(Click picture above to view a larger image.)
by William Alan Rieser
The entity was nothing at all like himself. It made the sire a trifle anxious and impulsive. The creature's imminence reminded him of an old lightshift, when a northern incursion of errant, mutant strays threatened his most creative spawn at that time. He permitted the thoughtless brood to satiate themselves with a host of lesser sirelings, if only to learn the depth of their decadence. Then, at the moment of shift, he demonstrated his unique method of accruing wisdom by absorbing their synapses en masse into his own. Most of what he learned had been useless.........until now.
Incoming, singular and dormant, he thought, vainly trying to fathom its dream language. Was it a knowing, unintentionally destructive rock, similar to those he had previously prevented from cratering his beloved fields? This postulate was dispelled by the entity when it changed speed and course, ringing his fief in a spiral ellipse. That, of course, implied superior intelligence. Would it be interesting and instructive? Was it worthy? Could it reason as he? Its form was odd, orderly and refined, yet organic and adjustable like himself. It was a mystery, the tiny sire sparks within the larger. Very strange. Sentient, uncommunicative clutter, a new presentation. It made him think of cultivating the spreading colors of his unused translucent ocean combs.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the alien birthed above him, sending three ambassadors to his fief with unknown purpose. In response he opened an orifice and released a host of sophisticated gametes, eager for contact and sharing. These would delve the puzzle. The place of dual inquiries was established by them. Then he, being wise and full of time and sensibility, simply waited to observe and interpret their interplay.
* * *
The great automated prison junk steered itself into orbit around Sonce 5. Its cargo hold opened as shuttle carriers were pushed by heavy solenoids into launch position for their one-way journey to the surface. The stoic controllers were digital, unemotional and concerned only with the logical completion of their programmed tasks. None of these administrators possessed tear ducts or hearts, wishes, dreams or sensitivity to the plight of the humans frozen in the cargo containers. When the delay loop was completed in the primary junk software, the next command instructed the ignition systemics to engage the carriers. They exercised their function perfectly as designed and launched the vehicles sequentially into the Sonce 5 atmosphere.
Before the enclosed criminals were finally, physically condemned, an unprogrammed action occurred aboard the massive junk that had delivered its biologicals with such precision and efficiency. A stowaway analog roach found an isolated place to establish its hovel. There were many electromechanical designs throughout the craft, but nearly all of those that employed relays used liquid state types. One relay had the distinction of being blithely mechanical, for it required a heavy current to force its engagement. It was the same used to route power to the giant engines when the junk initiated its journey from Earth's penal corridor in the Van Allen Belt. When the signal arrived to re-energize those engines for the return, the contacts failed to close through the body of the impertinent insect. The system had a catastrophic bug and both became functionally inoperative.
The programmer never considered the possibility that the relay might fail to close nor was he well informed about the salient electrical characteristics of decaying Blatta Orientalis. The monitor circuitry definitely detected current. That it was in the milliamp range, rather than the five hundred amps required by the engines, became moot. The junk control sequence did not initiate because it depended upon engine generated flags to function. Ergo, the great craft went about its business, thinking that engine burn and trajectory were already accomplished, that it merely had to achieve the distance and time as delineated in its parameters. It would have to wait three years to discover the error and instruct a cybe to investigate and remedy the problem. In the meantime, the junk rode high in Sonce 5's lofty orbit, also slated to collapse after three years unless retros prevented that from happening.
* * *
"So, whatcha think, Trevor? Give it straight, OK?"
"I think the rules are different here, Hank. We can't do on Sonce what we did on Earth. You want to be the top man, tell everyone what to do and when to do it? Before that can happen, we're going to need more than muscle."
"Our folk are mostly bad asses like us. But, it isn't going to matter that you're the biggest and the strongest. It won't mean anything whether or not I'm the smartest. We're abandoned here and we've got to make it work on our own. The wardens don't give a shit about conditions on any of these maroon sites. Politics, you see. Whether we're comfortable or dead is irrelevant, a non factor. Undesirables are lumped together in carrier stew. As long as the atmosphere is breathable, they figure they've been humane."
