meaning was clear.  Personally, I’d never thought of Gordon putting anything in our tea.  I guess that’s why Cal was the Captain and I wasn’t.

“As you wish,” said Gordon, smiling a little.  He had set the cups around his long table, and invited us to sit once again.  We looked at Cal.  Cal looked at me.

“Stay by the door, Kelly,” he said, as he and the rest slowly took their seats.

Gordon brightened and looked at me.  “A fellow Celt!  Though I hate to admit kinship with an Irishman.”  I must have been looking sort of puzzled.  “Surely you’re Irish, with a name like Kelly?”

“I guess   I’m from a little town called Our Kansas, about 30 miles West of Tariq City, on Taurus.”

He seemed a little disappointed.  “Take my word for it, ye son of the ould sod, ye’re Irish.”  He had mimicked some accent as he said that, almost an exaggeration of his own, and Vanessa actually stifled a giggle.  I’d never heard that accent before either, and I felt appropriately ignorant for being so out of touch with my Old Earth heritage.

Of course I knew, as every educated person knows, that all our ancestors came from Old Earth.  It was common in those days for wealthy people to make pilgrimages to the areas their families had come from.  It’s my understanding that at one time, everybody lived in separate countries there with separate governments.  In a lot of places people did pretty much what they pleased without those governments getting involved at all, except for laws and taxes and such.  Then Quad became God and stayed that way for 200 years.

Gordon turned and surveyed the group, resting his sharp gaze on Cal.  “So, tell me, Captain Vickrey — “

“Vickers.”

“Whatever it is.  Why did the Quadrant send you here?”

Cal looked at Beth, spread his hands out, and looked back at Gordon.  “Didn’t we just go through that?  Outside, just now?”

Beth said, “You remember, Dr. Gordon, we said –“

“I remember very well what was said.  I was asked to believe that a rescue party of five, plus however many stayed behind in that little hod carrier of a ship, was sent to minister to the needs of at least 120 people.”

“We’re just an advance party, Dr. Gordon,” said Cal.  I could tell from the tight sound of his voice that Gordon’s “hod carrier” dart had drawn some blood.  “There’s going to be some more help on the way.”

“‘More help,’ is it?  Oh, that’s good,” said Gordon.

There was a tense silence.  The only one having a good time was Morris, who was not registering much of what was happening around him.  He was too busy studying Gordon’s hunting trophies with an awed expression on his face.

Beth said, “Dr. Gordon, why do you say the Quadrant killed the other colonists?”

Gordon’s eyes moved around the room, burning guilty complicity into each of us in turn as he spoke.  “Twenty years ago, a crew from the Exploration Force did a quick fly-over here.  Their instruments showed an Earth-like planet, so they landed — in broad daylight — and tramped through the forest for five hours or so.  They took some core samples, prospected a bit, took cuttings from some of the better lumber trees, analyzed the air and water, and filled out the standard forms.  Then they took off.  When word filtered upward to the Quadrant Board about the favorable mineral assays and an endless supply of timber . . . well, this planet had everything they could ask for as a colony site.

“So within a few years, a hundred and twenty men, women and children landed here to start a new life on a planet advertised to be a little more attractive than Heaven.  The pre-colonization report mentioned no particular hazards, so our security contingent from the Intrepid seemed adequate.  We used the tree-mowers to clear the area they’d chosen for us.  We set up our little temporary shelters, and our generators.  We were all happy — exhausted, but happy.  And excited about being alive, about the future, about this new world that was ours to shape, and to make our own.”  He paused.  “Then the sun went down.”

Gordon was staring at the table top like it held a horrible fascination for him.  “I’ll never forget that night as long as I live.”  He snapped out of it, blinked, and walked to the far end of the room.  From its place on a trophy shelf, he reached down a curved, serrated bone, very sharp on one end.  As he carried it back to the table, he handled it with his fingertips; he nver took his eyes off of it, and his face was rigid with distaste.  He put it in the center of the table, where it rocked a little before becoming still.  He sat down, but he never took his eyes off the thing.

“What do you make of that,” he asked.  His voice was husky and strange.

We all looked at it for a moment.  It was about as long as a man’s forearm.  I wasn’t as close as the others, but I saw what looked like a barb just below that wicked point.  Cal shook his head.  “Morris?”  Even before Cal spoke, Morris was reaching for the thing.  Cal pushed it toward him, and he examined it as he made observations into his field jacket computer.

“The object looks like bone, or horn.  It’s a little bit hollow at the broad end, and see here?  There’s some decadent organic material inside.  From the curved shape of it, and this secondary, downward point — almost like the barb of a fish hook — I’d say it’s probably used, or was used I should say, by some predator for catching and holding its prey.  These serrations would also make this inside edge real, real sharp, which may make it an excellent slashing weapon, as well.  And uh — that’s about all I can say for now.”

“You’ll make a fine naturalist,” murmured Gordon absently.  He sat staring at the thing for another moment, then, as before, he snapped out of it and went on in a businesslike tone:  “It’s the sickle claw from an adult tark.  There are some other problems here in paradise, but the tarks . . . That first night, we weren’t expecting them, you see.  People around the periphery began to disappear about an hour after dark.  Sometimes there’d be a scream, but sometimes — they were just not there anymore.  Security finally caught on and herded everyone to the center of the compound, which was brightly lit.  But by this time there was a panic, people running, firing into the shadows.  The tarks were growing quite brazen; they would just stalk in among us and pick somebody out of the crowd.  Children, women, it was all the same to them, of course.  There was a lot of confusion, gunfire, screams . . . God, the screams.  And the smell of blood was in the air.”

“You’re telling me all those people were killed by some kind of animal?”  Cal’s voice held the slightest possible hint of disbelief.

