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Soldiers of Misfortune (continued)

I couldn't decide, so I invited Lewis to choose the game. He selected >2< under NUMBER OF PLAYERS ... then SPORTS & LEISURE, MILITARY HISTORY, and RANDOMIZE. "Ready?" he asked.

I nodded. "Ready."

Lewis pressed START. (Despite what the menu said, we didn't have to "DEPOSIT £1 FOR ONE ROUND"; Outer Rim Games donates the 3-S machines, reprogramming them for payless play, to the T.D.S.) The game would begin in 30 primeseconds. We each stepped into one of the booths.

The first scenario was a mixture of gladiatorial combat and the Pelopennesian War, which wasn't too strange a blend. We dueled using swords and shields in a coliseum, while bloodthirsty onlookers cheered and jeered. Lewis won this segment. A moment after he ran me through with his sword ("Fatal wound -- player one; point -- player two," the machine said), the coliseum shimmered and dissipated ...

... And then it was baseball -- World War II-style: U.S. Marines vs. Japanese infantry on Mt. Surabachi, on Iwo Jima -- not what you'd call ideal terrain on which to play ball ... but that, of course, was the point. (Iwo is an island, on Earth, that figured with some strategic importance in the Pacific Theater of the War.) Among the Marines: Abner Doubleday ... Babe Ruth ... Ty Cobb ... Mark McGwire ... Joel Adams ... Roy Sears ... several others.

Lewis was playing shortstop. I was at bat. The umpire was armed with a flame-thrower. (Very few of his calls were disputed.) Hirohito was on the mound, repeatedly shaking his head no, no in response to signals from his catcher -- Adm. Yamamoto. At last, a nod, then a pitch -- a slider. I popped a fly-ball to Lewis, who caught it ... and saw that he hadn't caught a baseball, but an armed grenade. He drew back his arm to throw the thing back to the Japanese emperor ... too late. BANG!

I won the segment, obviously.

I also won American Revolution basketball.

Lewis won Norman Conquest football.

The longest, and most surreal, scenario was Spanish Armada soccer, played by a team of Britons facing a team of Spaniards -- both sides armed with cutlasses -- on the deck of a burning, slowly-sinking galleon. The "ball" was a skull. Lewis won this segment after several primeminutes of slashing and kicking.

Almost equal to the soccer game under the heading "most surreal" was World War I field-hockey -- American doughboys and Frenchmen vs. Germans, both sides using sticks with wicked-looking bayonets jutting from the tops. The field of play was a barbed-wire-and-carnage-strewn no-one's-land between the two armies' trenches, with the trenches serving as goal-lines -- first player to put the puck past the others' goal-line ... wins. This was much, much more easily said than done. To add interest, biplanes buzzed to and fro overhead, dogfighting with each other, and occasionally dropping grenades. Lewis won the segment easily. That made the score four to two in his favor.

Without warning, the "virtual world," if you will, evaporated ... and I suddenly was back on the Condor's rec deck.

Lewis and I emerged from the booths ... and discovered that we had attracted quite a gallery of spectators during our 25 primeminutes immersed. The handful of spailors and grunts the horsefly-jock earlier had ignored in my favor had at least tripled in number; the whole assemblage now were applauding appreciatively.

Lewis offered a handshake. I accepted.

"Not bad," he said, when the applause had died.

I asked, "Care to go again?"

Lewis shook his head no. "Not just now," he said -- but added, "Some other time ... ?"

"Sure thing."

Wrong. The horsefly-jock and I never would have our rematch. Fate -- more specifically, the d'Absu -- would intervene.

* * *

It began a couple of primehours after my sparring-session with Lewis. I was on my way to the messdeck ( ... I had decided that it was time for another coffee-infusion) when I heard, behind me, running footsteps, and a shout: "MAKE A HOLE_" (which is Cavvy-speak for GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY)_!

I stepped aside and pressed myself against the bulkhead, barely in time to make way for two medtechs as they charged past me down the gangway. I followed, telling myself that they might need a corpsman's help.

I finally caught up to the two medtechs in, oddly enough, medlab -- where they had joined a third, and Dr. Pembrooke in working furiously to revive an unconscious spailor.

I stood back, staying out of the way -- resolving to do so until Pembrooke ordered me to help ... but I asked, "What happened?"

Pembrooke did not respond immediately; in fact, his silence stretched on for so long, I began to wonder whether or not he intended to acknowledge me at all. Finally, without looking at me, Pembrooke said, "We're not sure yet. I believe that it's some kind of overdose."