"I thought there were groups who were against it politically. Some people thought it was outrageous to mix murderers with thieves and fools."
"Look where we are. Forgotten. Their consciences are unchallenged. As long as they don't personally kill us, they're absolved from guilt. It no longer concerns them as to what we did to deserve this trip. We're here."
"Same as a death sentence."
"All they legally had to do is put us where the flybys gave proof of livability. Survival isn't part of the equation, just plausible continuance. That's why the junk is designed to go back and leave us
"Drop offs! Out of their hair at home. Freeze us in groups and wham!"
"Exactly. Sentences are all similar. It lessens their mental burdens. The provisions won't last. Our fellow condemned are likely to get restless. Food, space, clothes, medicine and the like. You know, Hank."
"The problem is, this place doesn't respond like what we know. The gravity is strange. Our weight changes every six hours or so. One minute we're flying, the next we're crawling like worms. Can't establish the pattern. The only way to guarantee the loyalty of these blokes is to solve the riddles of Sonce first. We can't make anything electronic work, for instance. Why not? Why do we have to operate things from inside the carriers? Is it the air, the dust or what? Then there is the food thing and that's bad. Nothing potable yet and no indigenous delicacies walking around."
"Indij. . .?"
"Animals, Hank! Ones that we can eat. The water isn't drinkable yet. And the plants are a risk until we know what they're about. You see?"
"Right now, everybody is separated into a hundred groups; a hundred wannabes, none of whom have a clue. It's the wrong time to take over. We've got to be sharper than that. If we try it now, we'll fail because we don't have any answers that will be of use. We can start with a few, of course, but we need something special to expand. Once everyone realizes that we don't have anything different to offer, they'll just wander away and look for their own solutions."
"Exactly. We've got to keep them all together to have a chance at making a go of it."
"So, we take charge without letting anyone know that we're in control?"
"I'm afraid so. It's like the tactic we used in Nicaragua. Subterfuge."
"I remember. Carlos was the only one who could scrounge. We got to him, he got us the goods, we gave them out and had a hundred mercenaries in a week. How do we do that here? Ain't no Carlos lurkin' around."
"No, there isn't. I'm going to have to revert myself."
"You talkin' 'bout the egg-head you once was?"
"Yep! I was a formidable scientist before my rebel implant. If I find any answers that we can use, we'll have a chance to pull this off. You'll have to watch over me. I've got to concentrate. I need solitude."
"Don't care much for being alone."
"Of course not. Still, there are some tough mothers with us. The last thing we need is a home grown menace making our lives difficult. I need your strength and experience."
"Like we did in Luna City, Trev?"
"Just like that, Hank. Just like it."
* * *
Perhaps the entity was more complex than he initially surmised. Incredibly, the aliens birthed a second time not three lightshifts after depositing themselves in a silver meadow, filled with ancient, domestic sap and stalks. Still, he could not achieve their thoughts, nor could they sense him or his creations that entirely surrounded them. They had locomotion and emitted audibles that tingled against his oldest buried tentacles. Still, either his cleverness or theirs had failed to manage rudimentary communication. Did they even know of his existence?
"Jackpot," cried Trevor inside the carrier where he and Hank set up the lab. "I've got a fix on it. It's still in orbit."
"That's odd," replied Hank. "I would have thought it would leave immediately. It's been a week. Do you suppose there's been a breakdown?"
"Junk is junk, Hank. I never thought we'd get here in the first place. If it is a malfunction and it isn't corrected by the cybes, we'll have a way out of here."
"Sounds too lucky, Trev. A lot of money was spent to get us out of the way. You'd think they'd be more careful."
