"Gargoyle" by Andy Miller


Circle in the Sand
by David Crane


On the barren surface of the newly discovered world, human and alien stood in the dry heat of twin suns, pointing guns at one another. The scene reminded Jason Ketrige of an old movie he had once seen in ancient Terran archives. In the movie, two strangers got into an argument and one of them ended up dead. Now, more than one-thousand years later, history repeated itself as the almighty threw his dice on the cosmic plain with a chuckle. The guy upstairs certainly had a peculiar sense of humor, as the expedition’s captain, Pete Richards, liked to point out.

Ketrige had to agree with Richards. But Richards was high up, above the thick blanket of clouds, reasonably safe in the cold and clear vacuum of space. Right, Ketrige thought, forcing a grim smile. Reasonably safe, but probably scared witless, not being able to see the alien mothership, which had sent one of its scouts to the surface. The odds of two alien species showing up simultaneously on one planet was an extremely remote possibility, but it had happened a few times in the past, and once or twice the first contact ended badly for both parties.

Don’t screw this up, Ketrige told himself, drawing a deep breath from his air-purifier unit. This guy certainly looks mean, but it doesn’t mean that he has bad intentions. Sentient life forms encountered by the Star Republic’s Explorer’s Guild came in a great variety of forms, from familiar to bizarre to absolutely weird.

At least this one had a familiar shape: A giant crab, nearly two-and-a-half meters tall and just as wide, with four pairs of flexible arms and spiky legs, attached to the thick, pearl-colored armored shell, and sprouting four pairs of turquoise eyes. Those enigmatic eyes seemed to watch him with interest and a healthy dose of caution. The cigar-shaped cannon clasped in his two lower arms looked impressive enough. Ketrige tried not to think what it could do to him if things got rough. His own heavy handgun was loaded with armor-piercing shells that could kill virtually anything that moved and breathed. He had no idea about the aliens’ physiology, and the explorer’s quick-reference data chip implanted in his skull had nothing to offer him about this particular species.

* * *

The aggressively expanding human race had been searching extensively for new interstellar allies, but few species were willing to come to terms with the Star Republic’s imperialistic designs. It was one of the main reasons that Ketrige had left the military ten years ago. He fought and killed for the wrong reasons, and after he temporarily lost his eyes in the apocalyptic Barona Xalin uprising, he had to restrain himself from smashing his fist into the staff general’s face as he was pinning a medal to Ketrige’s chest. Few humans cared about the Xalin casualties, which ran into the millions. The Republic’s military press office cheerfully announced the victory of Republican forces, stating that campaign was won with acceptable losses.

Learning the truth, Ketrige flew into a rage. No longer willing to look at the world with his human eyes, he opted for advanced implants, which allowed him to see things no ordinary mortal could. He resigned from the military, wishing to find some use for his skills and a newly acquired special vision. The opportunity presented itself, after he had helped a stranger in a bar, who had been confronted by two big, drunken thugs. Ketrige sent both men to the hospital, without breaking any furniture in the process. The grateful stranger, as it turned out, worked for the Republican Explorer’s Guild, and after buying Ketrige a glass of potent local beer, he offered him a position as an explorer scout. It seemed the stranger knew about Ketrige’s military exploits, and genuinely sympathized with disillusioned soldiers about the horrors and injustices of war.

* * *

The alien shifted his weight, moving one of its front legs forward. Take it easy, Ketrige told himself. This guy is just as scared as you are. At least I believe they have such an emotion as fear. And what if they don’t? Nonsense. If they didn’t, he would have pulled the trigger by now. But if I lower my weapon, how would he interpret it? An offer of peace? A sign of weakness? The first-contact handbook says that anything is possible, for each contact is unique. Mentally, Ketrige examined the factors that brought this situation into being.

* * *

When the R.E.S. Centaur entered the Saratoga binary system, the ship’s captain and explorer scout were the first to be awakened from the transit sleep chambers. The rest of the eight-man crew would be awakened only if the planet designated for colonization fit the minimal Terran parameters and was examined by the explorer scout, whose official duties included the testing of air and soil samples and the ceremonial placement of the Republican flag, signifying the conquest of the new world.