Gordon didn’t answer.  He kept staring at the claw.  Then he went on, as if Cal had never said anything.  “At some point, one of the security contingent must have fired into the outbuilding where the explosives were stored.  There was a blast that knocked us flat.  About a third of the lights went out around the center of the compound, where most of us were huddled.  A huge fire started; in fifteen minutes our long-range communications gear, the livestock cryogenics, most of our medical supplies — all gone.  We couldn’t even fight the fire.  That would have meant leaving our oasis of light, and we couldn’t do that because the tarks were waiting . . . waiting in the darkness, in the shadows . . .”  He looked up, an odd and desolate look on his face.  “There were hundreds of them,,” he said in a tight whisper.

“Okay, but there were over a hundred of you,” said Cal, breaking the spell.  “And you had automatic weapons.”

“You haven’t been listening,” Gordon snapped, instantly back to his tough, arrogant self.  “It was the light that saved us, the light was what kept them away.  Automatic weapons,” he growled.  “Automatic weapons only made them angry.”

There was a brief pause.  “That’s bullshit,” said Cal, shaking his head and looking around at us for confirmation.  “I’m sorry, but that is bullshit.”

Gordon was standing up, slowly, and, their eyes locked on him, everybody else was standing up too.  “Is it, now,” he said, in a low rumble that filled the room.

Cal’s SSR was held casually at the ready.  “Yes, it is.  You’re telling us that some animals came in and wiped everybody out.  Right?”  Gordon was staring at him with a look of such complete and powerful hatred that I think anybody else would have apologized, tried to smooth things over.  But Cal just went on.  “If that’s the case, I can’t help but wonder how you survived and no one else did.”

Gordon spoke through clenched teeth.  “And I can’t help but wonder what you’re doing here, Johnny on the spot, only fifteen years after our distress signal.  Did you come to heap together our moldering bones with your scorn?  Did you come to sweep our lives and our memories aside to make room for the strip mines, and the clear-cutting, and the power plants, so the Quadrant can wade through slaughter to the golden throne of avarice once more?”  As time went on, one began to appreciate that when Gordon got passionate about something, he was likely to start spouting poetry.

“Look,” said Cal, “nobody’s asking you to like the Quadrant –“

“Like it?  Like it?”  Gordon was bellowing so loud they all stepped back from him.  “The Quadrant dumped us here to live or die!  They didn’t tell us about the tarks!  They didn’t tell us about the poisonflies, or those things that live in the trees in the low forest!  They dumped us here like so many janitors to watch their land for them until they could bring in the heavy equipment and ream it out themselves!  And what about the Quadrant Fleet?  Those noble soldiers of the Intrepid who were still in orbit that night?  What Code of Honor has a loophole so big it could let them stand by while all those good people were horribly killed?  Answer me that!”

I think the only thing that kept Cal from jumping Gordon right then was the fact that Mission Control was watching, listening and recording everything.  And it wasn’t Gordon’s hard words about the Quadrant that had enraged Cal; we all knew that stuff was true.

“I’ll answer you,” said Cal, in a voice so low and deadly it made my skin crawl.  “The Intrepid didn’t come to your rescue that night because they got blasted out of the sky.  They were ambushed by the Russ.  They got caught because the Russ forgot to mention anything about a war, they just attacked.  Yes, Gordon, big news flash: there was a war.  It lasted fifteen years and killed upwards of twenty million people, and it’s mostly over now.  But even during the worst of the fighting, over all these years, they never stopped trying to contact you.  As soon as a ship became available, they sent us out here to find out what happened.  I’m real sorry if you think they should have sent half the fleet.  But as far as I’m concerned, the Officer’s Code of Honor is very much intact.”

Gordon was not impressed.  “Tell your story to my wife, who died of pneumonia and despair because there were not any antibiotics left to save her.  Tell it to the baby she was carrying.  Tell it to Nelson, and Fujita, and Hirschenbaum; all the farmers and scientists and carpenters who were left to die because the Quadrant couldn’t spare a ship in time to save them.  I’m sorry for the crew of the Intrepid, but they were soldiers.  They knew their risk.  At least their end was quick.  But this colony died slowly.  I watched it die, year after year.  And then I watched it again in my dreams until I thought I’d go mad.  So it’s a tad difficult to feel any gratitude, now that ‘help’ has come at last, and come fifteen years too late.  Make yourselves at home.”

Gordon stalked past me and out, not looking at anyone.

After he’d banged out the door to the barnyard, Cal growled, “Somebody should keep an eye on that nutcase.”  I was closest to the door, but Vanessa blurted out that she’d go and rushed past me kind of breathless and eager.  I looked at Cal, who was looking at me.  He inclined his head toward the door and then turned his attention to some Q-Fleet psychiatrist who was talking to us from Mission Control about Gordon.

I pushed the door open carefully, so I could look around before I stepped out into any trouble.  I hadn’t made it through a ten year tour of duty by being the heroic, impulsive type.  Vanessa was still standing on the back porch.  She was pretty much blocking my view, but I assumed she was keeping tabs on Gordon.  I just stayed where I was, backing her up.

Then I could see Gordon, carrying a bag of feed from a little shed over to the corral.  Vanessa was keeping tabs on him, all right.  From behind, I could see her head turn as she followed him with her eyes.

The animals we’d seen before were crowding the fence, waiting for him.  He had started dumping feed into the first of a series of troughs when Vanessa leaned her SSR against the wall, took off her helmet and her jacket, and dropped them on the porch.  Then she went down the steps and crossed the barnyard to where Gordon was.

I told myself that it was pretty warm now, with the clouds burning off and the sun high, and that that was the only reason Vanessa had done what I’d just seen.  I told myself that, but even I wasn’t dumb enough to believe it.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that she was primping her hair, fluffing it up a bit on her way over to the corral.  And the fact that, with her field jacket off, her uniform was snug enough to show that she was a girl lieutenant.