"Luck is what we make of it. If it's there . . . "
"Enough. I agree. But, we're a long way from that. The water experiment failed, but now I know why. It isn't H2O something, like I thought. It's polarized."
"So, we un-polarize it every six hours?"
"Wrong! We un-polarize ourselves every six hours. We have to drink the shit. It's either that or we find the polar antithesis to Sonce 5 itself."
"Seems like trouble."
"Just a tad. Maybe someday. Right now, we need a magnetic catalyst, something to offset the gravity shift. Then we can worry about comestibles. We'll have to be careful with the vegetation. I haven't seen or heard about any animals."
"Why don't I get some locals to scout for us? Heard them mention birds and lizards."
"Our 'friends' won't do anything for anybody. Everyone wants to be the leader. No one is a grunt. Not a brain among them. We'll wind up being kings."
"Kings of nothing. If we ever do get back, I want to attack Luna City first, OK?"
"Fine by me, so long as you let me blow up the Nippodrome."
* * *
Based carefully on his observations, the sire concluded that making the aliens aware of his presence required an event. He must make it obvious so that they could not misinterpret his intent. Surely the beings were cognizant of concepts such as a greeting or dismissal. It bothered him that he failed to comprehend their simplistic capacities. If he could but infer meaning from one of their absurd actions, then perhaps..........
The sound of Hank's fist smacking into Moon's face could be heard all over the camp during lightshift. Moon rose quickly from the ground, a feat he never could have performed in Earth gravity, and saw men begin to congregate around him and his new opponents, Trevor and Hank.
"What the fuck?" he asked, glowering at the hugeness of Hank.
"You take too much for granted," answered Trevor.
"It's just a frickin' lizard. Who cares if I step on the ugly thing?"
"I care," said Hank with a malignant sneer.
"You see, Moon, it may not be just a lizard. It has fur and what looks like a feather on its head. Might not be reptilian at all. Until we know for sure, I don't want you arbitrarily dismissing it."
"Killing it, you moron. Suppose that creature knows all the secrets of this planet. Maybe it can tell us a few things, but can't speak our language. You ever think of that?"
"It knows how to eat and drink here. We don't." Moon stared at them with a blank look. Other men, hearing the conversation, got interested.
"You mean, we can learn from it by watching it?" said one.
"Absolutely," answered Trevor. "The first law of the jungle. Unless you prefer carrier water and the canned crap. It's already running out.
"I saw one eating something over there," commented another. "It was in those bushes, clinging to a spongy, nasty looking growth."
"That's a start," replied Trevor. "Anybody else?"
"Saw the banana bird grab one of 'em and fly off," answered a third. "He's right, Moon. Don't step on any of 'em. They can teach us where to find food."
Hank put his hand out to shake Moon's. They looked into each others eyes and, as Trevor punctuated the silence, the lizard dashed toward the bushes.
"No hard feelings, Moon? We've got to help each other or we're all dead."
"I guess. What do you want me to do?"
Hank took it upon himself to solve another vexing problem. As much as Trevor required long periods of isolation, he also needed a woman for inspiration and a competent assistant. Finding Bella at that particular time felt something like destiny. True, she had been mauled and kicked bloodily out of a carrier for certain feminine excesses. She was also a technical, in spite of or possibly because of her nymphomania. Trevor and Bella hit it off immediately.
"I can't amplify the field one jot more than a foot beyond my body," said Bella with dismay. "It's the same damned problem with the electronics."
"We're not using our heads," suggested Trevor. "We really ought to be concentrating on the basics. The answer is likely to be a simple one. Why don't we build something totally insignificant and test it outside?"
"Because we can't measure anything externally. All our equipment is useless the moment we expose it to Sonce atmosphere. We can't connect wires to anything in this junkyard. The signals, the voltages just stop. We can't scan by remote and we can't generate any kind of useful field."