Captain Pete Richards, a seasoned gray-haired spacer, was scheduled to retire after the Saratoga mission. “Let’s hope its not another wild-goose chase,”the captain said as they sat on the bridge, staring at the approaching planet, which was covered by dense clouds. The orbital survey produced minimal data, due to the sensor diffusion effect caused by the ionized cloud layers. Ketrige, the explorer scout, also known to his half-joking fellow explorers as ”the sacrificial lamb”, had to get down to the surface and use his guts and instruments to determine whether his fellow humans could live there or not.

And just as Ketrige’s shuttle, The Landmarker, was about to enter the planet’s atmosphere, Captain Richards came on line with an edge in his voice. “The graviton scanner just went red,”he informed Ketrige. “The instruments are detecting high concentration of delta-ray emissions.”

“Anyone we know?” Ketrige replied calmly.

“No one we know has been able to do this,” Richards answered with a humorless chuckle. “In theory, delta rays could render any physical object invisible due to the spectral-nullification effect. The Navy had tried it on several occasions, without success.”

“Great,” Ketrige said. “You think they mean trouble?”

“They might if they are hiding.”

“Or maybe they are just cautious,” Ketrige offered smoothly. “I am about to enter the atmosphere. I’ll use standard first-contact approach, boss. If they start shooting at you, shoot back. If you cannot hold them off, get out of here. The ship and the crew are more important than me.”

“I am not leaving anyone behind,” Richards said gruffly. “You watch your ass, Ketrige. One of them might be on the surface looking for mushrooms and berries. Use your eyes to scan for delta rays as soon as you land. I don’t know what we’re up against and I don’t like it.”

“You expect them to shake hands with you, boss? If they had contacts with Xalin or the others we fried in the past six-hundred years, they know we mean trouble.”

“Spare me,”the captain replied thickly. “And whatever you do, don’t do anything stupid. If they fry us up here, you know what happens to you.”

“Whatever you say mother, dear,” Ketrige said before his shuttle entered the blackout zone and the air around him glowed red hot with bright-orange flames.

The landing was smooth. The flat, tan-colored plain, studded with scattered black rocks, provided an ideal landing spot. Shutting down the engines and turning the flight computer for self-diagnostic, Ketrige climbed out, adjusting his eyes to detect the elusive delta-ray spectrum. The sunlight was dazzling, painting the surface in vivid reds, oranges and browns. On the far horizon, a black mountain chain loomed like the spine of a sleeping dragon. The twin suns, white and hot orbs of pure light, gazed on him like the eyes of a god.

In one practiced motion, Ketrige drew his heavy handgun, clicking the safety off, And adjusted the straps of the explorer’s pack on his back; he checked his bio suit’s systems before proceeding forward, the faint traces of delta-ray radiation becoming stronger as he approached a scattering of black boulders. He marked one of the big rocks as the source of the emissions, his eyes taking in the data, penetrating the spectral nullifying field to reveal a ghostly white image inside the rock.

The alien shuttlecraft, protected by the spectral hologram, towered over Ketrige like a giant, armored insect, ready to strike at first provocation. “Gotcha,” Ketrige said, even as his gun hand trembled with familiar emotions of fear and excitement. For a full minute he stood, studying the huge black insect, admiring the smooth and powerful lines of the alien design.

Then his audio sensors detected a movement behind him. Spinning, Ketrige leveled his weapon, finger tight on the trigger, finding himself face to face with an alien shuttle’s occupant.

* * *

For several long minutes Ketrige and the alien had examined one another, and Ketrige’s gun hand began to grow heavy with fatigue. At last coming to a decision, Ketrige offered his adversary a tight grin, doing his best to balance his old killer instincts with his newly found faith. “Hello, stranger,” he said to the creature. ”I take it you have never seen a human before.”

As he lowered his weapon, Ketrige half expected the alien to fire. But to his relief, the creature seemed to hesitate and then, mimicking his gesture, lowered its hand cannon, shifting its legs, planting them deeper into the sand. Ketrige heard a faint hiss escape from what he perceived was the alien’s mouth and breathed his own sigh of relief.

“Good,” Ketrige said holstering his gun. “See? I am no longer a threat to you.”

Although the alien could not understand what Ketrige was saying, he clearly understood the gesture of good will. Ketrige saw a spike extending from the cigar-shaped rifle, and the alien planted it on the sand within easy reach.