He hadn't used the phrase suicide attempt, but that was the implication. (This was about three primeyears after the so-called Findlay scandal ... which, as you probably recall, involved a test-group of T.P.A. troops who, as part of their basic training, had been "hypno-programmed" to take their own lives if faced with capture. Committee IX (War/Defense) had deemed it all-important that no human being should surrender alive to the d'Absu. To this day, no one is sure precisely what went wrong ... but, after the hypno, a number of the grunts committed suicide anyway. Dr. Wm. Findlay, the T.D.S. surgeon general, resigned his post in the scandal's far-reaching wake.)

I turned my attention to the patient. I recognized him -- his name was Ryan. He was one of the ship's helm-operators. At the moment, though, he didn't look capable of "operating" even the zippers on his flight-suit. His skin was a pale gray. His half-open eyes were dark and glassy. The man's head lolled, and his limbs seemed slack, like those of a marionette whose strings had been cut. Were I a gambler, I would not have bet on Mr. Ryan pulling through ...

... Which shows you how much I know -- because Pembrooke and his three medtechs, after several primeminutes of frenzied-but-efficient work, managed to restore Ryan to consciousness.

"What happened, Lieutenant?" Pembrooke asked.

Ryan did not answer.

"Can you hear me?"

Ryan said, "Yes ... I can hear you." He sounded like he looked. "Can I get some water?"

Pembrooke nodded to one of his medtechs, who went to get the water. The doctor then repeated his question -- in, I thought, a noticeably more strident tone of voice: "What happened, spailor ... ?_"_

Again, Ryan chose not to answer.

"You might as well tell us, Lieutenant."

What the hell is going on here?? I wondered ... but never had the chance to ask aloud.

The alert klaxon began blaring. Gar's voice echoed through the ship: "Battle stations! Stat red! Battle stations! This is no drill!"

I hustled from medlab to the C.I.C.

* * *

I stayed outside the C.I.C. proper, but I looked cautiously in at certain of the monitors ...
and saw that the Condor had dropped out of X-space, and was approaching a planet.

The planet was not Earth.

I began listening. The communications channels were, at the risk of criminal understatement, busy ... but I soon learned that the planet we were approaching was X.I. 139-D, a.k.a. Elbanu (el BAH noo); the d'Absu had a base there.

We had dropped back into primespace because someone surreptitiously had programmed the Condor to do so at this location.

I realized, of course, who the guilty person was. Lt. Ryan had altered the ship's programming, and then had tried to kill himself.

In other words, the man deliberately had put us into this situation -- into a d'Absu trap!

In another word: TREASON -- meaning Dr. Pembrooke and co. had saved Ryan's life ... so he could face the death-penalty at court-martial. (If we made it home -- which, at the moment, did not seem likely ... )

But why??

Then I heard something that turned my blood to ice:

"Conn, scanning. Multiple contacts, multiple bogeys -- readings show three Foxtrot-class d'Absu warships ahead -- all closing at flank speed, on intercept courses. Loading bearings-data to you now."

Uppy waited for the scanning officer to finish ... and then addressed the tactical action and weapons officers: "T.A., conn. Activate P.M.A. Stand by countermeasures. Weps, stand by. Confirm."

"Conn, T.A., aye."

"Conn, weapons, aye."

"Helm, conn, increase to flank. Thirty-degree down-angle. Go."

"Conn, helm, aye -- increase to flank, thirty-degree down-angle. Go."

I was more-or-less half-listening to all this, watching the screens, still thinking somewhere in the back of my mind about Ryan ... but then my full attention was caught by the following:

"Conn, Catbird," the communications officer said. "We have an incoming transmission. Go."

"Catbird, conn, pipe it through. Go."

"Aye aye ... "

The next thing we heard was the voice of the enemy -- a long string of the bizarre clicks, whistles, etc. that the d'Absu call a language. After a moment or two, the Condor's central computer started to make sense of the noise ... and, with its flat, synthesized voice, provided a translation:

"Sphere warship. Reverse engines and stand to. Prepare for boarding. Comply immediately, or we will destroy you. Repeat ... "

I saw the glance that passed between Uppy and Gar ... and knew instantly what the grim look in their eyes meant.

We couldn't allow the enemy to board us. Upton was under orders to prevent this ... at any cost.

The commander confirmed my thoughts when he said to Garland, "Launch the log-buoy."

The X.O. hesitated ever so slightly. I daresay you would hesitate, too, if you were ordered to kill yourself ... and you knew you had no real choice but to do it. I sure as hell would hesitate -- more than "slightly."

"Launching," Gar said finally. His voice was just as crisp and cool as ever. He turned to a nearby instrument panel.

While Gar flipped switches, Uppy adjusted his mouthpiece, and said, "Helm, conn, all back full. Go."