"I don't believe I mentioned testing from here on Sonce 5," commented Trevor with a mischievous grin. Bella picked up her head from the nanoscope she was using to observe water molecules. She looked up at the ceiling and thought.
"The flyover window would be six hours. That's more than sufficient."
"We have but to establish the codes for remote access."
"You're the code breaker. That's why you're here in the first place. Shit, we're kidding ourselves. How do we send a signal to the junk if we can't project anything further than a foot?"
"You're thinking too horizontally, my sweet."
"What? You mean the gravity is horizontal only? Isn't that impossible?"
"I proved it during lightshift this morning. Sent a low wattage laser up to target a cloud. A banana bird crossed the beam. It bounced back."
"Incredible. Then we can do it?"
"As far as I know, we have to wait for the junk to pass by during lightshift. We may not have six hours. It could be reduced to minutes, but once we make contact we can map out the best windows for future tests."
"Sounds like a plan. Let's do it!"
"Ah, Hank. A propitious moment. Why, what's the matter?"
Hank entered the carrier lab with none of his characteristic bravado. Trevor thought he recognized the first intimation of fear in his giant ally.
"Remember the spongy growth?"
"Yes. Somebody mentioned seeing it in bushes."
"A kid found it, thought it was a mushroom. Ate it, too."
"He died?" shot Trevor, voicing one of many nightmares.
"He'd be better off, really," Hank shuddered. "Mushrooms sprouted all over the kid's body. Started replacing things like eyes and knees with blotchy fungus. I couldn't look at him anymore, what with his mother screaming at me to do something. It's eatin' the kid, Trev, and I don't like it."
* * *
Incredible, thought the sire after witnessing a wholly unusual event. The tiny spark tried to ingest one of his gametes. Was it sexual? A bizarre form of communication perhaps? Untraditional greetings, no matter how repugnant to him personally, required further study and consideration. He must not be hasty.
* * *
They gathered around Moon's crumpled body. He lay between the bushes before the forest of red stalks that marked the camp boundary. Many had seen him twitch and heard him scream during darkshift when no one could reach him. Now he was dead and still, covered with bloated skin mottlings. Blood oozed from his mouth and dribbled inartistically to the Sonce surface. The cause was equally obvious, a half-eaten lizard still clutched in Moon's rigid fingers. Trevor varied his gaze, looking first at the grim visages of the men and women who stared fixedly at the horror before them. Hunger and hopelessness were the signs. Then he looked at Hank and Bella nearby. He deliberately gave them the signal. The big man moved off to begin collating those of use. It shouldn't take long for that.
"I warned him not to mess with that lizard," stated Trevor to the crowd. Their looks were anything but sympathetic.
* * *
Lightshift commenced more than four hours before the junk entered the opportunistic window. Trevor's laser penetrated the carrier in its ceiling at a spot where mating cables and equipment were connected for the experiment. The junk was detected and Trevor began his decoding via the tiny but powerful CPU he had scavenged from the transport computer. Bella excitedly called out the changing coordinates and compensated for the laser's divergence.
Based upon their unsophisticated, even primitive reaction, the sire forced himself to admit he was in over his mentality. Yet, there was little he could do beyond observe and analyze. The new birthlings were completely unlike their sires, who lay as dead as stalk husks after a ravaging ocean storm. Different molecular elements made their structure and configuration totally incompatible with his gametes. Perhaps he could borrow from the experience just seen.
* * *
Bella stroked Trevor's face after their lovemaking. He turned his head and observed a green, flashing LED.
"Got it!" shouted Trevor. "I've accessed the main console, believe it or not. The assholes never planned for this contingency. Now I can get this console to activate all the equipment we need. If you can master the coordinates, I can make the metrology stuff analyze anything we want."
"We should start with that little battery operated fan circuit," suggested Bella. If it can tell us why that won't work, we'll have a chance to solve everything. I'll make more coffee."