Ketrige stood with his hands outstretched, turning around one hundred and eighty degrees. “See?”he said evenly. ”No weapon.”

The alien watched his movements with interest and then to Ketrige’s surprise lowered his armored shell a fraction, as if acknowledging the gesture. The alien took a bow and then straightened, as series of clicks and hisses and purrs erupted from its mouth in a steady rhythm. Yeah, nice to see you too, Ketrige thought with amusement. He waited until the alien finished his introductory speech and delivered his own monologue from the first-contact handbook.

“Ketrige,” he said pointing at his chest. “My name is Ketrige.”

“Krigeee?” the alien tried.

“K-e-t-r-i-g-e,” Ketrige repeated, kneeling down and drawing a human figure in the sand with his gloved finger. The alien stared down at the image and then managed through his armored lips:” Kruge.”

“Close enough,” Ketrige smiled, drawing the multilegged creature beside human figure. “And you are?”

“Sktu,” the alien clicked back.

“Saktu?” Ketrige queried uncertainly.

The alien emitted what appeared to be an exasperated sigh and gave a quick nod.

“Okay,” Ketrige said, tapping the ground with his fingers. “Now that we know each other’s names, how about exchanging a little knowledge? How good are you in math?”

Kneeling on the ground, Ketrige began drawing dots and circles in the sand, showing Saktu the basic Terran numerology involving division, subtraction, addition and multiplication. The alien scout, obviously schooled in the high art of universal mathematics, responded with great enthusiasm, joining Ketrige’s Terran Arabic numerals with his own glyphs.

No wonder computers can talk to one another with such ease, Ketrige thought, as they came to logarithmic quantum equations. Accessing the data from his cranial implant, he drew for Saktu a fairly accurate picture of Terran solar system and nearest stars, drawing a large circle around the human-colonized dominions.

“That’s as far as we go,” he said brushing the sand from his fingers. “This planet,”he motioned around him,”does not belong to us.” And he jabbed his index finger into the clean space beyond the Republics’ border.

In response, Saktu cocked his armored shell to the side, digesting the visual data, then extending one of his shiny, pearl-colored claws, drawing a course of his ship from the cluster of closely packed suns about seventy light years from the Republican frontier. Ketrige noted that the alien stellar empire was roughly the same size as the Republic, and Only a half-dozen star systems separated the two empires, with the newly discovered planet located in neutral territory.

Using a sharp pointed soil sensor probe, Ketrige began walking on the fine ground, drawing for Saktu a history of human evolution. Saktu followed him like a curious child, complimenting the quality of Ketrige’s presentation with series of soft purrs and clicks. He was obviously fascinated with peculiarities of human language, and was able to pronounce words that Ketrige repeated more than several times during his presentation. Soon, the fine ground was covered with drawings, lines, circles and images from human history, all depicting the beauty, the majesty and brutality of humanity’s rise up the evolutionary spiral. In first contact, honesty and integrity were paramount. Ketrige answered every question he could, seeing a great variety of emotions pass across Saktu’s eyes. The sentient was silently contemplative as Ketrige described brutal wars, purred with delight when he caught the whiff of Terran humor, and clicked with distinct approval at magnificence and abstraction of human creative thought.

When the first of the twin suns was turning pink with the colors of the approaching dusk, Ketrige declared a break. Opening his helmet visor, he took a breath of clean, fresh air, scented with rich, spicy smell of the desert. The shuttle’s sensors had already confirmed the rich oxygen environment under the third layer of cloud cover during his descent. In many respects, the planet was just like old Earth, with little difference in gravity and soil composition. Because of the dry heat, though, it lacked polar ice caps, but the likely untapped treasure of minerals underneath the sand, promised great riches to those willing to come here and claim the place as their own.

* * *

The next dawn greeted both explorers with spectacular rise of the planet’s twin suns. Unwrapping his food pack, Ketrige offered Saktu one of his color-coded food bars. Beef and cheese did not impress the sentient as much as chocolate and strawberry paste.

He asked for more, and Ketrige offered him his own part of dessert, smiling as the alien munched and purred, swaying on his feet with pleasure.