"Conn, helm, answering all back full. Go."

Upton continued -- giving the order all starship crews dread: "Senior officers to the C.I.C. All other personnel, abandon ship. Repeat ... "

* * *

I hustled toward the nearest lifeboat.

AstraCav ships' lifeboats can carry eight persons apiece. Three other persons already were sitting in "my" boat when I stepped aboard -- Franco Lewis, Goldilocks, and Dr. Pembrooke ...

Two others soon joined us: of all people, Mando Perez and one of his buddies.

Perez was last through the hatch. He had closed and secured it before he noticed who else was aboard. Perez muttered, just loudly enough for the rest of us to hear, "Jesu Christe ... I might have known!"

Lewis scowled at Perez ... but said only, "Hang on," before turning to the 'boat's controls.

We hung on. The lifeboat ejected from the Condor -- along with 39 other 'boats, and a swarm of countermeasure-pods. (Countermeasures are self-guided, signal-emitting devices designed to confound the targeting systems in enemy torpedoes.) Unseen hands tore my weight away immediately, greedily. Between that and the generally rough ride, I had to do some fast, hard swallowing to keep my guts in place.

We had a good view of the Condor's demise as we fell toward Elbanu -- much too good. Uppy and his officers didn't give us much chance to put distance between ourselves and the ship before they detonated the scuttling- (self-destruct-) charges.

The all-but-blinding explosions generated ferocious shock-waves -- which rapidly overtook the fleeing lifeboats. I had thought the ride was rough a moment earlier ... but it now felt as though the same force that had yanked away my weight was trying to use the 'boat to make a wish.

The d'Absu ships turned their party-cannon on us then. I saw at least a half-dozen lifeboats turned into deathboats inside 10-or-so fiery primeseconds. Within the same period of time, I became increasingly sure that our boat was next.

By some miracle, though, we made it to the upper fringe of Elbanu's atmosphere -- whereupon the ride suddenly became even rougher ... and then rougher still as weight began to return. The temperature suddenly soared. Oh, stein, was something wrong with the heat-shield??

We weren't going to make it to the ground. No way. Not with the lifeboat convulsing like this. Even if a second miracle occurred and we didn't burn up, we obviously were going to fly apart in mid-air.

Which shows how much I know. The second miracle did occur -- and then a third ... and then a fourth (Hallelujah!):

Miracle #2 -- The temperature/my fears about the lifeboat's heat-shield notwithstanding, we did not turn into charcoal briquettes;

Miracle #3 -- We landed. Mind you, I'm using that word as charitably as any word ever has been used; and

Miracle #4 -- We survived the "landing," albeit with a hell of a lot of painful bumps and bruises.

We took stock of our situation ... and quickly realized that we had survived the past few primeminutes for naught. Even if the d'Absu didn't find us (and they surely already were looking for every lifeboat that had made it past their ships), we -- having moments earlier been on the verge of well-done -- now were in very real danger of freezing to death.

* * *

It was an Arctic-like wasteland --
snow and ice all the way to the horizon ... which, to the south and east, was delineated by a chain of jagged mountains; to the north and west, there was no horizon -- only a low-hanging, milky haze that rendered the line between ground and sky undetectable.

"We've gotta move," Perez declared. "It won't take 'em long to find us." He reached for the release-lever on the hatch-door.

"Move where?" Goldilocks wondered aloud. "We'll freeze solid in five primeminutes out there!"

Perez popped the hatch. To Goldilocks, he said, "Ma'am, with no due respect, I'd rather freeze than sit here on my azz, and wait for the felshing d'Absu to come along and wax me."

The man had a point there. Then again, if "the felshing d'Absu" were to shoot me, death at least would come quickly; the Popsicle-option probably would take longer than Goldie's five primeminutes. But who thinks logically at times like these? (Partial answer: Not me.)

Goldie began, "Specialist- "

"Look," Perez interrupted, " ... I know it's a gamble. I know it's a big roll of the dice. We might die -- we probably will die out there, in fact. But if we stay here, we definitely will die. I'd rather roll the dice." He turned to Pembrooke, and asked, "Doctor, the sampler says we can breathe out there, right?"

"Right," Pembrooke said. He nodded sideways toward the device to which the other man had referred. The doctor had consulted the sampler (to use the accepted phraseology, he had "taken an atmospheric") shortly after we'd crash-landed; now he said, "According to these readings, the air is richer in oxygen than you probably are used to, if you're from Earth -- which makes it quite corrosive ... and the pressure is lower ... so don't overexert if you can help it -- you still will probably end up with a sore throat, at least. And if we do reach warmer climes, take care lighting cigarettes and tapping ashes."