* * *
The vibration had been unmistakable. Though it had innumerable offspring, the sire knew well each and every tremor of them. This was not a case of simple companionship, where a lonely skygle sought a friend during darkshift. This was unusual. His gamete was unmistakably yet utterly destroyed. It spoke of possibly intentional violence, a thing so rare that its implications were nearly misunderstood. He had to be sure. Could it be that the strange entities desired to end themselves? Were they asking for his assistance? Or were they natural irritants, risking everything because they knew nothing. The sire decided to test that startling hypothesis.
* * *
The cybe responded to its new instructions. Align the equipment so that it could scan the surface below. Set the coordinates for each pan and tilt so that they could automatically compensate for tracking changes. Pico-zoom each of the devices and manually set the captions for storage, analysis and retrieval. Activate spare power. When the tasks were completed, the cybe received a new instruction, telling it to be satisfied with a job well done. It was rewarded with a lube and a new fusion cube. Mechanically, it was quite happy.
* * *
"That's the answer," said Bella calmly. "There is no resistance on Sonce 5 during lightshift. Without opposition, anything designed to compensate for heat dissipation cannot function. I never thought such a thing could exist above absolute zero. It's a paradox."
"It's hard to believe, I admit. I suppose we can redesign everything with optical fibers from the ducts," answered Trevor. "Nothing is to be considered a load. They will become integral. We can generate a field of immense proportions. The only equation is power."
"Just voltage and current."
"Shall we choose alternating, direct, indirect or a fusion source?"
"Fusion ought to be the perfect complement. Still, we'll have to make it reverse every six hours automatically. We don't want to be burdened with switches."
"No. Definitely not switches."
* * *
"You'd better have a look at this," said Hank, struggling to hand his binoculars to Trevor as they lay spreadeagled on the ground.
"What are you looking for?"
"Where Moon died. The bushes."
Trevor peered through the lenses and focused on the place. He saw what Hank was worried about.
"Uh oh!" he gasped involuntarily. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of small furry lizards staring at the half-eaten carcass which was left on the ground after Moon was buried; staring and vibrating their feathers, if they were feathers. Several seemed to glance at the carriers. There were numerous red, morbid stalks surrounding the clearing. One of them had partially absorbed one of the women from the second carrier. Hank recognized her, even as he saw that her struggles had ceased. A moment later, the woman's remains vanished. The only evidence of her existence was an olive colored blotch on the stalk. Then the lizards and stalks quickly melted noiselessly into the meadow's silver surface.
* * *
It hadn't worked, anguished the sire. The problem with not knowing was not
knowing. Clearly, his idea of drawing attention did not match the alien's ability to
perceive it. He would have to do something dramatic.
Lightshift came as predicted by Trevor during the so-called Sonce night. Two suns made an Earthlike nighttime impossible as one darkshift always bisected the day into halves. Hank wore the newly conceived, breakthrough vest as he was the more athletic of the two. They stepped outside the lab at Bella's urging, not for the purpose of responding to what she referred to as an emergency, but to confirm their critical test. The locals were waiting.
"Hi Trevor. You know me. I'm Carmine and we know Hank's rep."
The carrier portal was surrounded in a semi-circle by the most hardcore of Sonce's human residents. The ranks were piled five deep. The silence was eerie, but Trevor did not detect overt hostility. Nothing, that is, that could oppose his new power.
"We've got a problem," continued Carm.
"I've got a solution," answered Trevor.
"You'd better be right."
"Look past us. Take a gaze at the forest. What do you see?"
Trevor looked over everyone's heads. At the boundary he saw the bushes that led up to the forest. At its edge he observed the large red stalks that sprang up from the ground in a thousand different angles and crimson hues. Between the stalks he saw what Carmine was concerned about. Floating through them, suspended in the air was a group of black, indistinct shapes; shapes that were massing for what seemed to be an assault on their position. This was partially confirmed by the fact that the forest extended across the viewable horizon. The shapes were uniform for the entire length and breadth of the boundary. Each bore a light colored feather, swaying ridiculously back and forth. There were many thousands of them.