When it was Ketrige’s turn to accept Saktu’s gift of friendship, Ketrige tried to keep a straight face as the alien opened a hidden compartment inside his armored shell, producing what looked like a large crimson jellyfish. He spiked it on one of his claws, offering it to Ketrige with a soft click.

Bowing, Ketrige accepted the offering, sinking his teeth into the smooth, crimson flesh. It tasted like a seaweed, and appeared to be fresh. Chewing ravenously, Ketrige wondered if he would catch hell from Richards for violating one of the major safety protocols. To hell with it, he thought cheerfully. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

His wrist communicator abruptly emitted an urgent beep, and Ketrige shuddered, annoyed at interruption. Has Richards finally made a contact with Saktu’s superiors in their mystery ship? Or was he calling to let Ketrige know that he was under attack? “This will just be a minute,” Ketrige said to Saktu. “My boss is calling to find out if I am okay.”

Saktu’s turquoise colored eyes flickered with amusement, and he sat on the sand, folding his legs under him and crossing his four arms over his armored chest plate.

“Still spaceborne?” Ketrige asked, as Richards’ static distorted face materialized on the tiny screen of his comm unit.

“Still,”Richards replied irritably. “Their ship has just come out of the spectral shield. But I get no reply to my hails. What’s your status?”

“Alive and well captain, thank you. I have good news for you. The planet is E Class. Corresponds totally with colonization guidelines. Somehow these thick cloud layers have disabled our sensors. No way of knowing unless you get to the surface.”

“That’s great,”Richards answered with relief and surprise. “I believe we all have earned a big bonus on this one. A sizable contribution to my retirement fund.”

“Right,” Ketrige grinned. “There is more. I have established contact with one of the alien scouts on the surface. No need to worry about going to war. He seems to like my chocolate bars.”

“Great suns and comets,”Richards swore with a chuckle. “How did you manage to pull it off?”

“Its my job captain,” Ketrige said, giving Saktu a wink. “Plus a little faith and hope. We have conducted food and information exchange. They are an extremely intelligent and technologically advanced species.”

“I assume you told them the truth,”Richards grumbled.

“I took an oath to tell the truth boss. We must show them our sins as well as our accomplishments. Lying to them is useless. One way or another, they will discover the truth. Last thing I want for them to have wrong impression about the human race as a whole.”

“Do you trust him?” Richards asked bluntly.

“With my life,” Ketrige answered slowly, carefully measuring every word. “We could have blown each other to pieces. But we figured out sharing food was a far better approach in the science of interstellar relations.”

“You could have been poisoned,”Richards said, shaking his head. “Who knows what they eat? I will throw your ass in an extra week of quarantine for pulling a stunt like that.”

“I scanned it for toxins,” Ketrige said defensively. “And I found nothing that could threaten my life. Thanks to my new eyes, I can tell right from wrong much more easily.”

“Humor me,” Richards said dismissively. “What’s the verdict?”

“From what we learned from each other, this planet offers great riches to whoever will conquer it,” Ketrige said, casting a glance at the patiently waiting Saktu. “This world is perfect for both species. And both species will want it. Knowing the history of both races, even in basic terms, the war between us will become a distinct possibility if leaders of both dominions discover the existence of this planet. There will be a bloodshed of epic proportions.”

“You don’t know that,”Richards replied tersely, but his voice registered a hidden doubt. “

I lived through that,” Ketrige said with steel in his voice. “The war against the Xalin taught me something. My new eyes show me the universe we all want it to be.”

Richards took a deep breath before his face took on a grave expression, his eyes dark and unreadable beneath heavy eyebrows. “Are you suggesting we lie to the Exploration Council?” he said at last.

“A lie to save lives is better than truth that takes them,” Ketrige replied evenly. “One of my philosophy teachers at the academy said that.”

“Do you realize what you are saying Ketrige? This planet is fully capable of supporting human life. We have solved the population problems of the past ages by colonizing space regardless of the losses. Great achievements sometimes demand sacrifices.”

“End justifying the means,” Ketrige said with disdain. “Too many powerful people followed that rule, Pete. This planet is pure, fresh, and innocent, unmolested by anyone. We should let it be captain. The universe is a big place. I am sure the galaxy has many more Terran like planets. They are just waiting to be discovered.”

“Idealist to the last,” Richards said with a sigh. “And do you think these aliens will be just as noble as you?”