I turned the psychiatrist off in my helmetcom and stepped out onto the porch.  They were about thirty feet away.  You have to remember that in this world, there was no machinery, no transportation, no man-made sounds of any kind anywhere.  I could hear what they said fairly well.  However, the body language of people who are interested in each other is forever the same.  I already knew the song; I didn’t need to hear the words.

*                                  *                             *                              *                           *

The following is reprinted from Life Of Legend: The Rise of Charlemagne Gordon, by permission of Quentin LeBris and TwinStar Publishing.  All rights are reserved.

In a recent interview; Vanessa Gold Gordon recalled her first impression of the man whose life would soon be entwined with her own: “It’s hard to describe.  He just fascinated me.  Here was this tough, articulate, passionate, very good-looking man who’d had to carve a life for himself out of a wilderness with almost nothing, for years beyond when he could reasonably expect to be rescued.  I just admired him so much.

“With everything he’d been through, my heart went out to him, on a purely compassionate level, and I thought Cal had been awfully hard on him.  I was also tremendously attracted to him.  There was something about him, something in his eyes.  I’d see a flash of it and then he’d hide it again, put it away somewhere that you couldn’t find it anymore.  But it was always there in him.  It was a kind of pent-up sexual power, a hunger, I guess you’d say.  Sometimes I’d catch him looking at me as though he wanted to eat me alive.  He made me feel very desirable, like I was definitely not one of the guys.  As a woman in the military, you’re always kind of pretending your femininity isn’t a factor somehow.  If you didn’t, it would get in the way of your work.  It would get in the way of your equality.  And that certainly happened with Captain Vickers.  But with this man I could just enjoy being desired and viewed as a purely feminine creature, because he was no part of any organization that I hoped to advance in.

“We talked about the animals.  I tried to break the ice by telling him about the horses I had when I was little, and how they comforted me when I was lonely — which he took very badly.  He took a deep breath and said something like, ‘Oh, my.  And we were getting on so famously.  Oh, well.  Even though I have a Doctorate in Psychology, I refuse to be offended by those patronizing remarks because I know you meant no harm.’  I was so flustered I didn’t know what to say and I was about to go back in the house when he started talking again, very quickly, as though he’d realized I was going to go and he didn’t want me to.  I began to see that, although he was still being tough with me, still keeping up a wall of defense, he was desperately lonely.  How could he not be, after all those years?

“Very subtly, he led the conversation around to where he wanted it.  He’s good at that.  He made a reference to his situation, how when a person wants something, needs something, and that need is unfulfilled for year after year, it takes on the nature of an obsession.  And as he told me that, he let me see the fire in him, full force.

“I didn’t know what to say, but I don’t mind admitting that the idea of being the first recipient of that fire after all those years was getting me pretty aroused.  You have to realize, life was different back then; people were much more open with each other about things like that.  I remember I said something to the effect that we were there to help him in any way he needed, and that I in particular would try to give him whatever it was he’d wanted all those years.

“Then he looked at me very earnestly and said, ‘Then you did bring some tobacco?  Thank Heaven!  I’ll go get my pipe right now!’  My mind was so boggled I couldn’t even react.  I just stood there with my mouth open as he walked away grinning.

“Then the nightmare began.

“Kelly was on the porch laughing his head off.  I don’t know how much he’d heard, but apparently it was enough because he and Gordie exchanged a look and they were obviously laughing at me.  I was staring daggers at Kelly, who was trying to say something to me.  At first, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t hear him.

“Then this black shadow raked across the compound and an aircraft of some kind disappeared over the hills before any of us could get a good look at it.  I don’t know how, but I knew it was a Russ fighter.  And I knew we were in big trouble.”

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GORDON

So, anyway, we were off like a bride’s pajamas to Olmec III, which is what the Exploration Force had named this planet whose colony had a fifteen year case of mike fright.  Once such a course is programmed, the crew has the option of hibernating or gutting it out wide awake.  Personally, I didn’t like the idea of Deep Sleep during wartime.  Neither did anybody else.

After interminable busy-work projects, virtual reality games, and weight room workouts, Olmec III had gone from an abstract concept to a set of coordinates to a place on the chart to a tiny speck we could actually see in the distance.  We began to get busy again.

One of our many problems was the fact that the Thalasso’s humidity control went out about that time.  Don tactfully brought it to our attention by asking, “Cal, is it okay if I open a window?”  Though I tested every component of the system, I couldn’t seem to find the glitch.  Everything checked out fine.  That didn’t keep us from sweltering, or keep beads of water from forming all over everything in the ship.  I was one popular guy.

This went on for days, with everybody working in their underwear and invoking curses against the company that made the humidifier, the Quadrant, and Senior Engineer Kelly, not necessarily in that order.  I was taking a break, reading one of those electronic books that were popular then, where the story would evolve differently every time you read it.  I looked up, and Beth was standing there glaring at me under her eyebrows and seething with rage.

“I have had it!  Do you hear me?  I have sweated through every item of apparel I own!  I have stuck to every surface I have touched on the inside of this ship!  Every gauge and meter in the sick bay is fogged up on the inside and cannot be read!”  She began to peel off her underwear one item at a time and hurl it at my feet.  “I am hot!  I am tired because I cannot sleep!  Nobody can sleep!  And until you figure out what the son-of-a-bitching problem is, you do not have time to read!  You do not have time to take a break!  Do you hear me?”  By this time, she was standing there stark naked, all four feet eight inches of her, with her hands on her hips and a glower that would melt copper on her gnome-like face.