(The atmospheric sampler is a handy thing to have. There isn't much instrumentation aboard a lifeboat -- they're intended as limited-use, all-but-disposable emergency escape vehicles, so they're designed with a bare-bones minimum of accoutrements. No frills -- not even any weapons; just the absolutely-necessary stuff. Someone, though, obviously figured -- wisely -- that an atmospheric sampler qualified in the "absolutely necessary" category. Abandon a starship, end up on a strange planet ... How do you want to test the air, to determine whether or not it's safe to breathe? Would you prefer that a machine do the job -- or would you rather poke your own head out the hatch and inhale? Well, I haven't dropped dead -- so I guess the air's all right ... )

"Whatever," Perez said. "Let's just move." He pulled open the hatch-door. Cold air rushed into the ruined lifeboat.


Perez hesitated. All of us, in fact, turned in some surprise toward Lewis -- this was the first he'd spoken since before we'd crash-landed.

Now he said, "We still are T.P.A., and I still am the ranking officer here ... so I'm givin' the felshin' orders. You're on borrowed time. I suggest you do whatever you have to do to keep from forgetting that."

"I wouldn't dream of forgetting that -- sir," was Perez's response. "Permission to debark ... ?"

The request obviously had been made in the spirit of sarcasm -- which hardly was lost on Lewis. He fixed Perez with a glare colder than the air outside ... before saying, "Permission granted."

* * *

Perez's buddy (we soon learned his name:
Daniel Skyler; he was an E-3, a lance-corporal, like me) suggested we hike southeast.

"Why?" Goldilocks wanted to know.

"Those mountains," Skyler said, nodding in the general direction in question. "I see a lot of gray and black, but no green."

"So ... ?"

Skyler said, "So no green suggests little or no flora, which in turn suggests rocky terrain -- which in its turn suggests, at least to me, a strong possibility that we'll find caves. Now, a cave won't provide much warmth, and probably little or no food ... but it will provide concealment, and shelter from wind and precipi- "

"All right, all right," Lewis interrupted impatiently. "This is all moot. We have to go that way. The opposite direction is north-northwest, which means even colder temperatures ... and, in case you haven't noticed, a white-out."

I looked again at what I earlier had thought was haze, or mist ... and realized it was nothing of the kind; rather, it was the edge of a blizzard.

We started hiking. We proceeded in silence. I kept my eyes on the skies, expecting to see (a) d'Absu fighter(s) swoop down on us at any moment -- maybe from behind the curtain of the blizzard -- which undeniably was getting closer. None of the others could possibly have failed to notice this ... but, apparently, they all were of the opinion that if we didn't acknowledge the storm by talking about it out loud, it would go away. At the time, that logic seemed flawless to me.

Cold wasn't quite the right word for the conditions; the sampler had read the temperature as 21° F, but it seemed lower than that to me. Surely it had dropped at least five degrees since we'd left the lifeboat! I was shivering ... my earlobes stung ... and, within a few primeminutes, a dully-painful not-quite-numbness crept into my fingers and toes -- then my hands and feet ...

At least the wind wasn't too bad -- from the northwest (at our backs) at 14 km/ph (according to the last data we'd seen on the sampler).

None of us was dressed for this climate. As you know, we hadn't exactly had time to pack. Each of us was wearing a jacket, albeit a light one -- quite comfortable in the 65 to 70° aboard a starship ... but not so comfortable now.

I don't know how long it took us to reach the foot of the nearest of the mountains. It felt like an eternity. I was all but frozen solid ... I ached from head to foot from the cold and the long hike ... and I was ready to drop with exhaustion. How my companions were faring, I didn't know. Better than me, surely.

The situation only deteriorated as we began ascending the gentle slope that led to the mountain.

First, between fatigue and the changing grade of the terrain, I couldn't stay vertical; couldn't seem to take 10 steps without slipping and falling into the snow. None of the others experienced this problem, of course.

Second, the blizzard at last was overtaking us. I was close to letting panic get the best of me -- What if the snowstorms on this planet are anything like the sandstorms on Mars, or the rains on Karkendold? I thought. What if the storm lasts for several primeweeks or primemonths? What the hell are we supposed to do then -- sit on our hands and let the drifts bury us alive??

The wind no longer came only from behind us; it now seemed to blow in every direction at once. Tiny ice-crystals stung my face non-stop. In my hands and feet, sensation was long gone.

Third, as we neared the crest of the steadily-steepening slope and the foot of the mountain proper, Goldie gave voice to what we all, undoubtedly, were thinking: "I don't see anything that looks like the mouth of a cave!" She had to shout to make herself heard above the worsening wind.