"Get everyone into the carriers right away," commanded Trevor.
"That depends upon who's in charge here, doesn't it?"
"They are in charge at the moment, idiot. Do you want to play king of the mountain now?"
"It's now or never," answered Carmine without hesitation.
In response to this threat, Hank activated his vest, just as Carmine lunged for him. Every single human being fell flat to the Sonce 5 surface, including Trevor. Hank alone was capable of standing. None could move nor could the indigenous Soncelings who sprawled in confusion on the turf at the boundary. Feathers stopped moving. Some red stalks were seen to crack and shatter in the distance.
"Too. . . .strong!" yelled Trevor, barely able to get the words out of his throat.
Hank tweaked a small lever in a hand held device. Suddenly, those who felt their chests constricted as they labored to breathe under the pressure were treated to a lessening. The stalks ceased their self-destruction as people were able to inhale and exhale. Many had bloody noses. The distant forest spawn found themselves without the means of locomotion and commenced wailing in low tones and strobed hues.
"Worked better than we thought," said Trevor as Hank and Bella nodded. He addressed Carmine and his host. "If we release the lever, those monstrosities will be on us right quickly, I imagine. You folks will have to creep into your carriers. The effects are much less in there. You, Carmine, and your buddy Hank can come into the lab. You too, Bella."
People moved and crawled. The carriers were entered and stuffed to their maximum capacities since Trevor's lab was limited to five. No one complained, considering the situation. It was enough to be able to breathe and stave off the Sonce troop deployment.
* * *
A worrisome new strangeness, thought the sire. The creatures could control the small shifting. Better to retire now and try again during the big shifting. Perhaps they did not know of it. If they did not, they would be greeted properly in the same manner as that demonstrated. It was the normal thing to do with strangers. Show them that we understand their unusual type of violent communication by duplicating it. Perhaps they would appreciate the gesture and respond favorably. If not, there were alternatives.
* * *
"Your normal MO won't work here," said Trevor. The five stood inside the carrier as he handed out canteens of water to Carmine, Hank and Bella. "For example, we have a single control, Hank's vest. Only we understand its use. If Hank here gets into it with you and the vest is damaged, we're all done for, gone, finished."
Trevor watched as his words sunk in. He also observed carefully as the three swigged water from the canteens.
"Congratulations! You are the first to drink Sonce 5 polarized water." Hank and Carmine tried to spit it out but it was too late. "Oh, don't be upset. The water is safe. It's just that, without a vest, from now on you'll have to be inside a carrier during darkshift. Otherwise you'll crack like those stalks did outside. We knew what you were planning. No, Bella didn't give you away. It's always the same. Schoolyard polemics, junkyard politics. Well, welcome to my junkyard."
"So, what are we? Prisoners?" spat Carmine with disgust, eyeing Hank peripherally and wondering whether he could take on Trevor's dog.
"No, actually. No more than we all are. It's just that we have need of your limited talents, Hank, Bella and I. Now don't go and do something stupid. I know you gentlemen prefer being in charge of things. In a normal situation you probably would be, but that can't happen here. Do you want to get out of this mess?"
"Of course we do."
"Then you will do as I say."
"And if we don't."
"Then, my friend, I'll feed you to the beasties. I mean it. I'm offering you your lives. I'm giving you a chance to make something of yourselves. When was the last time you had spiritual encouragement like that?"
"What's in it for us, other than living longer?"
"Well, we haven't worked out the details yet, but I think we can plan for a certain amount of vengeance. Hank and I are particularly fond of payback ourselves. Bella has diaries filled with dreams of justice. Beyond that . . . "
"You mean we can go back?" asked Carmine with wonder. Hank reacted with shock, finally hearing Trevor say it was possible.
"With your cooperation, yes!"