Everybody quickly gathered around, laughing and applauding.  Don said, “That’s right, Goddammit!  We’ve had it with you, Kelly!”  He peeled off his underwear and hurled it at my feet too, so of course Morris had to join in, and then Vanessa, and pretty soon Cal and I added our unmentionables to the growing pile at my feet, and by this time we were all naked and laughing so hard we could barely breathe with all that humidity.

So I redoubled my efforts, but still didn’t get anywhere for several more days.  Meanwhile, everybody went around bare-assed as a kind of protest, with Don frequently singing, “I’m in the mood for nude, simply because I’m naked . . . Funny, but when I’m naked, I’m in the mood for nude . . .”  He had a database of old songs and was always singing these wicked parodies of them.  Needless to say, Don was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known, but it never seemed like he was trying to be funny; comedy just flowed out of him.

Anyway, the problem with the humidifier turned out to be two problems: a broken wire inside some insulation where you couldn’t see it, and a hiccup in the diagnostic software that kept us from discovering it in the usual ways.  By the time that was fixed, Olmec III was looming pretty large on the screen before us.  I had seen some laservid images of New Earth taken before humanity had really gotten a grip on it, and this planet had the same majestic beauty.  It rolled slowly through the blackness of space; swirling white cloud banks, great expanses of blue sea, greens and browns of the land masses rotating by until they filled out whole field of vision.

We may have been a trifle put out to be sent away from the battle for Tavic just when we thought we were needed most, but by this time I think we all realized that we were about to embark on a totally unique experience.  We were about to see a world that only a few human beings had ever beheld; maybe no living human had seen it.  And, we were about to solve a mystery that had hung in the air like smoke for over fifteen years.  I think it’s fair to say that we each felt the same hot squirm of excitement in our bellies while we took to our landing stations.

By this time, we had decreased out speed considerably, but sheets of fire still played over our viewscreen as we entered the atmosphere.  The first time you penetrated the atmosphere of an unfamiliar planet, it was traditional to make some tasteless jokes about losing your virginity, and naturally we did.  But there was an excited tension beneath the joking that I, as a veteran spaceman, had not felt for many years.  This was something we really were doing for the first time in our lives.  I hate to admit it, but seeing that virgin world hurtling toward us, I began to feel something akin to reverence.

We were 80,000 feet up, then 60,000, then 40,000, and as we slowed to a crawl by our standards the topography below was still an ever-changing, multi-colored blur of shapes and textures.  “Steady, people,” said Cal.  We were all strapped in tight but you can’t help it, you brace yourself anyway.  About 150 lengths from the colony’s coordinates, the retros went on and it was as though the Thalasso had hit the side of a planet.  Anything that wasn’t fastened down on the ship went flying forward.  We were suddenly doing Standard Approach Speed (600 lengths per hour) and we could make out huge lakes, endless forests, meadows of purple grass, glittering rivers, clouds of flying things scattering before us, rolling foothills and towering rock mountains, like black unholy cathedrals ranging around the green woods below.

If I sound a little overwhelmed, that’s the way I felt.  I guess none of us had ever seen anything so beautiful in our lives.  I found myself thanking God that I’d lived to see this day.

Little did I know.

Cal and Vanessa decided on a long, flat meadow for our touchdown.  The meadow was just over the hill from the colony site, and they figured it would be a low-stress hike.  Cal burned us into that meadow with an easy perfection, as though he’d made that particular landing at least once a day for years.  Considering that he was licensed to fly over fifty different kinds of air and spacecraft, I guess that was to be expected.  Morris and I still looked at each other, shaking our heads in admiration.

Now came the hard part.  You can imagine how tempting it would be to just throw open a hatch, lower the plank steps, and walk barefoot in the grass with the sun on your face.  After six months shipside, the desire to do just that was an actual physical ache in every one of us.  But there were procedures to be followed, and they were there for good reasons.

First, Morris’ exterior sensors had to analyze the air, not only to see if it was fit to breathe, but also to learn if it carried any harmful spores or pollen to which we might react badly.  Beth’s medical knowledge would be needed for that as well.  And although a life-heat scanner could detect no sizable life-forms in the meadow or the surrounding woods, Cal was required by Quadrant policy to set up a Dannerhaus Square around the ship until we were reasonably sure the area was secure.  Plus, Vanessa had to check and re-check her maps of the colony’s layout which Mission Control had down-loaded to the Thalasso.  We didn’t want to wander around in the wilderness and get seriously lost on Quadrant time.

I helped Don take the position of this sun relative to the horizon line, so we’d know this sphere’s time of day (0917 hours — don’t ask why I remember that) and be able to confirm our exact location.  It seemed like a month, but by 1030 hours or thereabouts planet time, we were ready to exit the vessel.

Don drew the short straw and had to stay with the ship.  But when we opened that hatch, it seemed like the grossest cruelty to make any one of us stay.  The moist air that flowed into the Thalasso was a rare wine.  It was the smell of the meadow, and the flowers on the hillside, and the great dusky trees that ringed us all around.

Don stepped out into the meadow with us and helped us all with our packs.  In addition to rations for two days and medical supplies, we each carried a sidearm and an SSR assault rifle with extra ammunition.  Beth carried some specialized medical gear which was tricky to balance with her pack, so I was helping her with it.

“So, Kelly,” she said, “I won’t know how to act, not having to trip over your greasy tools every time I take a step.”

“You don’t know how to act under any circumstances,” I said, but she was no longer with me.  She pointed with amazed delight, and when I followed her gesture, there was Morris, completely absorbed in examining the underside of a log.

“Morris, dear,” she said sweetly, “whatever are you doing?”

Morris was not even a little embarrassed.  In fact, he was trembling with excitement and trying to make notes by talking into his field jacket computer while balancing his pack.  “I was noticing how similar the insectivora are here to the specimens I saw on Old Earth,” he said.  “There’s a creature here like a centipede, and some pseudo-ants.”