"It may take some searching!" Skyler said.

I said, "I've gotta stop for a while!"

"No way!" Pembrooke said.

"I can't take another step, Doctor," I said.

"You have to keep moving until we find some type of shelter, Corporal Clark! Otherwise, you'll freeze!"

I almost laughed. "I don't give a stein!" I said. I meant it ... I wanted nothing so much as to lie down in the snow and go to sleep. I was sure I could sleep for a primeyear. To sleep, perchance to dream ...

... And if (when) I froze, then so much the better. A nice, gentle way to die -- and an end to all this misery.

"Yes you do!" Lewis said. "You will!"

"Let's move!" Perez said.

Goldie said, "Which way -- ? left or right? We can't go forward -- ! I forgot to get mountaineering gear from the quartermaster!"

Perez gestured. "That way!" he said. "Left! East!"

"Why?!" Vanderheim wanted to know.

To his credit, the specialist gave a blatantly honest answer: "I dunno ... I'm rollin' the dice again!"

The others started hiking again. I stood there, trying to imagine the effort involved in making my legs move, and decided that the very idea was utterly absurd. Skyler took me by an arm, though, and made me move.

"C'mon!" he urged. "You can do it!"

I'm glad you think so, I didn't say.

This time, the roll of the dice paid off. What we found -- about 100 endless meters and who-knows-how-many primeminutes later -- was less a cave than a simple depression in the mountain's rock face ... but it fit the bill, at least in the sense that it offered shelter from the worsening blizzard.

I tried to sit, and ended up falling ... and oh did that feel good. I swear that my bones literally creaked as the pain and fatigue left them.

"You're not going to sleep," Pembrooke said. "Nobody's going to sleep. Just forget about it right now."

"What next?" Goldilocks asked everyone in particular.

"We wait for the storm to quit," Lewis said, " ... and then ... and then I don't know."

* * *

Again, I can't tell you how much time passed before the blizzard finally abated;
I can only tell you that it felt like forever. Some of the sensation at last returned to my extremities. I wasn't helping my situation by sitting still -- I had to fight, hard, to stay awake, and not moving meant letting my circulation slow to a crawl -- not generating any body-heat ... but I couldn't make myself even think about getting up and moving around like my much smarter companions.

The dissipation of the storm had revealed a night sky -- aglow with spectral light generated by the stars and three small moons.

"We should keep moving," Lewis said. "Travel at night, hide during the day."

"Right," Perez said.

Pembrooke said, "We need to find sources of food and water as soon as we can. "

"And a place to hide, long-term," Goldilocks said -- adding, unnecessarily, "A warm place."

Skyler said, "I don't know that we should stay in any one place -- at least, not for very long. If we do, the chances that the d'Absu'll find us go way up. The rescue team'll find us either way" (all T.D.F. personnel have a homing-chip surgically implanted -- at the base of the skull -- upon enlistment), "so I th- "

"We can't walk all over the felshing planet 'til the rescue mission comes -- if one comes!" Goldie said. "D'you wanna hunt for a new food- and water-source and a new hiding-place every primeweek? Every other primeday- ?_"

Lewis spoke, gently but firmly: "Goldie."

She looked at him.

" ... Take it easy."

Goldilocks averted her eyes, but did not say anything.

"Let's just find those food- and water-sources, and hiding place," Lewis said, " ... and then we'll talk about the next step."

Skyler said, "Food, water, warmth -- to me, those goals suggest continuing to move south."

"I agree," Lewis said. "Let's go."

I caught Goldie's eye, and made the monumental effort to extend a hand. "Could ya help me stand up?" I asked. I was light-primeyears beyond any and all considerations of pride.

We had to continue east for a while, but we eventually were able to turn south. For me, every step was the purest agony; the pain in my legs was all but overwhelming. I had all I could do to keep convincing myself to continue the grueling process of putting one foot in front of the other. Just one more step, I would promise myself. One more step ... and then we'll quit. We'll admit defeat, sit down, and die. Right after this next step. I then would take that step ... and think, Just one more step. One more step ...

After a million-or-so primeyears (or so it seemed, anyway), the first hints of dawn began to show themselves in the sky. This pleased me immensely -- because it meant we soon would stop hiking.

I thought, This time, I'm gonna sleep, damn it ... I don't care what Pembrooke or anybody else says!

We came to a sparsely-forested area -- trees like nothing I ever had seen on Earth or anywhere else. Most of them weren't especially tall (maybe twice the height of an average human), but they were thick and exotically misshapen -- all sinister-looking twists and gnarls. They had needles, not leaves ... but the "needles" were huge; they practically were quills, like a porcupine's.