“They are explorers, boss, not politicians. Explorers seek knowledge without ulterior motives. I believe I can convince Saktu to relay the message to his people. We nearly killed one another because we were different. I don’t want the blood of millions on my consciousness Pete. Never again.”

“You are cutting away our share of a finder’s bonus,”Richards said through a mild hiss of static. “The boys would be pissed when we wake them up.”

“I would be willing to forsake my share,” Ketrige said with a shrug. “But you are the captain, Pete. If you choose to tell the council about my discovery, I won’t stop you. But if you do, I won’t be present at your retirement party.”

“You are placing me between the rock and a hard place Ketrige.”

“So sue me for being what I am,” Ketrige answered with a grim smile. “You know what war is Pete.”

“Yes, I know,”the old space wolf replied with a shrug. “All right damn it. Talk to him. Once you are done, get your butt back to Centaur. Understood?”

“Roger,” Ketrige said. “I will explain everything when I get back.”

The screen went blank and Ketrige breathed a sigh of relief, giving Saktu an apologetic smile. “Time to make a stand pal,”he said, walking to the clear patch of sand, his features darkening, as he began drawing human warships converging on the planet, with crablike vessels moving to intercept them. Saktu shuddered, as Ketrige’s finger drew a laser beam, vaporizing one of the ships with a sweep of his palm. A shadow fell over Ketrige, and he pulled away just in time, as a pearl-colored claw the size of a scythe tore a deep gash across the picture, as if forbidding it. The alien turquoise eyes darkened, hard lips moving, exposing lows upon rows of tiny sharp teeth.

“Hsta esh akhtan,” he hissed. “Warr sss desss.”

“War,” Ketrige said, pointing at the drawing of the space battle. “Hsta esh akhtan? War is death…”

“No warrr…” Saktu growled with a long hiss. “ Warrr, ssss, dessss.”

“War is death,” Ketrige repeated with a nod. “Peace is life. You don’t need to speak my language to understand this Saktu.” He brought his glowed hand to his eye implants, showing Saktu the bionic lenses implanted into his eye sockets. “Do you see my eyes? They are not my own. I lost them in war and war is death.”

A soft purr escaped from the alien’s throat, as he moved closer to peer into Ketrige’s artificial eyes. As he drew closer, Ketrige’s unique vision showed him the vulnerable pulsing organs beneath Saktu’s hardened exoskeleton. For a long minute, Saktu examined his reflection in human eyes, before stepping away and turning toward the drawn space battle, extending one of his claws to draw two ships in planetary orbit, then redrawing both vessels at their respective home worlds, erasing the planet with a sweep of sand.

Ketrige was glad that his eyes forbade him to cry. “Saktu,”he said, feeling a burning sensation inside his implants, that he thought was impossible for suborganic matter. Saktu seemed to stiffen, and then he purred softly, the sound producing a calming effect on Ketrige’s wounded soul.

Ketrige knelt and, using a portable shovel, began digging a deep hole in the sand. When he judged that the hole was deep enough, he removed his weapon from its holster and threw it into the hole.

“Let’s bury the hatchet,”he said straightening, looking deeply into alien’s eyes.

The big alien returned the stare and then looked down at his cigar shaped weapon. He seemed to hesitate only for a few moments, but for Ketrige it seemed as if eternity has passed. With a loud clank of metal against metal, the human and alien weapons joined together in common grave. As Ketrige began to fill the pit with sand, Saktu joined him, tramping the burial spot flat and placing one of the heavy rocks over the buried weapons in a symbolic gesture.

“The grave of war,” Ketrige said. “I wish we could bury it for real Saktu.”

The alien nodded, and in a very human gesture extended one of his upper tri- fingered claws. Trembling with emotion, Ketrige shook the offered limb, offering a sigh as Saktu turned and walked back toward his shuttle, deactivating the holographic shield around it. Ketrige watched him climb into the hatch of his insect-like machine, the black wings unfolding like petals of the flower, the engines shrieking, sending forth a huge cloud of dust. The alien shuttle rose higher and higher, until it was lost in the darkening skies.