“Morris — do I have your attention?” asked Beth, in her best school-teacher voice.  “Good.  Now get your head out from under that rock this minute!  You have just landed in a goddam paradise, and you’re looking under rocks for pseudo-ants?  I am so worried about you, Morris.”  He just grinned and shook his head, still making notes.

“You guys might wanna look around for some pseudo-nightclubs while you’re out there,” said Don.

“I think this is gonna be more like your basic wilderness experience, Don, but we’ll see what we can do,” said Cal.  As usual, he was ready to go before the rest of us.

The Dannerhaus Square was still up, but of course you could hardly see it in full sunlight.  If it had been night, it would have appeared to be a corral made up of glowing blue tubes — one which nothing short of an ion missile could penetrate.  It was really just a linked series of laser-driven antimatter force fields.  There are much better protective devices nowadays, but then the Square seemed like a major military miracle.

Cal had us take up defensive positions around the perimeter of the Thalasso.  Once everyone was in place, he had Don shut down the Square.  We waited.  A warm breeze moved across the land, and all the trees, the bushes, the tall grass, all of it undulated like some interconnected living thing.

Don had established a weak contact with Mission Control, and was broadcasting all our communications with each other, and the images from our helmetcams.  Also, Don had five monitors on the Thalasso with which he could keep tabs on every one of us.  We each ran down a check list, on the air, of all our field gear and its working condition.  While monitoring all this, Call was keeping a wary eye on the woods and the hillside.

When all of us had finished, Don confirmed that Mission Control was receiving audio and video.  Cal gave him the standard orders about maintaining contact and exercising appropriate caution.  “All right, don’t bunch up as we go up the hill,” he told us.  “Let’s move out.”

As we carefully picked out way up the hillside, I heard the crackling of the Dannerhaus Square coming up again around the Thalasso.

A flight of little yellow bird-things broke cover and scattered, mewing, to the four winds.  I looked around, but the only thing that could have spooked them was us.  Despite our precautions, you have to remember that we had no reason to believe we were in the slightest danger.  I was so alive to our surroundings that I kept getting distracted by the damndest things.  There were these lavender and gold flowers practically carpeting the hillside; brightly colored insects buzzing around everywhere but minding their own business; cute little furry creatures that would watch us from the trees as we passed, then chatter like hell once we had gone by.  It was such an unbelievable day, I guess we all had a hard time imagining that there could be anything wrong for miles around.

We topped that hill, then had to walk down into a little ravine in order to climb the larger hill beyond it.  The trees got so thick that the sun could penetrate only in shafts.  It got quieter.

“Course, Lieutenant Gold?”  Cal had spoken barely above a whisper, but we all heard him in our helmetcoms.

“We’re on course, Captain.  I show the settlement to be in a little valley just over the top of that next rise,” said Vanessa.

“If they were still alive, they would’ve been here to meet us,” offered Morris in his soft voice.  Some large flying creature broke cover up ahead with a raucous cry.

I said, “Yeah, they would have seen us land, or heard us anyway.”

“Maybe they’re all out hoeing the rutabagas, or something,” said Beth.

Our nervous giggles were interrupted by Cal.  “We’re on the air, people,” he warned.  No fun on Quadrant time, with Mission Control listening.

We crunched up the side of the larger hill.  Inside my field jacket, I could feel the sweat begin to run down my sides.  Here, in the shadows of these giant trees, it was easier to be wary, to take our situation seriously.  Something slithered away into the leaf litter to my right and I swung the SSR in that direction instantly.  My heart was hammering a little too much and I told myself to calm down, but it wasn’t just nerves.

We had spent over six months inside a ship with less than 2,000 square feet of living space.  And even though there was a workout area where you could go for a virtual reality jog through any kind of landscape you might want, there’s a major difference between walking or running on a machine and walking on real dirt and leaves, stepping over rocks, and breathing unprocessed air at an altitude you’re not used to.  I didn’t have to ask; I knew we were all feeling it.

As we approached the crown of the hill, we saw something we hadn’t seen before: tree stumps, areas where brush had been cleared away by human hands, and then something that sent an electric thrill right through me — a fence.

We were pretty well fanned out as we approached this clearing, and Cal motioned us to go in at a crouch, more slowly than before, with our SSRs in the imminent combat position.  Tough we we were all trying to be, I had to stifle a smirk to see Beth walking at a crouch with her assault rifle against her hip.  The damned thing was bigger than she was.

By this time, we were level with the clearing, and could see the compound beyond.  The outer fence was split-rail.  With the concertina razor-wire looped all over the top, this fence was about seven feet high and looked as though it had been there for a long, long, time.  Spaced evenly around the inside of the fence was a series of steel poles, each as big around as a man’s leg.  The poles supported huge Sunray lamps on swivel necks.  Each lamp was trained downwards on the fence.

Within was a big log building and several prefab outbuildings.  There was an area that was staked out like a vegetable garden, and, just beyond that, an enclosure holding some strange, long-necked herd animals.  They shied away as we approached.

Beyond all this was a gentle slope, leading down into the valley below.  There were some big vehicles — tree-mowers, bulldozers, and cranes — resting at crazy angles down there.  I could also see what appeared to be the ruins of a number of buildings.  Everything, including the heavy machinery, seemed sort of overgrown, rusty, abandoned.  The compound before us was the only area that looked like it might still be inhabited.

Cal said quietly, “Are you getting all this, Warrant Officer?”  Don’s high velvety voice came back, calm and unhurried.  “Affirmative, Captain.”

Vanessa said, “This looks like a fortress, Captain.”