Anyway, the trees' branches were, of course, laden with snow. Some of the lower ones were weighed down almost to the ground. We situated ourselves beneath one of these natural lean-tos -- just as the forest was beginning to glow with frigid daylight. Once again, I half-sat, half-fell onto the ground. My legs were trembling spasmodically. I couldn't make them stop.

I felt I never would walk again -- never would stand again; not on those legs ... and that was fine with me.

I didn't quite sleep. Pembrooke wouldn't let me. He would see me nodding, and jostle me awake. At the time, I was unable to appreciate the fact that the good doctor was keeping me alive. I grew to truly, deeply hate him in short order.

Long before I was ready, it was dark again. We resumed our southward hike. I was grimly determined to endure the experience this time. I'd managed to store up some energy during the day, but I suspected that it would prove insufficient. If only there was something to eat ... Maybe we would find some berries or nuts tonight; maybe even a slow, defenseless animal -- my companions (excepting Pembrooke) did have parstols (particle-beam pistols). Raw meat? At that point, it sounded just fine.

Of course, we had no way of knowing whether or not the berries/nuts/animals on Elbanu were safe for humans to eat. I decided that if I did not think about that fact, it would go away.

Before daybreak, all these worries were moot, anyway.

* * *

When I regained consciousness, the first thing I became aware of was warmth.
I hardly dared believe it -- warmth! I was ready to weep with relief and joy.

That feeling lasted about two primeseconds ... and then I remembered what had happened.

Not long after we had resumed our hike, we had run into the d'Absu. I guess our minds had by then gone as numb as our bodies -- we had practically walked right into their trap. We hadn't even seen or heard the aliens ( ... I hadn't, anyway). We all had been struck -- almost at the same instant -- by trank darts.

"My" dart had hit me in the left thigh. It had hurt like hell. It still was sore. I had thought, Something's bitten me, or stung me ... I had realized, a primesecond later, what actually had happened -- and then everything had gone black.

I panicked. I sat up -- fast ... then spent a few primeminutes trying to will my breathing and heart-rate to return to normal, and to push the ache out from behind my eyeballs ... while taking stock of my surroundings.

I was sitting on the floor of a small, bare room, which was gloomily lit from a fixture on its high ceiling. I knew immediately that I was a prisoner of the d'Absu -- the black ceiling and two of the room's windowless, gunmetal-gray walls were cocked at awkward angles. (This kind of annoying asymmetry is characteristic of d'Absu culture -- what we know of it, anyway; their architecture, art, ship-design, philosophy, mathematics ... everything. It's all lopsided. It's enough to drive you to distraction.)

So I was a POW What would the d'Absu do to me? They would interrogate me, at the very least -- that seemed certain. I would tell them that I had no military information; I was a corpsman, a medic. They would not believe me, of course. They would proceed to torture me ... and, undoubtedly, I would proceed to die.

I heard footsteps.

A moment later, the room's only door swung open. Two d'Absu stood there, each with a P.B.R. (particle-beam rifle, a.k.a. party-rifle). The creatures stared at me with their massive compound eyes. One of the insectoids was wearing around its face a device which looked like nothing so much as a metallic feedbag. When the d'Absu spoke, the "bag," after a brief delay, translated the words into Meanglish:

"Follow us."

I stood ... and very nearly fell right back on my azz. My legs didn't hurt any more, but they were weak -- owing to the fatigue I earlier had suffered combined with lingering effects of the aliens' trank. The latter (presumably) also was making me slightly dizzy. I hesitated for a moment -- until I was sure I was going to remain upright -- before following the two guards into the adjoining corridor.

One of them led me, while the other followed, to a locked door at the end of the long corridor. The guard ahead of me undid the lock, and opened the door. I saw pale sunlight -- we were going outside. I braced myself for more cold.

I had been wrong -- we weren't going outside; I was. I stepped into the pale light, and the d'Absu closed and locked the door at my back.

Much to my relief, the cold for which I had tried to prepare myself wasn't there. The temperature actually was quite mild -- rather like a mid-autumn day back in My Old Kentucky Home. A light breeze was blowing. This base, I realized, was located much farther south than the place where the d'Absu had tranked us. We -- or, at least, I -- must have been unconscious for quite some time.

I found that I had emerged into a wide-open yard ... with a multitude of other humans -- ! my fellow Condor survivors. Two of them approached me -- Lewis and Goldilocks.

Lewis asked, "You okay?"

"Yeah, I think so," I said. "Dying of thirst, though ... I think I'd give just about anything for a drink of water."