Ketrige waited until the dust settled, then sat on the rock and pulled out an old, battered flask of brandy and took a healthy swig, feeling the smooth liquid burn down his throat like soothing fire. The second sun was turning dark red, the clouds above parting to expose the second layer of clouds alive with sizzling electromagnetic storms, which prevented the Centaur’s instruments from seeing and analyzing the surface below.

Screwing the cap back on, Ketrige watched the silent celestial cannonade, admiring the raw power of the elements, his eyes sweeping across the darkening landscape, his vision turning infrared, his senses detecting the subtle shifts in surrounding temperature and wind velocities. Magnifying his vision, he could see the drawings he and Saktu made in the sand, recalling the old story from Terran history, where children from warring nations met together after the war on the warm summer afternoon, making circles and building sand castles, which were soon erased by the relentless waves, that distorted and dissolved them into the flat canvas on which they could draw again. Seeing this, the children simply moved farther away from the water, where their circles and castles could not be disturbed.

We should learn from the young ones to move away from the dangerous ambitions that threaten to erase our dreams, Ketrige thought as he activated his communicator.

“Landmarker to Centaur, please acknowledge, over.”

There was a click and a burst of static, and then Richards came on line, his image much sharper and clearer now. “Centaur here,”he answered coolly. “Glad you called back. I am dying from boredom up here.”

“Not for long,” Ketrige countered grinning. “The signal reception is much better at sundown. I wonder why.”

“I think the suns’ energy is causing a mutating field of electromagnetic hurricanes, rendering all orbital scanners useless,”the captain explained. “An interesting phenomenon in itself. Because of two suns, night lasts here no more than two hours.”

“This planet knows how to keep its secrets,” Ketrige said with an enigmatic grin. “How are our friends in orbit; still with you?”

“They left as soon as their scout shuttle had returned,” Richards replied. “I suspect they will be watching us. If your hunch is correct, we must leave the Saratoga system immediately.”

“Agreed,” Ketrige said. “By the way, I still have a Republican flag in the shuttle. You want me to leave it here? No one will find it anyway.”

Richards smiled, showing his teeth through his gray beard. “Let it be, Ketrige. No need to give anyone the wrong idea. But I still think we should name this planet, since we are the first humans to visit it. Any suggestions?”

Ketrige thought for a moment, gazing at the rock where his and Saktu’s weapons rested in final embrace. “I suggest we call it Hope, captain,” he said at last. “A proper name for the proper cause.”

Richards nodded. “You were right, Jason. Sometimes Life is more important than knowledge. Without life, knowledge is unreachable.”

“And if there will be war between us and them, I don’t want to be there to witness it,” Ketrige said firmly. “I will do everything in my power to stop it. Even if it means betraying the Republic.”

“Let’s hope it won’t come to that,”the old captain said with a frown. “Anything else to report Jason?”

“Only one thing boss. I am going home.”

* * *

From orbit, the planet resembled a giant ball of gray cotton, permeated here and there by massive bolts of lightning across its much darker equatorial zone. Strapped into the pilot’s seat of his shuttle, Ketrige watched the computers purging the accumulated surface data, erasing all evidence of his landing. Only the orbital data would be allowed to remain in ship’s data banks, the readouts altered to simulate atmospheric conditions, classifying the planet as class H, incapable of supporting human life due to high toxicity and poison gases. On the main sensor screen, The Centaur grew from a tiny speck in the star-studded blackness to a silvery, exotic winged fish.

Adjusting the thrusters for the breaking sequence, Ketrige leaned back in his seat, turning the docking duties over to the computer, allowing himself a few minutes of private contemplation. He and Saktu might never see each other again. Both civilizations might eventually meet someday officially in the future, but thanks to Ketrige’s and Saktu’s efforts on the barren plains of the planet Hope, the first contact between the species might proceed more smoothly once he and Saktu started working from the inside of their respective social systems, clipping the wings of the war hawks to reasonable length. It might take years or it might take centuries. But if the miracle did happen, Ketrige could imagine the puzzled face of an archaeologist from the not too distant future discovering the buried weapons, and pondering their significance. And maybe one day he and Saktu will stand under the twin suns once more, not as soldiers, not as scientists, but brothers of the mind, drawing circles in the sand under the watchful eyes of mother universe watching her children at play.

Story copyright 2002 by David Crane averox@msn.com

Illustration copyright 2002 by Andy Miller kidscroll@hotmail.com

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