“Or a P.O.W. camp,” muttered Beth.  “Where is everybody?”

By this time, we had lowered our rifles, though we still held them at the ready.  Cal just about deafened us by shouting, “Hello!  Anybody here?”

A faint echo of Cal’s bellow played around the valley for a little while, as we frantically turned down the volume in our helmetcoms.  I always say a pathetic excuse is better than none, so I usually cite our preoccupation with volume adjustment as the reason why we got caught with our pants down around our ankles just then.

“Hands up!  Get ‘em up!!  Now!  Now!”  It was a new voice, and it boomed through the quiet woods like a treefall.  Most of us half-swiveled toward the voice, glancing at Cal for a cue.  Cal had an expression of disbelief mingled with profound embarrassment on his face, but, by God, he was raising his hands and that was good enough for me.  My hands went up, and I guess everybody else’s did at about the same time.

“What do you want here?” said the voice.  I made out the barrel of a high-caliber automatic rifle sticking out from between a large boulder and the trunk of a tree.  I couldn’t figure out how he’d gotten himself into position there, about thirty feet behind us and directly in the path we’d taken up the hillside, but I did understand why Cal had raised his hands.  Whoever it was had that rifle pointed right at his upper body.

“Vickers, John C., Captain of the Quadrant Ship Thalasso, Sector Four –“

“I know you’re Quadrant, I saw the ship,  What do you want?”  I was scanning the surrounding woods, but his was the only gun I saw.  I hadn’t yet had a clear look at him.

Cal didn’t answer right away.  He was listening to Don over our helmetcoms, saying, “Stall him for about another minute, Captain.  I’m locking onto his coordinates.”  What he meant was that the computer was triangulating his position based on ours and on the transmissions of our individual videocams.  I don’t know about anybody else, but I felt some better just knowing that once Don locked him down, he could be very efficiently killed from the Thalasso before he could move a muscle.

“We’re investigating a request for assistance broadcast from here . . . some time ago,” sad Cal, finally.

“Broadcast from here when some of you were in grade school,” said the voice, in an accent I couldn’t quite make out.  “Go on.”

“That’s all.  Your turn,” said Cal, more smoothly than he probably felt.

Don’s voice spoke in our ears.  “I’ve got him, Cal.  If you want me to take him out, just say the word ‘rutabaga.'”  That Don.  What a card.

“So you’re a kind of — rescue party?”  The voice rasped with scorn.

Cal said, “That’s right.  And you?”

Slowly, the man with the automatic rifle stood up, lowering his weapon.  “Well, that’s lovely.  Lovely.  Except I’m afraid you’re a trifle late.”

He was a big man with eyes that could glare a hole right through you, even at that distance.  His face was nut-brown and hard as a diamond.  The clothing he wore was exactly the color of the tree bark he stood next to; it crossed my mind that it must be made from the same stuff and not by any factory.  He held his shaggy head high and looked at us with undisguised disdain.  Though his black hair and beard were streaked with gray and white, he gave an impression of the limber strength of a much younger man.

Cal was slowly lowering his hands.  “Your name?”

“I’m Dr. Gordon,” he said, as though addressing his freshman class at the university.  I still couldn’t figure that accent, but the voice it colored was deep and rich.

Don was right on top of it.  “Charlemagne Gordon, Ph.D,” he murmured into our helmetcoms.  “Doctorate degrees in advanced hydroponics and psychology.  Age thirty-six at the time of the colony’s founding.  Married to Kathryn Baca, Ph.D., no children.  He was elected to the colony’s Leadership Council.”

“Okay, Dr. Gordon,” said Cal, visibly trying to control his fury at being taken by surprise with Mission Control watching and listening.  “I can understand your nervousness at a bunch of people showing up with guns all of a sudden.”  Gordon just gave a barely audible snort; he didn’t seem like the nervous type.  “But we’re all on the same side here,” continued Cal.  “I’m going to have to ask you to put the weapon down and take two steps back.”

Gordon looked at him like an old lion would look at the young upstart he was about to have for lunch.  He slung the rifle over his shoulder, and walked around the boulder toward us.  He stopped about five paces from Cal, looking him up and down.

By this time Cal seemed to be feeling a little more in control of the situation and his anger had turned to a professional, stony dislike.  “Okay, Dr. Gordon.  Where are the other colonists?”  No answer.  “Has the colony been moved, or what?”

“It’s ‘or what’,” Gordon said.  “There’s no colony.”

The first thing that ran through my mind was that maybe he’d gone nuts, and I guess I wasn’t the only one.  I heard Don’s voice murmur, “Brain rabbits, brain rabbits.”  I had to interest myself in my boots so Gordon wouldn’t see me trying to stifle a smirk.

Cal had waited, but Gordon offered nothing further.  “Dr. Gordon, I’m not the most patient man God ever made,” said Cal in a tight voice.

“I’ve been alone on this planet for twelve years,” said Gordon.  “The others are dead.”  In his voice, there was no sadness, or anger, or pity.

“Mission Control, did you copy that?”  Cal had almost whispered, but the reply came back at once, flat and lifeless:  “Affirmative; stand by, QAK71.”

I think we were all prepared for the colonists to be dead.  After all, fifteen years is a long time in the wilderness, cut off from humanity.  But somehow, the thought of one man — just one– surviving alone all those hours, all those days, in solitary confinement with a whole planet to wander, maybe hoping with every sunup that somebody would rescue him — it seemed too awful even to consider.  Gordon, who looked tough and capable enough for anything, was the least pitiable man I’d ever laid eyes on.  But I pitied him then, and as I caught Vanessa’s eye, and then Morris’, I knew they felt it too.

Mission Control had said something, and I’d missed it.  But Cal was nodding.  He said, “Dr. Gordon, are you saying the colony lost one hundred and nineteen people in three years?”