"I could go for a hopscotch" (malt liquor), Goldie said, "or ten."

Pembrooke, Perez, and Skyler joined us. "I count a hundred sixty-eight, including us," Perez said.

A hundred sixty-eight survivors ... ? Let's see, 168 divided by eight (remember, each lifeboat carried eight people) is 21 ... so, of the Condor's 40 lifeboats, the d'Absu warships had waxed 19.

A hundred fifty-two men and women ...

Judging by the expressions on their faces, the others had done the mental math at about the same rate as had I. The only out-loud comment came from Skyler: "Sonsa bitches," he muttered.

"What are the d'Absu gonna do with us?" Goldie wondered aloud. "Why'd they herd us out here?"

"Who knows," Lewis said.

I had wondered the same thing, of course ... I now decided not to give any voice to what I was thinking. The phrase mass execution had flashed through my mind at least twice.

A hush fell over the yard as the door through which I had emerged now opened again.

d'Absu began stepping through the open doorway, one and two at a time. They gathered, not far from the door, in small clusters, in the same manner as the Condor survivors. The aliens stared at us in silence.

None of the d'Absu, as far as I could tell, was armed.

As I began puzzling over that, another creature appeared from within the enemy installation.

This was not a d'Absu.

In fact, only in holos and other artwork had any of the humans present ever seen one of these deceptively fragile-seeming creatures ... and, as far as I knew, the d'Absu never had seen one at all.

Still, I daresay we all instantly recognized -- even if we could barely believe what we were seeing -- the small, hairless, smooth-skinned purplish body, built remarkably like that of a human child, sparsely clothed in what looked like nothing so much as gold mesh; the delicate-looking features -- two large, rarely-blinking eyes, intricate shades-of-emerald patterns constantly kaleidoscoping within them; an earhole on either side of the subtly outsize skull, slightly behind each temple; for a nose, a small outward protuberance with a pair of minute nostrils; a narrow, lipless, low-set mouth ...

"Is ... that what I think it is?" Perez whispered.

Indeed it was.

A Siar.

The creature stood quite apart from the d'Absu and us, both. It thought ... and I -- along with everyone else, human and d'Absu alike -- heard words, as clear as a direct transmission, in my head:

Your destructive conflict is at an end. You now will return to your homes. Several spacecraft both from the Terran Sphere of Influence and the d'Absu Realm already are orbiting this planet.

Simple as that.

The starship we boarded shortly thereafter was the Reykjavik -- Pettyjohn-class; rather smaller than the Condor had been ... but I wasn't complaining. We were going home.

The Reykjavik's Cavvy crew were in something of a state of shock. They told us that they literally had been halfway across the Galaxy when the Siar had appeared and had transported them -- instantaneously -- to Elbanu. We soon would hear about similar events befalling other ships. Siar had appeared at every location in the known Universe where human and/or d'Absu race(s) had a presence -- from the tiniest outposts to the largest colonies and bases.

Apparently, we (humans) weren't the only ones who had grown and progressed during the 125 years that had passed since the Siar had vanished; they, too, had learned a few new tricks.

The Reykjavik and her sisters reached Earth in something less than two primeseconds. There, another of the Siar stood before the House of Governors ... and, while a multitude of cameras recorded every word, told us the following:

For ages upon ages, we watched you -- watched in sadness as you repeatedly stepped up to the brink of self-destruction, fighting amongst yourselves. At long last, you began cooperating -- you created your "International Coalition" government, and you began working together to explore near-Earth space. When you reached Mars, and planted the Coalition flag in the red sand, we Siar said to ourselves, Now they are ready; they are well on their way to realizing their full potential. They lack only the guidance.

And so we revealed ourselves to you. We helped you to resolve many of the difficulties that had been plaguing you for so long. We gave you the means to travel among the stars. Having set you on the proper course, we let you go back to guiding yourselves; we thought you were ready. We ended the physical manifestation of our presence among you.

You began colonizing other worlds. The "Terran Sphere of Influence" grew rapidly. We allowed you to keep your weapons -- we had faith that you would not use them aggressively; only in self-defense. You encountered many new life-forms -- some friendly, some not, some neither. You met the d'Absu. Imagine our sadness, our bitter disappointment, when -- after coming so far; after making so much progress, after maturing so much, intellectually and socially -- you once again picked up your swords and shields, as it were.

You went to war.

For five of your primeyears, we have watched while you and the d'Absu each have tried to destroy the other.

No more.

The time has come to put you back on the course we set for you a hundred twenty-five primeyears ago. It is our deepest hope that we never will find it necessary to interfere in human affairs again.