"I'll be damned. A month here is enough for me. But, we're almost out of food. How can you handle that?"
"That's partly why we need you. Are you ready to listen? Or do you prefer to stay on this travesty, waiting for who knows what?"
Carmine, Hank and Bella looked at each other and shrugged. Then all four started to laugh and soon sat down together on cushions. They began to seriously discuss the options. They were amazed with some of Trevor's ideas, startled by his ingenuity and depth of planning. Perhaps they were not as doomed as the wardens of Earth had pronounced so easily.
* * *
Clearly, they were more resilient that he had believed. To thrive within lightshift was a talent he had presumed for himself only. Now there was another. If it would not make speech with him, he must be more wary. They seemed to have indecipherable powers, couched in flimsy bags of moving sap.
Samples of vegetation were gleaned from the forest. Unlike those before the boundary, several varieties proved edible when tested and modified in Trevor's lab with Bella's kluge gene splicer. Meat was out of the question, however. It was too risky in the wake of Moon's experience. Bella did her best to make the blandness palatable. Soon, the colonists had three or four dishes that more or less sated hunger, especially after one worthy soul invented a decent natural spice from a buried tuber-like growth.
Trevor worked like a fanatic, never taking his eyes off Carmine. Too well did he understand criminal mentality, knowing the host were just waiting for a real advantage before making their move. Such men would rather die than be dominated, especially by those they considered 'weird.' Trevor made certain that he kept distance between them. He worked out a strategy so that they did not have time to coordinate anything against him. He didn't believe for a minute that his promises had actually inspired loyalty. On the other hand, they were tremendous workers when properly motivated by impending destruction. It was best to make use of them for as long as possible, until their egos resurfaced. This dilemma occupied him less and less as he became aware of still another Sonce phenomenon.
"It's fifty-fifty, Bella. Even if I'm wrong, there should still be enough time to flip the lever. We'll have to be in the carrier when the polar shift happens. If it follows normal system patterns, there will be quakes and eruptions."
"What if those creatures descend upon us at that moment? How do we know that they aren't planning to do that? No doubt they've adapted."
"We can't know that. We also can't pin down the time or length of the shift. All we can do is make assumptions. I know, it's poor, but our alternatives are few. I'm going to have Hank and Carmine scout the forest for signs. At least we have a second vest. The improved version will be educational for our friends."
* * *
Carmine and Hank were within visual. Each stood on a flat rock-like substance and scanned the nearby stalks for signs of the black things. Sonce's silvery surface shook abruptly and the sky turned from gray to ebony in a moment. The entire quake lasted less than ten seconds, but it was sufficient. Both men stumbled and fell off their natural platforms, losing sight of each other. The pressure was normal, unlike that which occurred between light and darkshifting and they could easily stand. In the lab, Bella hit her head against some metal obstruction and was knocked unconscious. Trevor got pinned by a falling metal shelf of failed gravity experiments. He was unable to reach the lever on his vest. A workbench toppled and destroyed the latest experiments.
The sire, who had patiently timed the shift, popped his head more fully out of the ground where Hank had been standing on him. The human witnessed the sire's features and screamed. Carmine heard and came running toward the fearsome sounds. He was just in time to fully observe the scene. Hank was paralyzed by the mere sight of the behemoth. He could not move as the bulbous, black head descended. A maw, not previously seen, appeared in the amorphous shape. Tendrils sprang out of the mouth and grabbed Hank in his helplessness.
"Ple-e-e-a-se!" shouted Hank in mortal terror.
It was no good. Carmine watched in horror as the sire expended its strength and severed Hank's body. It engulfed the upper torso and left the lower portion on the ground, just as had been orchestrated by Moon when he tried to eat the gamete. Then, in a twist of irony, the sire developed ugly blotches all over its bulk. It began to shake from side to side and tried to spit out what it had ingested. Too late, it demonstrated the poisonous effect on its system and sagged into stillness. Green liquid emanated from drooping lips, making its analogy to Moon exact in its death. Then it allowed the silvery turf to absorb him as before.