Gordon barked a bitter laugh.  “We lost over forty the first night.”

Mission Control was saying, ” . . . for any contact with Russ forces, over.”

“Was it the Russ?”  Cal asked.  Gordon looked blank.  “The rebels, Dr. Gordon.”  This apparently shed no light.  “Okay.  Who killed those colonists?” demanded Cal.

Gordon positively glowered.  He stared hard at Cal, and at each of us.  Finally, he said.  “The Quadrant.”

*                             *                                 *                                       *                                 *

Entry from the journal of Sergeant Teodor Vuksov:

Conditions continue to deteriorate.

I have never seen the morale of the troops at a lower ebb.  The fall of Tavic seems to have sounded the death knell for all of us.  Nearly everyone knows at least one soldier who was stationed there.  Though we maintain a strict silence on the air, we are monitoring the Quadrant frequencies and some of the more remote laservid stations for news reports.  So far, there is no word of any survivors.

We expected no less from the Quadrant.  If we are captured, we all know our lives are forfeit.  We are determined to fight to the last — as did, I am sure, our brothers and sisters at Tavic.

I am not privy to the counsels of General Aleksandr and his staff, but I hear rumors.  It is said that we are not just fleeing aimlessly through the stars, that we have a fixed destination which will become a new homeland for our people.  I desperately hope that this is true, yet in my heart I can scarcely believe that such a place exists beyond the Quadrant’s reach.

Meanwhile, our soldiers need any encouragement, any scrap of good news, however feeble its foundation.  If the rumors are true, I wish we could all know of it.

The sick bay is full.  They have begun putting the new cases along the corridor walls, with only a blanket to comfort them.  There is almost no food left.  How can a man regain his strength with a weak broth, or nothing at all, to eat?  I myself grow more weary every day.  This must end soon, or our cause will die with us.

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THE LOST COLONY

THE LOST COLONY

The events I’m going to tell you about took place fifty-one years ago, at the tail end of the Russ Rebellion.  The Russ colonies had been destroyed after fifteen years of fighting, but there were still some pockets of resistance.  We had just taken part in the assault on Tavic, a rebel base on the fringes of Abell 2029.  Actually, we had been held in reserve, and Cal was irritable as hell.  Even Vanessa was avoiding him.

The assault had not gone well.  We were expecting to be shipped out on some kind of rescue mission; reports from the front indicated that the over-confident Quadrant kids were getting waxed in record numbers by the desperate Russ.  When our orders finally came through on the Mastercom, Cal sat there for a long minute.

“QAK71, do you acknowledge,” asked the utterly lifeless voice of Quadrant Mission Control.  Cal took a deep breath, his face malevolent.

“Order received.  Coordinates, Lieutenant Gold?”

“Just coming in, Captain,” said Vanessa in her husky, perpetually just-getting-over-a-cold voice.  We only talked to each other that way when Mission Control was listening.  Otherwise, instead of “Lieutenant,” “Captain,” “Ensign,” or whatever, it was “Shit-For-Brains,” “Bonehead,” and “Slapdick.”

The reason Cal was so fried, of course, was that we were about to go from waiting in the wings to being sent out of the theater for coffee and donuts.  It seems there was this colony on a planet way out in the ass end of the beyond.  The last communication anybody had had with it was a distress signal received the first night of its existence.  Its escort vessel had been the Q.S. Intrepid, missing and presumed destroyed since that night.  The theory was that the Intrepid had been among the first casualties of the rebellion, probably ambushed by a squadron of Russ as it orbited peacefully above the new colony.

And now that the rebellion was sputtering out — tell that to the soldiers who were dying on Tavic — some member of the Quadrant Board had begun thinking about all the minerals, and the timber, and the energy, and the tourism, and the agriculture, and all the other exploitables just lying fallow out there.  So he or she had called a member of the Quadrant High Command, who had called a member of Quadrant Mission Control, who had called a certain peevish former brigadier general named Cal Vickers and told him to go check it out.

Unfortunately, we had to go with him.

*                         *                         *                         *                         *

From one of Chief Petty Officer Morris Qualls’ lasermails to Portia Tritt:

Dear Mama:

As you know, I have a little bit of a leave coming to me, since I haven’t taken one in quite a while.  I was going to take it at the end of this month and come to see you all, only now I can’t.  That’s because we have to go way out into the middle of a big galaxy (about 50 times the size of our Milky Way) called Abell 2029 to see what happened to one of the Quadrant’s colonies that nobody’s heard from in quite a while.

It will take us a long time to get out there — maybe as long as six months — and then we will likely have to spend some time ascertaining the situation and aiding the remaining colonists, if any, but they are likely to all be dead as no one has heard from them.

Anyway, we were called away from our duties on the front lines at the battle for Tavic, which I’m sure you’ve all heard about on laservid.  The battle has been going on for quite a while, fortunately none of us on the Thalasso were seriously hurt.

So we are on our way to this colony, which I am very excited about.  As you might guess, that’s because my work in biology and meteorology could put me at a considerable advantage on a planet that nobody but the Exploration Force and some dead colonists has seen.  This could be my chance to finally make my mark.  As you said in your last letter, I might make better money in private industry, or at Quadrant Biotechnic, or somewhere like that, but being with the Quadrant Fleet is very exciting.  There is always some adventure calling us.

Some bad news about that experiment I was telling you that I couldn’t wait to try.  Kelly (you remember meeting him last year; he’s our Senior Engineer) helped me to attach the apparatus to the nose of the Thalasso, and I was getting some very interesting readings on the comparative radioactivity of distant and proximate suns along our starpath.  You remember how I worked out a way to redraw our navigational charts based on that data.  Anyhow, I was very excited about the way it was compiling information.  But two days later some space debris smashed my equipment flat, so I’ll have to wait and save up some more money for parts before I can replace it and try, try again.  Oh, well.