We had been chastised ... but we had been given a chance to redeem ourselves. I hoped -- hope -- we didn't felsh it up again.

The Siar vanished -- again -- two primedays later. Just like 125 primeyears ago (according to historical accounts), no one knew exactly how the aliens vanished, or to where, although there has been much speculating and theorizing ( ... by everyone from serious scientists to -- perhaps inevitably -- tabloid charlatans who claim that they are "in psychic contact" with the Siar, and can tell us much about the present and many possible futures ... for a fee). One thing we do know this time is that the Siar still are "there," watching us -- which, somehow, is both comforting and unsettling at the same time.

* * *

Click image for complete artwork

For most of us who survived the War, its aftermath was ... surprising. Not pleasantly.

What do you suppose the Sphere -- the government -- did to show their gratitude to us vets?

They cut us in half.

Half the T.P.A., half the AstraCav -- gone, the budgets slashed to the bone, the bones pounded into dust and scattered.

The government's line was, Hey, the War is over -- why should we spend a fistful of tax monies to maintain a military force when a pinch-worth is all we need?

Next thing anyone knew, a lot of soldiers and pilots had been pinched right where no one wants pinching: Below the poverty-line. And it wasn't just those of us in uniform; there were many civilians (support-staff types, contractors -- shipbuilders, arms-manufacturers, their employees ... etc., etc.) who depended upon the military for their livelihoods. But now there were a great many people in the T.S.I. whose hoods suddenly were no longer very lively.

(The various commissioners, sub-commissioners, and staffers of Committee IX, though, mysteriously were able to keep their jobs and perqs.)

We had been back on Earth for about a primemonth when those of us whom the T.D.S. no longer needed were informed that we had been "granted early discharge." A lucky few were eligible for retirement, or for disabled-vet status ... but most of us basically were told, You still are young enough and able-bodied enough to find some other way to support yourself and your family. Good luck.

A couple of primedays after hearing the news, I ran into Lewis -- almost literally -- in a bar, the Icebox, not far from Ft. Millard.

"I didn't know you were here," I said. "On Earth, I mean. You told me you were from Azaru."

Lewis said, "I'm from there, yeah -- but I haven't been back since ... well, for a long time. There's nobody for me on Azaru any more."

That somehow sounded like a topic to avoid ... so I did. "Buy you a hopscotch?" I asked.

"Sure. Have a seat."

We started small-talking. I soon learned that Lewis, too, had been shown the door, as it were.

I said, "I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do. They've informed us that they're gonna close the base in two primeweeks. I don't have anywhere to go ... and, in case you haven't noticed, there's a housing shortage on this planet right now." Referring to the crisis as a "housing shortage" was rather describing like Olympus Mons, on Mars, as a "hill." The gap between the size of the population and the space(s) available to shelter them never had been wider.

I figured Lewis would tell me to quit my whining, and move to some other planet -- so I had my response (I can barely afford to move across the felshin' street) ready ... but Lewis said, "I know what you're gonna do."

"What are you talkin' about?"

Lewis then proceeded to tell me what I told you at the beginning of this account: Someone, somewhere, always is at war. If you go where the action is, you can make good money. Better than "good." You'll never want for a job. Hell, you'll have to turn down a lot of jobs.

" ... So, to answer your question," Lewis said, "I'm talkin' about me, you, Mando Perez, and Goldilocks 'going into business' together."


Lewis gave a light laugh ... and said, "Yeah. I've been in touch with him and Goldie. They're gonna do it."

It was time for my damnfool question of the day: "And you're just now deciding -- right here, at this moment -- that you want me involved in this??"

"No, I'm not 'just now deciding'," came the reply. "What the hell d'you think I'm doin' here? I came lookin' for you. I ducked into this lovely place when I couldn't find you at your billet.

"So. Whatta ya say -- ? interested?"

"I don't think what you're proposing is legal," I said.

"It isn't. We'll have to avoid the long arm of interstellar law -- as if running around involving ourselves in wars and skirmishes and what-have-you isn't a dangerous-enough way to live.

"But it is a way to live. You wanna stay here, look for honest work with reasonable pay, and adequate housing -- neither of which you're likely to find anytime soon, if ever -- hey, it's your choice. Your funeral."

"Well, I can't afford a funeral," I said, "so you might as well count me in." I caught the barmaid's eye, and signaled for another hopscotch. I definitely needed one. Maybe something stronger.

Lewis and I continued our conversation ... but, to me, it no longer qualified as small talk.

I shouldn't have been surprised to find out that Lewis already had our first job arranged ...

Story copyright 2001 Timothy Dykema

Illustrations copyright 2001 by Romeo Esparrago

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