By the time Carmine returned to the lab, everything was different. The people were terrorized, Hank was dead, Bella was comatose, Trevor was traumatized with a broken arm and the lab itself was in a shambles. Only Carmine was in control of himself. He decided to act for the common good, after borrowing the second vest, of course. He found out how to work some of it after the poles re-shifted.
Trevor awoke to find a splint on his right arm. Bella was wrapped in blankets on one of the lab cots, attended by Carmine. Her head was bandaged. Carmine stood before him, blocking out the light from the single surviving lamp.
"I could kill you now, you know that," stated Carmine. "I'm very good at killing, but not anywhere near as clever as you are. Hank is gone and your friend is out of it. Your only mistake so far is not planning for medical. I would have done that. It doesn't look like we're going to get out of this shit, after all."
"I understand," answered Trevor, noticing the vest on Carmine's chest. "So, as I thought, you have taken advantage of your moment. Now, what are you going to do with it?"
"Actually, Trevor, I'm going to do something I never believed possible. It goes against the grain, against my traditions, my history, my family and everything else in my life so far."
"And what is that?"
"I'm going to concede. It's over my head and I admit it. Just get us the fuck away from this place, OK?"
"It's a deal," laughed Trevor with as much pain as he was willing to share. "Now listen up. We were on the brink of making things work when the polar shift happened. We can still make it work, but without Bella it will take a long time. Your job is to make her comfortable and try to bring about a recovery. Pick men for food and water patrols. I'll need an assistant for lab work after we straighten this place up. Anyone will serve. Other than that, the rest is up to me. Like I said, this is my junkyard."
"Where will we go, if we can reach the junk up there?" asked Carmine reasonably.
"Junk, as you might know, is a Chinese term for craft. It was not meant to be derogatory. It reminds me of an old curse of theirs. 'May you live in interesting times,' usually spoken to a conquering enemy. It's an open question. Maybe I'll put it to a vote. Or maybe we'll quench our emotional thirst, somewhere on Earth. After this, we need a little nourishment."
* * *
The junk sank quite prematurely to the lowest point in its orbit. Without compensation from the attitude stabilizers, the massive ship lost its ability to restrain the magnetic pull of Sonce 5 and begin an undirected plunge through the atmosphere. Cybes were suddenly energized and given specific instructions. The primary software found itself taxed with a new loop. The husk of the long dead roach was finally discovered and removed. Static initializers were switched to active.
Deep within the stalk forest, the sire re-emerged triumphantly to watch the drama in his sky. He saw the beam of light shoot out of the strange creature's tiny domain and touch the large alien sire that circled his fief. It began to move further away. Then he observed the creatures, watching with amusement as all the little carriers lifted above the surface and rose to join the massive skygle. They were not good neighbors, he thought. They did not understand friendship at all. It was better to be rid of them, misfits all in spite of his help. He decided to stop the shifting for several rotations to commemorate their leaving.
The condemned entered the junk with joy and ecstasy. They had accomplished what none believed possible, escape! There was enough time to be grim and purposeful later. Now was a time for celebration. Trevor and Carmine led the festivities and notched hero status in the minds of their followers. It was then, while the prisoners gathered about the cargo bay in riotous fashion, that the sire lifted the lightshift. Darkshift became predominant, changing the gravitational pull on the junk in dramatic fashion. Some were too drunk to feel the lurch as the junk began its descent. Trevor suspected the truth, but did not live long enough to test the hypothesis empirically.
They are incredibly powerful, thought the sire. For once he admitted to himself that there were others of consequence, no matter their behavior. It would be best after all, to absorb them and learn.
Story copyright 2001 by William Alan Rieser WRieser283@aol.com
Illustration copyright 2001 by Matt Morrow firstname.lastname@example.org
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