Will close for now.  We are all well, thanks be to God.  Give my love to little Betty, and Desmond, and Garret and Elrader.  I think of all of you all the time.

Love, Morris

*                                   *                                 *                           *

Excerpt from the journal of Sergeant Feodor Vuksov:

Conditions are growing quite desperate now.  We have received word that Quadrant forces are poised for the final assault on Tavic, our last great stronghold.  It hurts my heart to think of the months I spent at Tavic, when the rebellion was new and strong.  We would march down those broad streets thirty abreast, singing anthems, our very souls bursting with pride.  Then, it seemed as though our great cause could not but succeed.

That was before Smolenkaya and the rest betrayed us to save themselves.  If we had stood together, we might have forced the Quadrant to the bargaining table.  They would have grown weary and perhaps granted us some of the autonomy we deserve over our own lives and homelands.

Instead, we are fragmented into scattered bands of renegades.  We kill just to live now, like common brigands.  And nothing can stop the iron boot of the Quadrant from descending once again on the necks of our people.

I still have faith in General Aleksandr, however.  He is a very great man who, I believe, sees far beyond the impossibility of our present situation to a time when we can form new coalitions with other oppressed peoples.  In his current illness, he is relying heavily on General Vasily Gorchev and on Colonel Taras Borovitch.  But Gorchev is not the man Aleksandr is, and Borovitch seems chiefly interested in terrorizing the men.  I fear we will accomplish little until General Aleksandr is himself again.

In the meantime, we are three hundred on a troop transport designed for two hundred.  We have only one fighter left which is fully operational.  The others need parts which we can no longer get or repairs which we have no way to make.  Food is low, water is rationed.  The stench in the general quarters is intolerable, and some of the men are getting sick.  We must find a safe haven, and soon.

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PRELUDE IN ‘C’

What is it that shall be?  That which has been.  What is it that shall be seen?  That which has been seen . . . There is no new thing under the sun.

Ecclesiastes

From the journal of Charlemagne Gordon:

Another day has passed.

I bagged a serk in the high forest.  Dressed out at 52 pounds of meat.  It should last the summer if the generator holds.

This evening another tark tested the fence.  That’s three in a week’s time.  They’re coming so close because the generator’s power cell is almost depleted.  The lights seem dimmer to me now than they did even a couple of nights ago.

It has always been hard for me to pray.  For that matter it is hard for me to acknowledge any authority greater than my own.  But, perhaps here in my private journal, which may never be read by another living soul, I can make a start.  I feel that it is time.

God, if you are there, please help me.  In a while, the power cell will be gone.  When it is gone, the lights will fail.  Then, I must go and live in the hills at the sufferance of another, or stay here and surely die.  Either way is a kind of ending.

I know now that no one will ever come.  I do not hope for that.  But God, if you are there, you can do anything.  You can help me think of something, some way to go on.

The lights are dimming.

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November 3, 2012 · 7:19 am

WHY I BOTHER

WHY I BOTHER

Over the eighty-five years I’ve lived so far, I have failed to gain a reputation as a driving force of a man who sees large and complex projects through to completion.  That’s mostly because I tend to avoid large and complex projects altogether.  Truth to tell, I like for the end of a thing to be in sight before I so much as hit a lick at it.

But this book, or story, or whatever it’s going to wind up being, is different.  I’ve assembled a big mess of news clippings, copies of other people’s letters and journals, and several books as research materials.  Knowing me, I’ll probably just plop direct quotations from these sources in to fill the gaps in my own knowledge and experience instead of cleverly weaving them into the narrative.  And I’m not at all sure how far I’m going to take all this — or, should I say, how much I’m going to tell about certain things — but somehow I’m going to finish the bastard or die trying.

The reasons I’m setting all this down on paper are as follows:  Although I’ve told these stories all my life to my friends and family and anybody else who’d hold still, I’ve never seen a completely accurate account in print of the events I lived through on Gordon’s Planet.  The Quadrant brochure my grandson Philip sent me from Vanessa was an embarrassment of lies, but worse than that, my name wasn’t in it.

Also, while Charlemagne Gordon was every bit the larger-than-life character he’s been made out to be, the heroics of Captain John C. Vickers have been virtually purged from the stories I’ve seen.  This is partly because he was one of the people who twisted the Quadrant’s arm to force the signing of the Treaty of Limitations — without which I could not be speaking so freely today, let’s not forget.  But that, as they say, is another story.

Lastly, young people seem to want to know what it was like to be a spaceman in my day.  That’s a style, an attitude, a whole way of life that’s mostly gone now.  I hope I can do that part of it justice.

With the upsurge of interest in Charlemagne Gordon, Colony Valley has turned into a must-see for the second time in my life.  People just out of college consider it practically a pilgrimage to go there.  By now, I suppose, just about everyone’s been to Gordon’s Planet on vacation, or at least seen the brochures and the promo on laservid.

People go there, and they go to the zoological gardens, or the Hall of Tarks; they visit the replica of Gordon’s barricaded cabin, and see a reenactment of the fighting; they go to buy, sell or trade trinkets at Borka’s village; they go hunting or fishing, or hiking, or whatever it is one does in an Unspoiled Wilderness.  Then they head back to their hotels, shower up, and go check out the restaurants and the night life in downtown Vanessa.  They can have a few drinks, take in a show — something for everybody!

At least, I guess that’s what they do.  I haven’t been to Gordon’s Planet in over fifty years.  A kind of sick residue of fear washes over me when I even think about going back.

There were no nightclubs when I was there.  There were no hotels, no restaurants.  When I was there, there was only terror.

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